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May 2009 | Volume 66 | Number 8
Teaching Social Responsibility
Weaving service learning throughout its curriculum helps an urban charter school create highly engaged—and highly responsible—learners.
In late fall 2008, 3rd graders at Hoboken Charter School cheered, "Shave it off!" as two of their favorite teachers were publicly sheared in a fund-raising event to bring clean water to a village in Kenya.
Since September, the 3rd graders had studied the world water crisis, focusing on Kenya. They explored environmental, geographic, and economic factors connected to the crisis as well as the effect it has had on African communities—and connected this exploration to an interdisciplinary unit on the Hudson River. Students also explored the literature, art, and language of Kenya. And because students had been steeped in Hoboken's culture of service learning, they wanted to do more than study; they wanted to assist this region they had come to care about.
The 3rd graders committed to raising at least $2,800 to build a water retention system for a community in Kenya. As a class, they planned a carnival filled with water games, concessions, and information on the water crisis and on how citizens can be agents of change. They were responsible for all publicity and ran the game tables and information booth. Students organized a live auction of student-created art and a raffle of artworks that local artists donated featuring African or water themes.
A highlight of the day was the counting of cash that had been collected at school for weeks in two water jugs adorned with images of S. K. Duff and Sean Gavarny, two teachers at the school. These teachers had agreed to be shaved if the jugs were filled with at least $350 by the end of the carnival. When the total of more than $3,500 was announced to students, teachers, parents, and community members, it was clear that Duff's beard and Gavarny's hair would be sacrificed and the water retention system would be built in Bingwa, Kenya.
Students will probably never forget this carnival. Within the next few months, they built on the experience. Students began a pen pal program with students from a school in another Kenyan village and sent supplies to that school. They also visited the Kenyan embassy in New York City.
The empowerment students felt on carnival day was not that atypical at the Hoboken Charter School, which serves 268 students in grades K–12. Hoboken, New Jersey, is a one-square-mile city directly across the Hudson River from New York City. The school's student body, which is chosen by lottery, includes a wide range of nationalities, cultures, and ethnic backgrounds; 24 percent of the student body is classified as having a disability, and about 31 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. The school has an 18.7 percent mobility rate.
Service learning, one of the cornerstones of Hoboken Charter School, helps our diverse student body bridge their differences and achieve to a high standard. The National Service-Learning Clearinghouse defines service learning as "a teaching and learning strategy that integrates meaningful community service with instruction and reflection to enrich the learning experience, teach civic responsibility, and strengthen communities."
One of our founders, Deborah Hecht, believed strongly that education is not just something you acquire, but also something you apply and share. Through this sharing, students learn to respect and take responsibility for themselves and their community. Parents and teachers we have surveyed over the years have cited service learning as the primary reason that they stay at the school.
Projects that reinforce awareness of social justice are an integral piece of each class's curriculum at Hoboken Charter School. When the school hires teachers, we communicate the expectation that they will incorporate service learning into their teaching, and we provide professional development on how to do so at the beginning of each school year. Three teachers—one each for the elementary, middle, and high school—act as service learning mentors. Our schoolwide service learning coordinator helps arrange logistics and press coverage for larger events.
Hoboken sponsors three annual schoolwide events connected to service learning. During October's Make a Difference Day, students in each class carry out a project based on an issue they are passionate about or have identified in the local community. This year, our kindergarten students led a penny harvest, asking the school community to donate pennies. Collecting and counting the pennies reinforced math skills. Students interviewed local service agencies to decide where they would contribute the money.
Middle school students learned about land mines through studying relevant literature and history and analyzing statistics. They led initiatives to heighten awareness of mines and raised funds to remove land mines in Cambodia through the Adopt-a-Minefield campaign. Inspired by their study of World War II, high school students raised money to purchase phone cards for U.S. troops overseas. These projects connected students' academic learning and examination of social justice issues with meaningful action.
Throughout January, all grades study civil rights in the United States and other countries. The Friday before Martin Luther King Day, our students march down Washington Street, Hoboken's main thoroughfare, carrying posters that display a message about an issue they've researched, such as equal pay. The march ends with a gathering with local leaders at City Hall. On the holiday itself, students host a celebration for the community at a church. They display projects they've created as part of their civil rights unit, perform songs, and raise money for a charity.
