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Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
February 1, 1996
Vol. 53
No. 5

Serving Others Hooks Gifted Students on Learning

Real-life learning experiences give students a tangible reason to use their talents. Read on for classroom ideas.

Jason stood atop his desk and shouted, “This math is boring! I don't have to do it!” At that time, the 6th grader's math grade hovered in the D range, and he hated doing homework. Shortly thereafter, Jason was identified as gifted and placed in my program for academically talented students at Jackson Elementary in Salt Lake City.
The changes in Jason's behavior and grades were almost immediate. Our classwide effort to clean up a hazardous waste site three blocks from school soon captured his interest (Lewis 1991). Before long, Jason was spearheading a neighborhood effort to get a traffic light installed near his trailer court. He also began volunteering at a nearby children's hospital. From a D, Jason's math grade shot up to an A.
Six years later, Jason graduated with a 3.5 GPA and earned a scholarship to college. He plans to attend medical school. Service was the hook that caught Jason, an at-risk gifted student, before he fell through the educational cracks.

Why Service Learning?

Service, when connected to learning, benefits students of all academic abilities. For gifted students, service can also provide a specialized and challenging curriculum. Jean Piaget and other reformers stressed teaching thinking and learning as an interaction with the environment. In recent years, service has been an element of virtually every educational reform movement.
Problem Based Learning and the Future Problem Solving Program are just two examples of programs that invite service. Constance Shannon, Harry Passow, Jeffrey Kahn, and Joseph Renzulli have all encouraged service for gifted learners. Annemarie Roeper has stressed the need for gifted kids to seek solutions to community and global problems (1995). Other educators, however, have described service learning as irrelevant fluff in the face of demands for higher test scores and improved basic skills (Conrad and Hedin 1991).
The frog emerged as a prince, however, after the Federal Government endorsed service learning with the National and Community Service Act (1990), providing millions of dollars in funding each ensuing year. Since then, every state has applied for funding and scrambled to integrate service into their schools.
  • Service learning addresses the specialized needs of gifted students. These kids need opportunities “to work independently, at a faster pace, [with] in-depth content, to interact with adult professionals or mentors, and to learn to research and to apply a variety of problem-solving strategies” (Sorenson and Francis 1988). These needs can place the gifted at high risk in mainstream classrooms.One way to address these needs is with appropriate service activities. Opportunities to help others, however, should blend with programs and strategies for the gifted, not replace them. More important, stresses educator and counselor Linda Silverman, Service is a need of the gifted. I have found tremendous moral sensitivity in the gifted population, a desire to help others and a desire for their lives to be meaningful. When gifted children find their paths of service, they experience a deep sense of fulfillment, as if there is some reason that they are here.Gifted high school student, Rebecca Brown, feeling this moral sensitivity, convinced officials in Boyertown, Pennsylvania, that their small town needed a library. She and her friends then set about raising $850 to purchase books.
  • Service is an authentic learning experience that can extend to the community. “For many years,” says Renzulli, educators have been looking for the “missing ingredient” that will help to form a bridge between what is learned in classrooms and the ways in which learning is pursued in the wider world of work. Service learning provides a vehicle for the application of basic academic skills, higher level thinking processes, and strategies for working cooperatively with others.Gifted students like Jason sometimes refuse to participate in activities if they can't see the value in them. When Jason grew concerned that hazardous waste might contaminate his own tap water, he decided he didn't want to drink cadmium or lead to quench his thirst. With help from his classmates, Jason chose to instigate the cleanup of the site. They researched water issues, gave speeches, wrote letters, made phone calls, surveyed and petitioned officials, used statistical information, raised funds, and lobbied for a law creating a state cleanup superfund. These gifted students took leadership roles in the community and felt valued for their creative solutions.
  • Service offers an exciting curriculum that provides gifted students with the motivation to participate in classroom activities. Because service experiences are basically open-ended, no one knows ahead what might happen. Gifted students usually thrive on projects that have no preplanned answers. Kory Hansen, an accelerated high school student, said it well: When you're in your math class reading your book, it's kind of dull. You're learning something that somebody else has already done, and in this case [a service experience], we didn't know what was happening. There was no right or wrong. It was real (Hansen 1991).
  • When students share their gifts through service to others, an increase in self-esteem, leadership, and a sense of mission results. As students internalize the service process, they learn to better manage their own lives and to find joy in helping others. “It is not enough that young people like themselves,” says Beane (1991). “They must also have a sense that what they say and think and do counts for something.”Harry Passow tells us that, according to the research, gifted children have the potential for greater and more profound social, moral, and ethical concerns. We need to nurture this potential. We talk of the gifted exercising future leadership but seldom design educational programs that will help them develop the skills, the motivation, and the values of leadership (1988). Appropriate service learning can provide that opportunity.

