After the events of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, an interesting phenomenon occurred in the town where I lived. Prior to the attacks, the local high school (whose mascot is the Rebels) had regular Friday night parades of trucks flying Confederate flags on their way to football games. After 9/11, U.S. flags began replacing the symbol of the confederacy. A sense of community and cohesiveness occurred in the aftermath of devastation. It took an act of terrible destruction to discount differences and forge a sense of unity in the community.
Implementing a collaborative service-learning project with a community organization can forge unity for students and teach a variety of social studies objectives. Having students collaborate on a common goal together discards perceptions of differences and increases acceptance among group members. With this goal as a motivating factor, I initiated collaboration projects in my classroom. Each project required students to partner with an organization within the community to plan and implement projects revolving around important issues. The projects actively engaged students to recognize their obligations as educated citizens.
What is Service Learning?
While there are a variety of different definitions to define “service learning,” it can be simplified as a project or experiential education that combines learning standards with community service in order to provide “a pragmatic, progressive learning experience while meeting societal needs.”
When students engage in service learning, they are encouraged to learn about the community and the diverse, multicultural environment they live in. They are influenced to tolerate and accept the differences in people, pressed to go beyond the boundaries they have set for themselves and pushed to see people and the world from a fresh and enlightened perspective. The projects can challenge students to reflect on their assumptions, prejudices, or beliefs about others in their own community and to develop more positive views towards each other.
Although some students may have been involved in community projects, the majority of students may not have taken leadership roles in coordinating and implementing projects. The model for this project provided opportunities for each group member to take a leadership role. Many schools today participate in the “Leader in Me” program or encourage students in other ways to become leaders. Engagement in intellectual, social, cultural, and leadership activities will help increase student learning, help students develop a sense of their obligations as educated citizens, cultivate in students a perspective that will serve them throughout their lives, and encourage students to reflect upon and transform their thinking about current social, political, racial, or cultural issues.
Assign students to a group of three to five members and provide guidelines for the collaboration project. The project must be designed so that it uses the collaborative effort of the team and a community partner. The team is responsible for helping with the design of the project, overseeing preparations, and conducting the project. Students are required to volunteer in the community for a minimum of three hours, outside the hours of planning and team meetings.
Each group will begin by brainstorming ideas for their collaborative projects. Typically, at least one student in a group has worked with or is currently working with a community organization and already has contacts. Students are also given the contact information for community organizations so they can find out needs and ongoing volunteer opportunities for various groups. Below are sample projects conducted by former students:
- created a geography club that met weekly after school
- hosted an activity for Girl Scout badge acquisition
- developed a scavenger hunt at a camp
- engaged in a scavenger hunt at a local museum
- set up a booth in a local festival
- raised money for worthy causes
- helped students with work in an After-School programs
Each group is required to document progress in the following ways:
- Write an abstract explaining the project’s a) purpose, b) scope, and c) learning goals. The abstract should also describe the a) target audience, b) team members, and c) all partners. In addition, the abstract should contain a timeline for completion of the project.
- Keep a log of all team meetings. The log should be typed and document all meeting dates, locations, members present, agenda items, discussions and decisions. Document every member’s specific responsibility.
- Include a sign-in sheet of the actual hours working with the organization. The sign-in sheet must have group member names, times worked, and a verifying signature from the collaboration partner.
- Write an individual reflection to document your role in the project, what you learned from the collaboration, and what you might have done differently.
- Document the project with photographs.
Groups are given two to four weeks to put together an abstract and a timeline for their projects and determine the community partner they wish to work with. All projects should have teacher approval before the collaboration effort can go forward. Periodically during the year students are asked about their progress with the project. The completed project is due by the end of the year.
Reflections on Past Projects
Students were required to take a leadership role in the collaboration planning and, following the conclusion of the service hours in the community, write a reflection documenting their role and summarizing the project. Many students reported that they were not aware of the organizations that existed in the community before conducting the collaboration project. Some indicated a desire to continue to work with the organizations. Others commented on how they learned from each other. Not all groups collaborated well together. Sometimes leaders clashed and were not willing to compromise. However, all students agreed that the projects were worthwhile.
There is no question that the collaboration projects have been a success and contributed toward developing leadership skills and self-confidence in students. The community benefited from partnership with the students. The students benefited from the opportunity to engage in communities outside the classroom. Collaborative service-learning programs between students and community organizations were enriching for everyone involved.
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Dr. S. Kay Gandy is a retired professor of 17 years and a retired elementary teacher of 27 years. Her goal is to work with teachers in countries around the world and watch movies in foreign theaters. Her books. Mapping is Elementary, My Dear: 100 Mapping Activities for K-6 Students, and 50 Ways to Teach Social Studies for Elementary Teachers provide practical lesson ideas for the classroom.