In our series on social-emotional learning (SEL) and equity, we have discussed the case for leveraging service learning as a tool for advancing equity across school districts.
Some key points from that blog were:
- Service learning allows students the opportunity to practice and live out SEL skills they have learned.
- Service learning provides a structured, safe space for students to have crucial conversations.
- Through service learning, students become involved in the community in meaningful ways and contribute to the progress of equity.
Building on these key ideas, we will now discuss some specific things we can do in our schools to utilize service learning and SEL. Below find three ways to use service learning in your school or district.
Leverage your school schedule
Does your district have multiple schools that run on slightly different schedules? For example, does your high school have a significantly earlier dismissal time than your elementary school? Do your middle schools and high schools share the same time blocks during the day? Those schedules can be utilized to promote service learning from within the district. If your elementary school dismisses later, they might be able to take the last 20 minutes 3 times a week and use them for middle school or high school students to work with students on a variety of service learning related activities. Older students might be able to read to the younger students, or the older students could serve as an audience for the elementary students to practice their reading skills with. Older students might be able to make small “mini lessons” in a civics class on, for example, the importance of voting, or another community based topic. They could then share these lessons with the younger students. Often, school schedules within a district vary and allowing for the flexibility within the school system promotes a district wide service learning.
Provide students class credit
Granting students some type of meaningful credit allows for a more authentic engagement with service learning. Students engaged with service learning are going beyond volunteering once a week until they have met their senior year volunteer hours. By allowing a direct connection to their transcripts and grades, it shows students that service learning is an important part of their school experience, and is there to help shape their K-12 experience just like an academic class. It also helps to build self awareness, and supports responsible decision making- two tenets of SEL. Service learning can fit across multiple disciplines in schools, but some places where it might fit the easiest in terms of a course are: history, social sciences, civics, and any type of community based class or internship. If your school district is not at a point where they would be willing to look at options for a full year course, there are still some things you might be able to put in place. For example, creating a semesterised class that only awarded half year credit for satisfactory completion. Beyond that, making service learning a category within a course also provides even younger students the opportunity to interact with the community in a meaningful way.
Service learning provides a structured, safe space for students to have crucial conversations.
Allow students to choose their service learning sites and projects
Many teachers know that student choice can make a positive difference in the learning experience. When possible, granting students the opportunity to think about, explore, and ultimately select their own service learning areas can be utilized. It might not always be possible for every student to explore everything they want. By allowing students to research and choose their sites and projects, it aids in building their social engagement and social awareness, two facets of SEL. Especially in younger grades, 20 students wanting to go to 20 different places or do 20 different things is not possible. A potential solution for that might be to have students, as a group, vote on their top 3 service learning, create 3 service learning groups and experience those 3 sites for a quarter of the school year, and then vote and start the process over. Cycling through the top choices will at least provide some variety for students and allow them to meaningfully work with facets of the community.
Service learning is a tool that many schools in the United States can leverage further. By participating in service learning students gain meaningful, community based experiences. It can help fuse the ideas and lessons of SEL and real life application. Those experiences allow students to experience parts of the community both inside the school, as well as external partnerships they otherwise would not. It allows students to have real world experiences to shape their learning. Service learning is an effective approach to producing well-rounded individuals who will be ready to engage in more complex, civic engagements.