Service Learning as SEL

So far in our series on social-emotional learning (SEL) and equity, we have discussed the case for leveraging SEL as a tool to advance equity in schools and districts across the country. We now will move into specific avenues schools can use to continue to press forward the SEL and equity work. Over the next two posts, we will explore how service learning and SEL can be a tool for advancing equity in your school and district. 

Many districts across the United States already have in place a community service requirement for graduation. For example, serving 25 hours at a local food pantry, volunteering at the local branch of Habitat for Humanity, or even tutoring elementary students in literacy and math. This type of volunteer work is what we tend to think of when we think of community service. It is where students have a required number of hours to volunteer at an outside organization in order to meet graduation requirements. While having students volunteer in isolation is beneficial for those involved because it provides students with an opportunity to get involved in their community, adopting a service learning model takes the idea one step further. Service learning is defined by Vanderbilt University as: A form of experiential education where learning occurs through a cycle of action and reflection as students seek to achieve real objectives for the community and deeper understanding and skills for themselves." By incorporating discussion and reflection around the volunteer work into the general curriculum, as well as awarding school credit to students towards graduation. Service learning allows for the convergence of SEL and equity progression in a few ways. 

 

Service learning allows students the opportunity to practice and live out SEL skills they have learned.

Students will be exposed to various environments, people, and actions in the community through service learning. Through this work, students will need to utilize their SEL skillset. All 5 CASEL competencies come into play with service learning. Students will need to be able to use their relationship skills to build connections with people and groups in their community, where they are working. Navigating a new environment forces students to use their self-management as well as self-awareness skills. By volunteering in the community, the “safety net” of the school environment is somewhat removed and students will need to use their responsible decision-making skills alongside their social awareness in order to be successful in the community. Service learning is a great opportunity for students to utilize the very skills they are working on in school. They are then able to bring back all their experiences, successes, and growth areas to the school group for feedback. For example, if a student was working at a soup kitchen serving dinner to those in need, they might be instructed with how to properly handle food. If the student did something wrong or went away from the steps given to them, it could lead to a crucial conversation with the student and the soup kitchen manager. The student would be able to bring back to the group how they handled the situation, and get tips for the next time they are in a situation like that. 

 

Service learning is a great opportunity for students to utilize the very skills they are working on in school.

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Service learning provides a structured, safe space for students to have crucial conversations.

By participating in service learning, students are going to be experiencing situations and environments that they otherwise might not be involved in. This leads to reflection for themselves, as well as the community and those around them, bringing up both internal and external thoughts, feelings, and questions. Having a safe space for students to discuss their observations as well as have critical conversations will strengthen their understanding of SEL competencies and subskills in a real-world setting. By giving students the structure and the tools to have conversations about real-world issues and scenarios, you are empowering them to be reflective and proactive about inequities they see both in their community and experience themselves. 

 

Having a safe space for students to discuss their observations as well as have critical conversations will strengthen their understanding of SEL competencies in a real-world setting.

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Through service learning, students become involved in the community in meaningful ways and contribute to the progress of equity.

Students often have innovative ideas about how to fix problems in their communities. Service learning gives them the chance to put those ideas into action. Through service learning, students will become aware of barriers to equity across the community. Allowing students to use official school time to brainstorm and plan real action, both big and small, to address those issues lends itself to students both utilizing their SEL strengths as well as contributing to closing equity gaps. For example, if a student is doing their service learning in an elementary school, and becomes aware of the fact that not all students have access to books at home, they may bring that inequity back to the group. Through brainstorming, conversations, community relationships, and planning, students may come up with an action plan to provide those students with books they can keep and read at home. 

 

Through service learning, students will become aware of barriers to equity across the community.

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Service learning is a powerful tool that takes community service one step further. It provides students an authentic and genuine connection to their community and education. By engaging in service learning we are giving students the opportunity to not only refine and hone their SEL skills but also to use those skills to learn about and address inequities in the community around them. This helps students to become truly aware of themselves and the larger community. 

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References: 

https://ecs.secure.force.com/mbdata/mbquest3RTE?Rep=SL1301

https://www.edutopia.org/blog/what-heck-service-learning-heather-wolpert-gawron