The Importance of Service Learning

So often, I’m asked to allow children to provide community service hours in our early childhood education rooms or summer camp at Voyagers’ Community School. The children who provide these services are typically well-intentioned and genuine but rarely entrenched in the work. Their motivation is often to satisfy the hours required by their church, dojo, or other entity. They have not been engaged in an examination of the variety of needs existing in their surrounding community. Often their commitment to volunteer precedes research, discovery, and self-examination. They have not fully realized and matched their skills, talents, interests, and passion with a service-learning project. Most children who volunteer in our toddler and preschool rooms fulfill their hours effectively, often enjoying themselves and the little ones they help, but they never fully understand the value and spirit of giving through intrinsic motivation.

Before pursuing a service-learning project child should be given time and the support necessary to consider what needs exist in their community. This research might begin with visits to local municipal offices, churches, and nonprofit service organizations to speak to representatives who are on the frontlines every day. A child might also search for articles presented by local news sources. Children should take seriously the many opportunities to address real needs and build partnerships locally.

A parent can support their child’s desire to identify a worthy and interesting volunteer opportunity by asking, “What do you want to learn? Who do you want to help? What talents and skills can you contribute to a project? What talents and skills are you hoping to develop?” Service-learning should be a reciprocal relationship where children are learning from their recipients and the recipients are learning from the children. At the least, through service-learning, children should develop an understanding of civic responsibility, collaboration, problem-solving, empathy, and critical thinking.

A parent can support their child and assure they gain the greatest benefit while providing their very best effort throughout the project by asking thoughtful questions and listening carefully. Through conversations that are reflective, a parent can provide guidance and scaffold listening strategies for their children that lead to building empathy and respect.

Reflection is a key component to helping children create more effective service-learning experiences. We ask our students to reflect often — before, during, and after a project — on what they are learning in terms of content and also in terms of empathy, respect, service, civic duty, and more. Reflecting on these topics and skills can help children internalize their learning and slow down to ensure meaningful action and outcomes.

Through volunteerism, children learn to manage themselves. Encouraging a child to develop working agreements, task lists, and more, help them own the process. Once needs, and approaches to addressing those needs, have been determined for a project, children and local partners can determine small, manageable steps to take to ensure notable learning and valuable service. This is an opportunity to empower a child and create a life-time volunteer. Also, remember to celebrate the great work your child does; they and their recipients deserve to know the extent of the impact of that work. Even in cases where the outcome was not as effective as was planned there is much to learn.

In the end, children will have made a difference for themselves and others. Make time to celebrate their progress. Ask, “Where were you before the project and how far have you come? Celebrations can involve a large or small gathering; they can also involve discussions, letters to the editor, a well-crafted commendation letter from a leader of the organization who has received your child’s services and, if permitted, photos and videos of work from the project. A parent can help their child create a digital portfolio that can be revisited and shared with those interested in your child’s ability to give of time, thought and energy

Service-learning is nothing new. Children, with the help of supportive adults, have long done amazing projects that serve others. We should continue to push ourselves to find and offer opportunities to children and make volunteer experiences authentic and impactful. Can you use the generosity, hard work and sincerity offered by children who volunteer?

Karen Giuffre’, M.Ed is the Founding Director of Voyagers’ Community School, soon celebrating its 15th year. She is staunchly dedicated to constructing joyful learning spaces with children from 12 months through 12th Grade. She finds kindred spirits among other innovative educators who are dedicated and work every day to ignite students’ curiosity. In the coming months, she will introduce Journal readers to Innovation In Education.

Can learning be made real?

When exploring education options for children, parents often encounter words like progressive, experiential, and project-based. They wonder, what in the world this is about. Often the explanations are incomplete and lack tangible examples. Despite this, over coffee, at a dinner party, or while taking a spin class, someone will ask, “Can you tell me more?” of a parent who is going on about their child’s incredible transition to a new school or classroom.

Teachers and whole schools across the country are inspired by the practices put forth by educators and theorists who believe children should have a say in their education, education driven by students’ interests is deeply meaningful, a curriculum should be built together with students, and learning should be a sensory-rich experience.

Classrooms driven by these beliefs look, feel, and sound different. It is likely there is mixed seating at tables, on floor cushions, and in cozy corners. There is often a buzz of voices as children bat around ideas, share knowledge, and help each other through assigned work. They often push each other further while the teacher is moving about the room listening, collecting data, and providing small group instruction, encouragement, and provocations. The teacher is always assessing what students think, know, and have not yet learned. This informs the teacher of new and continuing interests, which provides inspiration for curriculum and new or deeper studies of topics that guarantee student engagement.

When entering a progressive school like Voyagers’ Community School, in Eatontown, a visitor will find this happening every day. The array of teachers and students are much like what one would find in any school, they are typical. The difference is their brilliance shines and the energy for learning is obvious at every turn.

All academic subjects are taught. Daily schedules include literacy, math, science, STEAM, global studies, music, and foreign language. Also evident might be an all-school meeting, a student judiciary hearing, a capstone advisory period, a committee jobs slot, and a quiet lunch focused on math games. More importantly, smiles, furrowed brows, one child helping another navigate a big idea, or high schoolers debating relativity and cultural myths will be prominent.

This environment, and approach to teaching, is driven by three pillars: the child is powerful, resourceful and competent, community drives intellectual and life skills learning, and democracy, voice and agency, is imperative to intellectual growth. At progressive schools, there is little interest in measuring learning through a test that examines finite facts predetermined by a committee in a room far away from where learning happens. Teachers are interested in immeasurable possibilities and the way children think, question, access, and examine information. They understand, “What children learn does not follow as an automatic result from what is taught, rather, it is in large part due to the children’s own doing, as a consequence of their activities and our resources.” Loris Malaguzzi, The Hundred Languages of Children.

When peeking into a Progressive preschool classroom, like that found at Voyagers’, during lunch or snack, little ones are likely to be gathered at the table in “conversation” in the form of gestures, laughter, facial expressions, and words. This is a moment every progressive teacher cherishes, as their children’s strong bonds to each other become apparent. Progressive schools often offer aesthetically beautiful environments filled with materials and people, and therefore possibilities. Students are brought together in classrooms, nature, public spaces, and professional environments. Often mentoring artists, musicians, lawyers, business owners, and the likes are invited into these classrooms. Out-of-the-box thinking leads to digital meetings with people around the world including writers, aerospace engineers, and community leaders. These schools rely on authentic materials and books. It is typical to see children building 3D printers, animating original art, and, reading a New York Times bestseller, such as Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Dr. Yuval Noah Harari rather than an outdated and expensive textbook.

Progressive educators believe it is important to understand children do not develop and grow themselves but rather they develop by interacting and learning with others in vibrant schools and classrooms. Children have the right and the need to learn in joyful and innovative places. There are schools and teachers who provide just that.

Karen Giuffre’, M.Ed is the Founding Director of Voyagers’ Community School, soon celebrating its 15th year. She is staunchly dedicated to constructing joyful learning spaces with children from 12 months through 12th Grade. She finds kindred spirits among other innovative educators who are dedicated and work every day to ignite students’ curiosity. In the coming months, she will introduce Journal readers to Innovation In Education.