Monday, February 13, 2012

Service Learning, Educating the Heart

Guest post by Willyn Webb

I have seen service learning turn at-risk youth into contributing, giving, happy citizens who have a solid set of values and are ready to pursue college or career success.  Service Learning is a set up for success in many ways.  
Here are a few:  

  • The great feeling that just comes from doing something good for someone else (increased self-esteem)
  • The perspective that just comes from seeing others that are more needy in some way than you (insight),
  • The learning that just comes from creating a project and following it through (task completion, life skills, reading, writing, math, speaking, etc).  
My recent ed chat with the group Do It Yourself Learning / Homeschooling / Unschooling / Uncollege made it clear how easy service learning can be.  Regardless of the age, skills, or learning/school choice of the involved students, you can just start with just a few simple questions:  
  1. Where do you see a need?  
  2. What are you thankful for?
  3. What would you like to be different?
  4. What could you do to start?
1 - Where do you see a need?
Talking with students about the needs of others is a valuable conversation.  It can begin with a neighborhood field trip, the viewing of TV programs of other places, an internet search on hardships, or a simple question of do you know anyone you could help.  Is there something you think could be better (in our home, in our school, community, the world)?  

2- What are you thankful for?
At Delta Opportunity School this often starts with being thankful.  I find that being thankful is somewhat of a lost art.  From my grandmother who always said, “Count your many blessings, count them one by one” to my favorite counseling modality of “Solutioning” I have taught many students that focusing on what works, teaching yourself to see the good (or even ok) parts of each day (even your worst day), and being aware that you have it better than others in some way is the key not only to personal happiness but to seeing how to make things better through service.  

For example, when we are thankful for our health, we can discuss those that do not have their health.  Visits to hospitals and nursing homes are a great way to see just how healthy students are.  Simply smiling and greeting someone who no one has talked to all day makes a difference (in both individuals).  From there service learning projects become evident (see examples below).  Another example, when we are thankful that we are making progress in school, we can discuss those who struggle in school.  Visits to elementary school special education classrooms are a great way to see how much academic progress has been made.  

3 - What would you like to be different?
Once you discuss needs and what young people are thankful for you can discuss how things could be different.  Options include projects like tutoring, playing, cooking, drives, etc.  A concrete example might be when we are thankful that we have food for the day, we can discuss that there are those in our community that do not have enough food.  From there, hunger is discussed and many service projects (those already in existence and those that do not yet exist) can be researched and discussed.

4 - What could you do to start?
Once young people have identified a need in which they want to make a difference, they need to make a plan to start. It might help to begin by discussing the plan, then capturing it in writing, possibly with a timeline and activities.  

To follow are examples of various types of service learning projects.

Helping Others Helps You
A couple of fun individual projects that have happened over the years are when a group of boys had a lemonade stand in front of Wal-mart to raise money to fix a bike for a little girl who they knew had had hers vandalized (by one of our own students).  The boys group bonded and took on a totally different reputation, which resulted in better behavior at school and in the community.  

Another group who was doing the NOT (Not on Tobacco) program walked the stairs of the bleachers for an afternoon and took donations for each step, and raised money to buy the cessation product needed for the woman who had come (on her oxygen) to speak to the group about the results of smoking.  These boys were the only group I’ve ever had that really quit smoking and I think it was because of their efforts to help our guest speaker.  Another group picked up cigarette butts in the park next to our school to show the community that they do care and want to keep things nice (the butts were theirs).  These kids started being more consciencience in many ways.

The learning that came from these projects included hazards of smoking, information on COPD, empathy; parts, costs, and repairs; cost-profit-loss accounting on a lemonade stand; biodegradable products and costs to tax payers for workers to clean parks, etc.  It can be big, it can be small, but the same result is there, helping someone else is the right thing to do.  

Here are some ideas for school and home-based programs. Young people need not attend the local school to ask if they could participate in their service learning work.  

  • Adopt a Grandparent
    • Overview:  Teens are paired with a resident at a local nursing home.  They visit every other week and do puzzles, take walks, and have seasonal crafts/activities around holidays.  The result is everyone feeling great inside.  
    • Preparation:  This program takes very little preparation, simply an arrangement with the facility, health policies determined, and let the kids decide on the activities.  
    • Learning: This program teaches a lot of thoughtfulness, empathy, communication skills, and history (the residents lived it and love to tell).  It allows students to study and celebrate holidays, read out loud, make crafts and enjoy many of the things they like in preschool and elementary school.  It provides perspective on life, a feeling of being able to brighten someone’s day, and gives students appreciation that comes from being themselves.

Grandparent visit.  This young lady even went during the summer!