A Baker's Dozen of Design Ideas

  1. Use the principles of good service (Alliance for Service Learning in Educational Reform 1992). For example, involve students in brainstorming, planning, and implementing the service activity. Real learning experiences encourage gifted students to explore areas of intense interest and to demonstrate leadership.While classmates learn basic skills, gifted kids can take leadership in finding service experiences that extend from the subject being taught. For example, if the topic is ancient Rome, they might brainstorm problems that occurred in Rome to see whether any of the same problems exist today. They might decide that sewage was a problem then and still is—as did gifted students at Bellamy Middle School in Chicopee, Massachusetts. They went on to find a solution to a sludge problem from liquid wastes, which saved their city a hefty $119,500.
  2. Make service a requirement. For example, you might incorporate it into IEPs for gifted students, if student problem solving and choice are allowed. At North Carolina School of Science & Mathematics, all 10th and 11th graders participate in community service. Students in the Program for Exceptionally Gifted Girls at Mary Baldwin College in Staunton, Virginia, construct monthly plans for community service for six credit hours.
  3. Never use gifted students to solve a teacher's pet problem or cause, or assign them a project. The former practice can turn an occasion for exploration into exploitation. The latter deprives students opportunities to think critically or explore personal interests.
  4. Encourage service experiences that extend from real needs and allow students to contribute. Such needs arise from the school, neighborhood, city, state, nation, world, or beyond.For example, after brainstorming community problems, advanced students in Virginia Beach chose to work for toy safety because a friend had been seriously injured with a sharp toy. The kids saw a need for action, and they persuaded state lawmakers to pass a law requiring hospitals to report injuries and deaths resulting from toys to health officials. Now health officials send out warnings to consumers—a great service to the entire state.In another example, the teacher extended a biography unit by suggesting that gifted students interview citizens who've made contributions to the community. From the interviews, the kids wrote these people's stories and presented them to a local library.Individually, gifted kids can facilitate small service groups or provide leadership for a class project. (Note: In doing so, be sure not to exclude students of differing abilities from opportunities to assume leadership.)Although gifted students at West Iredell High School in Statesville, North Carolina, didn't succeed in finding a safe place for kids to hang out, their teacher, Karen Charles, says that “it didn't matter. They learned leadership and gained confidence to try other difficult things.”Other service experiences might include growing and donating produce to a shelter, tutoring peers, initiating recycling efforts, volunteering at hospitals, nursing injured wild animals, reading to senior citizens, or anything else that students might see as a need (Lewis 1995). An important point to remember is this: be sure that gifted students first investigate the needs of the people they propose to serve. Do they really want or need the service? Are there any rules or laws prohibiting it? And so on.
  5. Offer service classes. Special service courses, peer leadership classes, student government, and conflict management classes—for instance—might inspire gifted kids to become leaders in developing individual or schoolwide service projects. These experiences, however, should supplement, not replace, extended learning classroom opportunities.
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  7. Offer service experiences that can range from performing direct, simple services to advocating for social change. Efforts can extend to the entire school and beyond. The Virginia Beach kids might have simply designed fliers in their school to warn children of the dangers of certain toys. They chose, rather, to advocate for a law to promote toy safety.
  8. Provide mentorships for gifted students with community members. Teaming up with experts in the community may help rapid learners explore careers and to serve their neighbors by solving community problems. Judge Memorial High School in Salt Lake City provides mentorships with adult experts for their senior students. In another example, De La Salle Academy in New York City supports a rigorous academic curriculum for its academically talented, economically disadvantaged 6th, 7th, and 8th graders, and provides opportunities for students to mentor or tutor younger children.
  9. Reduce liability. By obtaining a district policy covering all students, parents, and volunteers, school districts can reduce liability in transporting kids and in working with others. For example, all drivers should have adequate seat belts and provide the school office with copies of their drivers' licenses and insurance policy numbers. When offering services, students should be accompanied by at least two adults, maybe even their own parents. Many service experiences might take place within the school, thus avoiding travel liability. Adult facilitators should hold the veto power to reject any projects that appear inappropriate or unsafe.
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  11. Recognize students for their services in order to encourage continued commitment. School credit, a celebration, awards, certificates, and community or media recognition can validate students' efforts.
  12. Encourage students to reflect on their service experiences. Doing so will “reinforce understanding and continued commitment,” advises the Corporation for National Service. Avenues include journals, videos, cassette recordings, photographs, plays, speeches, and letters from the recipients.
  13. Gifted students or the school can research and develop a clearinghouse or database of service opportunities that others can draw on.

