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January 1, 2008
Vol. 50
No. 1

Integrating Service Learning into the Curriculum

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Service learning projects should complement academic instruction and make lessons fun and accessible for even the most disengaged students. In successful projects, educators guide students in brainstorming and developing new projects or assist them in adapting service learning lesson plans to meet needs in the local community.
At Maret School, a K–12 school in Washington, D.C., 8th grade students studied the science behind global warming and participated in an energy conservation project that led to a public outreach campaign. To integrate the project into the class science curriculum, students read texts like Tim Flannery'sWeather Makers, conducted research, analyzed data from the Mauna Loa Observatory, and met with experts, including the head of the Environmental Protection Agency's Energy Star program. Armed with scientific knowledge, they audited the school's library to determine how much energy it could potentially conserve.
As a result, students suggested using compact fluorescent light bulbs and other simple technologies that could conserve energy. Next, the students developed an outreach campaign and partnered with other schools to teach students how to conduct energy audits and implement energy-saving measures. Not only did the project help the school, but also it led to enthusiastic students passing knowledge and skills to others and building capacity in peers and neighbors to perform similar work.
"All the projects we are doing are meeting a real need in the community," says Eliza Alexander, language teacher and director of service learning at Maret. "We want to have the students feel they can contribute by their actions rather than money," she adds. By donating their time to serving the community rather than just raising funds for a cause, Maret's students are making a difference that could have an impact for future generations.
At Quest High School, in Humble, Tex., students engage in service learning projects tied to classroom learning. In one project, students learned to contextualize their work before they addressed poverty issues within the local community.
"Every project needs a context. That's the first thing I would say," says humanities teacher Kim Huseman. To get started, students read Barbara Ehrenreich's book Nickel and Dimed, in which the author goes undercover as a minimum wage worker. "For that book, I threw out facts or ideas and I drew a line down the middle of the room and the students could move from side to side if they agreed or disagreed with a fact," Huseman says.
Huseman had students engage in "focus activities," such as discussing and debating statistics about poverty in the local community. "I gave them facts about the poverty in our school district. I try to give them things that appeal to their emotions—make them mad, upset, or whatever. And then, I gave them an assignment where they had to go find the top 10 poverty facts about the Houston area to build a context for them," says Huseman. Students worked with the school's librarian to research statistics on the internet.
After learning contextual information about poverty, students read the book and discussed each chapter in small discussion groups. Huseman found that the discussions really helped students to understand the important issues of the book. "Because a lot of our students [work] minimum wage jobs and 35 percent of our kids live in poverty, this was resonating with them," she says. Next, students developed a monthly budget based on a family unit supported by a minimum wage salary.
Building a successful service learning project requires engaging students in the process. "There is a lot of scaffolding in terms of setting this up," says Huseman. "People think when you're doing service learning, you're going out every day. We're reading the book, taking tests, writing essays. In the end, we have a culminating project. They have one month to think about who they can connect to—a nonprofit or other community organization—and what they can do to help them. We're not asking them to go out and solve world hunger, we want them to work with a group to address a small aspect." After completing a service learning project, students are then required to give a multimedia presentation about the work and the lessons they learned.

Adapting Service Projects to Meet Learning Needs

In the new book Human Rights and Service-Learning: Lesson Plans and Projects (2007), published by Amnesty International-USA and Human Rights Education Associates, service project learners perform substantive community work that complements lessons from math, science, and social studies curricula.
In activities such as the "Planting for the People" project, students plan and grow a community garden to donate fresh food to a local food bank, soup kitchen, or shelter. This type of service project requires students not only use a cross-section of skills and knowledge, but also employ teamwork, communications, problem solving, and critical-thinking skills.
To get started, students discuss the types of food they eat and identify the ways that they access these items (e.g., their parents purchase groceries or they grow their own food, etc.) They are asked to consider the possibility of not having access to fresh, nutritious food. After researching the environmental conditions needed for growing fruits and vegetables in the regional climate and in the designated garden space—located at the school or a nearby community garden location—students decide which items they wish to plant. Students can also conduct additional research to understand issues like food safety. They can become familiar with the science of soil, water purity, and the effects of pollution on agriculture. Students assign themselves the roles and responsibilities necessary for planting, tending, and harvesting the garden. If they are donating the food to a kitchen or shelter, it may also be possible for them to assist in the preparation of the meals made with their donation.
Through this project, students learn the importance of access to nutritional food, a basic human right. "When students are engaging in service learning, they are often protecting human rights, but they may not realize it," says Kristine Belisle, coauthor of Human Rights and Service Learning. "Everyone should learn at a young age to respect others and to respect human dignity," she adds.
There are a variety of ways to develop strong service learning projects. Educators must choose from several methods, from allowing students to create their own projects to assisting students in implementing and customizing an established service learning lesson plan. Above all, it is important for students to have a strong voice in the process to deepen their understanding of the activities and to maximize learning opportunities.

Belisle, K. & Sullivan, E. (2007). Human Rights and Service-Learning: Lesson Plans and Projects. New York: Amnesty International—USA and Human Rights Education Associates (HREA).

Willona M. Sloan is a freelance writer and former ASCD editor.

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