  • Food for Thought
    • Overview: This program is a kids feeding kids long term service project.  With the awareness that there are children (preschool through high school) that do not have enough food on the weekends, they provide backpacks of weekend friendly food (2 breakfasts, 2 lunches, and some snacks) to students who opt into the program (parents sign a permission form, list allergies).  The alternative ed students do all of the fundraising, food drives, speaking to community service groups, budgeting, shopping, meal planning, stocking, inventory, filling, and delivery.  Our school was awarded the “Volunteer of the Year” award by our Chamber of Commerce.  Not many alternative school (no sports or extracurriculars) have a trophy to display!
    • Preparation: Start small with a pilot program.  Do a fundraiser (food drive and/or money) and have a budget.  In our area the contents for each backpack with the weekend food is $4-$5.  Choose a school to serve.  You may want to approach the principal with your idea and either offer to serve a certain number of students for a certain period of time of take on a grade level and invite and see how many you get.  We found that asking teachers to select kids is difficult.  We choose to send the letter home telling about the program and letting families choose to opt their student in or make a donation (making the most of reaching every home).  This may be more risky but we found that when the need is there with a lot of work, the food/money can be raised (grants, civic clubs, etc).  You will need backpacks: new or used work.  We got the local Wal-mart to sell us the left overs from the back to school for $1 each.  For example letters, shopping lists for food, press releases etc, just email Willyn (see address below).  Once the school(s) you serve experience the value of the program, they are a perfect place to have food drives (we make it a competition between the classes and offer a banana split party to the winning class and a gift card to the winning teacher).  That is when it is truly a kids feeding kids program from the ground level on up!  
    • Learning: You can see that they learn a lot of life skills such as public speaking, nutrition, reading ads and shopping wisely within a budget, organization, communication, planning, and writing skills.  The students who receive the backpacks are set up for better learning because they do not need to worry about what they will eat on the weekends and have better nutrition.  Thus the all encompassing name, Food for Thought!  Watching my students deliver the backpacks each week is a joy.  They are so happy to help and the children run for their backpacks, often opening them as they walk back to class, looking in with anticipation.  It is heartbreaking to think a child could be so excited for a pack of oatmeal, some Ramen noodles, Raviolis, poptarts, and a can of peas.  It illustrates the true need and value of the program.  When my students are speaking in from of Rotary, Altrusa, and the Chamber of Commerce, they are proud, productive citizens (whereas for most defending themselves in front of a judge has been their only form of public speaking), it is precious.  They tell their story and share their experience working in the program and they often bring audiences to tears.  They leave Delta Opportunity School with much more than reading, writing, and math.  
For more information on this program, email
Taking tubs of filled backpacks into school.
Superintendent help fill backpacks.
Happy backpack recipients walking away.

Shoes for Shiprock
Service learning is a mindset.  My own children who have had a mixed experience of public schooling and homeschooling see needs and address them.  My daughter went to a basketball tournament her sophomore year of high school and played a team from the reservation.  Following that game all the questions came into play.  
Skylyn Webb, Shoes for Shiprock creator/organizer
  • Where do you see a need?  She came home and shared with me that she was so concerned for those girls, who were playing in old, worn out (not even sports type) shoes.  
  • What are you thankful for? She commented that her old shoes were much better than the shoes that team played in.  
  • What would you like to be different? She wanted to do something about it and after some discussion decided to collect used athletic shoes from her team at the end of the year banquet and send them anonymously to the team in Shiprock.  
  • What could you do to start? She made a sign, shared it with the parents who planned the banquet so it was part of the date-time information sheet, and shipped the shoes.
This year when they played that team she was beaming.  They were wearing the shoes.  The whole team kept quiet and the others never knew it was them who had sent the shoes.  I wanted my daughter to put that on her scholarship application, but she wouldn’t.  That was not why she had done it.  She simply wanted those girls to have better shoes. That is what service learning is all about. Through the process she stepped outside of her comfort zone and talked to the adults, made the posters, packaged, researched the school, learned more about life on the reservation, and shipped the shoes.  There were some life skills in there, but the heart (of all involved) is what was impacted.

The best, most passion-filled projects come from the young people themselves or something near and dear to them.  For example, many of my students had been hungry at times as children and they really get Food for Thought.  My daughter who values good shoes for sports is another example of this.  Start with a love and use it to make a difference for someone else.  Keep it simple and know that what is gained may not be measurable on a test, but makes an immeasurable impact in the lives of others.

Willyn Webb is a busy mother of three girls (10, 13, 17) and the administrator/counselor of another family called Delta Opportunity School where service to others, technological innovation, and a lot of love come together for a great education.  For more information about Willyn and to see her books go to or @willynwebb.

1 comment:

  1. Great Post! I think Service-Learning should be part of the curriculum for Social Studies and Civics courses in Middle/High School.