Service-Learning and Community Partners Bring Academic Rigor

Developing a service-learning project pays off with increased student engagement and empowerment

If you ask many of our middle school students what service-learning is, they often come up with an image of someone on the side of the road in an orange jumpsuit. We are not talking about forced service due to a legal infraction! While I don’t think forced service is going to become part of your classroom culture, it is likely a good idea to define our terms before we start.

Service vs Service-Learning

The difference between service and service-learning is vital to sustainability and academic engagement. When we take a group to the local park to clean up, the park is cleaner and students feel good about their good deed—this is service. Service-learning can clean up the same park with the same benefit to the park and the warm fuzzy feeling for students, but service-learning goes beyond the act of service back to the classroom. To make this park example service-learning, we can take the litter we have cleaned up and separate the garbage from the recyclables and then study and graph the recyclables to offer a solution to the litter problem to the director of the parks department. Do you see the connection to the classroom? This is the key!

Service will always bring engagement, so we need to connect that engagement back to the classroom and academic rigor. When my classroom performed the park example above, we had some of our most typically apathetic students fighting over who would collect the most litter. Their heads were up, their motivation was sparked, and the engagement spilled over into the classroom because we intentionally connected the service to the classroom.

With this definition of service-learning, the work becomes sustainable because it is engaging the rigorous standards-based work that we are already tackling in the classroom. In this day, it cannot be an addition to our plates. Plates are too full and often look more like platters! The engagement comes as students see the real world application of what they are learning as well as the empowerment of being able to give back.

One key to great service-learning experiences is to engage in the work with invested community partners. In the park example, we invited the governor’s liaison for our community to come and talk to the students about how important the student work was and how it fit into the larger plan for the city. When someone from the governor’s office shows up to talk to students it validates the work students are doing in a way that goes beyond a grade and in a different way than the teacher whom they see 184 days per year. Community partners can be the vehicle to bring authentic and engaging service-learning projects to your school and classroom.

Community Partners

Assuming you have bought in to service-learning and the authenticity of connecting to a community partner, your next question is where do I start? The task is likely less daunting than you think because when you talk to people in the community and ask, “Do you want to help education?” the answer is always, “Yes!” The disconnect has been that the community is not really sure how to help. We need to take the first step and invite them in. In the park example, the governor’s liaison’s whole job is to engage local stakeholders, so when we called with an invitation, we were actually helping her do her job. That’s a win-win situation!

The first step creating a standards-based service-learning project is to find a group of standards that fit well together. Look at the standards in general such as genetics, non-fiction writing, or proportions. Secondly, with grouped standards, begin to look for service projects that require these standards to be mastered. If you are looking to bump up engagement in your genetics unit, you may want to create and distribute pamphlet information about genetic diseases to parents who have just found out their children have a genetic disease through local doctor offices. At the end of your genetics unit, you have engaged your genetic standards, partnered with the English teacher to engage non-fiction writing, and helped serve local families. To cap off your service-learning project, present the learning to the local representatives that are helping those with genetic diseases. These local representatives are always looking for ways to help educate the public about their causes and will generally accept an invitation to your school.

In this example, you have an opportunity at the beginning of your project to invite community partners to help launch your project. You also have an invitation for community partners to come in at the end to give feedback on your student projects. Both of these options are easy entry points to get community partners in to your class. Community partners raise the authenticity level for your learners, and they will also tell the good story of your school to others in the community.

Benefits of Service-Learning

Do you have greater rigor heights that you want to take your learners to? To get to the higher level of rigor, you have to raise the engagement level. The authentic passion-driven opportunities of service-learning can raise the engagement level that will then allow you to raise the level of rigor that we know can move our learners to the heights they are striving for.

When we are joining engagement and rigor, we start to move beyond engagement to empowerment. Empowerment comes from mastery of content, purpose of actions, and strength in problem solving. As learners move from a passive role of watching learning to an active role of participating in their learning, they will be engaged in the content, but they will also develop employability skills such as critical thinking, empathy, problem solving, and collaboration.

Getting Started

Start with what you are comfortable with and what your students are ready for. Just promise me you won’t sell yourself or your students short! If you are still tracking with me, let me suggest a service-learning expo. A service-learning expo asks all of your learners to engage in the process of planning a service-learning project. Form groups and give them some basic criteria of planning a service-learning project such as: content standards to engage, how will this project help the community, how many students can participate, who could be a community partner, what employability skills will students learn, and what is your budget. At the conclusion of your planning time, which is integrated with standards, invite community partners in to evaluate student projects on the service-learning criteria you have established. Select the projects that are most likely to succeed and that are appreciated by your community partners. A service-learning expo will create great engagement in students and impress community partners to want to participate with your students.

Call to Action

Service-learning can bring engagement and empowerment in your students, deeper connections to content standards, opportunities to teach and practice empathy, and a bridge to the community to share the great things happening in your school. Let me give you two places to start. The first is to look at the unit that already has engagement. How can you bring in a community partner to enhance your unit and help you solve a problem in the community? The second opportunity is to look at a unit that is typically dry and for which engagement suffers. Because service-learning brings engagement, you can draw students in with service-learning and then engage them in rigorous academics.

Still unsure? Need to hear from some students and teachers that are already on the journey? Here are some service-learning stories from Triton Central Middle School teachers and students: