Service Learning: Effective Means to Individual Education

For my School of Education Graduate Research Project, I examined the positive role service and volunteerism can have in an educational setting. This past fall, I wrote a research paper that examined existing literature on service learning and volunteerism. In this paper, I concluded that service learning and volunteerism could effectively integrate academic content with important community action and social issues. Additionally, I argued that service learning could have an especially significant impact in a field like social studies, which provides students with the opportunity to learn more about their world. If designed properly and implemented effectively, teachers could use service learning and volunteerism to provide their students with outlets for active involvement in the world, and further their development as empathetic, passionate individuals.

Initially, I hoped to create an extracurricular service learning program at my practicum placement, Lois S. Hornsby Middle School. However, after consulting with my graduate advisor and cooperating teacher, I decided to create a service learning lesson plan that could be more feasibly designed and implemented on an individual classroom basis. This lesson plan, which I designed using the research I conducted last fall, utilizes volunteerism as a way to enhance content objectives and develop civic ideals of responsibility and service among students. Though I had to slightly modify the lesson due to unexpected weather and subsequent time constraints, its overall purpose and message remained intact. The lesson consisted of two different opportunities for active service in my students' community.

This lesson plan was designed as a part of the class unit on World War II. Specifically, this lesson revolved around the content objectives of learning about how the war affected the American homefront. In this part of the lesson, students first discussed the efforts of the American people to support the war. Students discussed how Americans made small sacrifices - such as buying war bonds, rationing meat, and growing victory gardens - to support a larger cause. During this discussion, I asked students why the American people made these sacrifices. Students' specific answers varied, but in each of my four classes, the class reached the conclusion that Americans made these smaller sacrifices to support a larger, noble cause that they all believed in. I then asked students to share some things they cared about in their own lives, which received varying responses. However, again, in each of my four classes, students responded similarly. In each class, at least one student raised his or her hand and replied that they cared about food, to which nearly all classmates acknowledged as an important thing to care about. Students then discussed how food was important to their everyday livelihood and well-being, and reached the conclusion that all people deserved to eat, even though they were aware that not all people around the world had access to food.

I then asked my classes what sort of sacrifice they, as middle school students, could each make in order to support an issue that affected people not just in faraway places, but within their own community. I had students brainstorm in small groups for a few minutes, and then share their responses with the whole class. Students overwhelmingly responded that they could each use some of their own money to buy canned or boxed food, which they could then donate to a local food bank. Prior to this lesson, my cooperating teacher organized a school wide canned food drive to benefit Erase the Need, a local outreach center for economically disadvantaged families in Williamsburg. Students then excitedly remarked how they could bring in canned food to school in order to address this issue, and I challenged them to continue to think of new ways they could get involved in their community.

In the second part of the lesson, I asked students why small sacrifices, like bringing in canned food, were so important to our society. Though this seemed to stump my students at first, I asked them to consider instances of sacrifices throughout history, and how they affected our world today. Again, I had students discuss in small groups first. After small group discussion, students shared with the class, and many of my students, being from military families, explained how American soldiers made sacrifices to defend our country in war. The lesson then transitioned into the second opportunity for community service. I explained to students that they were going to write letters to American soldiers serving overseas. I asked students to think about what they should write in their letters, and why. Students discussed certain democratic ideals, such as freedom and equality, which have been upheld throughout American history in part because of our nation's military. Students spent the remainder of class writing these letters, which were then mailed to soldiers through the non-profit organization Operation Gratitude.

Overall, I think this service learning lesson went well. Though I had originally wanted the project to be on a larger scale, I think this lesson plan served as an example of how teachers can implement service learning and volunteerism on an individual, everyday basis. Service learning does not need to be a daunting task, but is rather something that can be feasibly utilized with some purposeful planning and implementation. Prior research is necessary for a successful service learning experience, but this research can be done in a collaborative effort with school personnel or a community organization. In teaching this lesson, I was able to witness firsthand the growth in community awareness and ethical values among my students. Throughout the lesson, my students' realized the impact their actions can have directly on their own community, and the importance others' actions have on their own lives. Service learning and volunteerism offer invaluable opportunities for students to strengthen their personal growth as moral, active individuals in society.

If I were to implement this service learning plan again, I would have students complete pre- and post-lesson writing assignments. Though this was my initial plan in my project proposal, I had to modify the lesson because of time constraints, and was unable to implement this part of the lesson. However, I was still able to observe student growth through the larger class discussion and smaller group collaborations. Additionally, my students' final military letters and increased participation in the school's canned food drive served as indicators that service learning is an effective tool for educational and personal growth in the classroom.

Examples of Student Work: Military Letters (names have been changed)