The Empty Bowls event in April focuses on hunger and homelessness. We display students' work—projects, reports, and artwork focused on hunger or homeless people—at a soup kitchen and shelter and invite parents and community members to come view this work, reflect on it, and eat a meal in the soup kitchen. Admission costs $6 (which is donated to the shelter) and a canned good (which is given to a local food pantry). On the same day, we station students, alumni, parents, and teachers at local grocery stores. They give shoppers a list of items the food pantry needs and collect donated items as shoppers exit the store. It's exciting for students to see their efforts literally fill an empty food pantry and provide funds for the soup kitchen and shelter.
Two years ago, a 7th grade student noticed that the food we stocked at the food pantry was not very nutritious. The pantry's director informed us how hard it was to locate or receive fresh produce. The following year, this student initiated a class project to have teachers and students collect discarded but usable fresh produce from local grocers once a week for the food pantry. In language arts and health classes, 8th graders researched nutrition and the dangers of a diet heavy in sodium and deficient in fruits and vegetables. They created information packets, wrote letters asking for produce donations, and made presentations to the managers of local stores.
Teachers creatively work activities related to social responsibility into lessons. When my social studies class studied slavery in the antebellum United States, students explored the strategies of 19th-century abolitionists like Sojourner Truth and attempted those strategies themselves. Each student studied an instance of contemporary slavery (such as child soldiers in Sierra Leone or brick makers in Pakistan) and created a brochure describing that situation. They used these brochures to educate the community about present-day slavery and how people can work to abolish it.
One reason service learning engages students is that such work has an audience. Two years ago, as my language arts class was preparing for a production of Macbeth, a student suggested that we perform the play at the local homeless shelter. The spur of an audience besides parents motivated students as they created scenery, made playbills, and rehearsed. After the play, students held a question and answer session with residents, which made them feel like experts.
Before I understood service learning, I thought it solely entailed helping others. I believed such projects would take away too much essential academic time. Service learning might be great for schools that were meeting adequate yearly progress goals but would be too risky for schools that were not.
However, research indicates that service-learning programs contribute to higher student achievement and reduce achievement gaps. Scales and Roehlkepartain (2005) note that
existing research in school reform, positive youth development, and service learning all point toward the potential of service learning to be an important pedagogical strategy for increasing school success, particularly among students from low-income families and those in predominantly low-income schools. (p. 15)
At Hoboken Charter School, we have seen the truth of this claim. Students with various levels of academic achievement bring insights and skills to the problem-solving process that accompanies service learning. In addition, service learning is academic. The projects our students engage in call for such skills as statistical analysis, persuasive writing, and articulate public speaking.
My experiences at Hoboken have shown me that when service learning is a major part of the curriculum, test scores, work completion, and attendance improve and bullying and feelings of helplessness decrease. Students who otherwise feel disconnected from school and the curriculum become engaged; they delve more deeply into their studies and take ownership of projects.
Our students at Hoboken are becoming strong leaders, tolerant and responsible world citizens, innovative thinkers, and passionate advocates for social change. Many students face multiple challenges in their home lives, yet they are making meaningful differences in our community and the world. The skills of assessing needs, collecting data, planning and executing projects, and assessing their success have become second nature because students have practiced them since kindergarten.
Service learning enriches our curriculum, builds students' confidence, and connects them more closely to their school and community. It's not something added to our curriculum; it's the way we teach and learn.
National Service-Learning Clearinghouse. (n.d.) What is service-learning? Scotts Valley, CA: Autor. Retrieved January 14, 2009, from
Scales, P. C., & Roehlkepartain, E. C. (2005). Can service-learning help reduce the achievement gap? New research points toward the potential of service-learning for low-income students. In National Youth Leadership Council, Growing to greatness 2005: The state of service-learning in the United States (pp. 10–22). St. Paul, MN: National Youth Leadership Council.
Deirdra Grode teaches social studies and language arts at Hoboken Charter School in New Jersey. She was chosen as ASCD's 2008 Outstanding Young Educator; 201-963-0222;
Copyright © 2009 by Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development
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