Serving Others Hooks Gifted Students on Learning

Use this list as an idea springboard to get gifted kids started in selecting topics to research and study. Then let their imaginations take over.

  1. Adopt a zoo animal, and raise funds to remodel their habitat.

  2. Find homes for abandoned pets.

  3. Write a proclamation, with your mayor or local council, for a neighborhood beautification week.

  4. Interview people with special needs in your city to find out the availability of user-friendly public buildings, malls, sidewalks, and restrooms. Ask what you can do to help.

  5. Interview city experts about urban development in your area. Do you agree or disagree with the future plan? Get on the speakers' agenda, and present your views at a hearing.

  6. Fix a pothole in a street near your school.

  7. Talk to young students on the dangers of drugs, alcohol, and membership in destructive gangs.

  8. Create a flier listing bias-free words and phrases. For example, hearing impaired instead of deaf, police officer instead of cop. Distribute the fliers in your school or community.

  9. Make flashcards for reading or math, and tutor in a homeless shelter or an elementary school.

  10. Design and trim a mitten tree for needy kids.

Source: The Kid's Guide to Service Projects: Over 500 Service Ideas for Young People Who Want to Make a Difference. Available from: Free Spirit Publications, Inc., 400 First Ave. North, Suite 616, Minneapolis, MN 55401. 1-800-735-7323.

Linking Learning with Life

Service connected to learning is not the solution to all problems in education for the gifted, but it can be the connecting point for a differentiated curriculum—one that enhances critical thinking skills, sharpens problem-solving abilities, and develops talents. At the same time, service provides opportunities for other students in a classroom to join in at different levels of ability and interest.
Learning linked with real life provides opportunities for gifted students to share their gifts and, in the process, gain the confidence to shape the future. For many of them, service is the singular experience that changes their educational direction. For example, when an empowered Jason organized his neighbors to work for a traffic light, he also grew interested in improving his grades and in volunteering at a hospital. As Jason put it, “Getting recognized as being intelligent in our service project gave me the chance to act intelligently. It was the first time I felt appreciated for having brains.”

Alliance for Service Learning in Educational Reform. (1992). “Standards of Quality for School-Based Service Learning.” St. Paul: National Service Learning Cooperative. [This is the clearinghouse of information for K–12 Serve America, 1-800-808-SERVE.]

Beane, J. A. (September 1991). “Sorting Out the Self-Esteem Controversy.” Educational Leadership 49, 1: 29.

Conrad, D., and D. Hedin. (June 1991). “School-Based Community Service: What We Know From Research and Theory.” Phi Delta Kappan 72, 10: 44.

Hansen, K. (March 18, 1991). “CBS This Morning.”

Lewis, B. A. (1995). The Kid's Guide to Service Projects: Over 500 Service Ideas for Young People Who Want to Make a Difference. Minneapolis: Free Spirit Publications, Inc.

Lewis, B. A. (1991). The Kid's Guide to Social Action. Minneapolis: Free Spirit Publications, Inc., pp. 7-11.

National and Community Service Act of 1990. (November 16, 1990). Public Law 101-610, 101st. Congress.

Passow, A. H. (1988). “Educating Gifted Persons Who Are Caring and Concerned.” Roeper Review 11: 14.

Roeper, A. (1995). Selected Writing and Speeches. Minneapolis: Free Spirit Publications, Inc.

Sorenson, J., and M. Francis. (1988). The Gifted Program Handbook: Planning, Implementing, and Evaluating Gifted Programs. Palo Alto: Dale Semour Publications, pp. 53-103.

VanTassel-Baska, J. (1993). “Theory and Research on Curriculum Development for the Gifted.” International Handbook of Research and Development of Giftedness and Talent. Oxford, England: Pergamon Press, pp. 365-386.

End Notes

1 For more information, contact William Stepien, Director, Center for Problem Based Learning, Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, Aurora, IL 60506-1039.

2 For more information, contact William Stepien, Director, Center for Problem Based Learning, Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, Aurora, IL 60506-1039.

3 Linda Silverman, Gifted Development Center, Institute for the Study of Advanced Development, 1452 Marion St., Denver, CO 80218, (303) 837-8378.

4 Joseph Renzulli, The National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented, University of Connecticut, 362 Fairfield Rd., U-7, Storrs, CT 06269-2007, (203) 486-4826.

5 For more information about the federally funded national service program, contact the Corporation for National Service, Learn and Serve (grades K–12), 1201 New York Ave., Fl. 8, Washington, DC 20525, 202-606-5000.

Barbara A. Lewis has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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