Is there Educational Value in Community Service?

In school, I never had to do community service.  As a Catholic, I had to complete many hours of community service in order to be confirmed in the church.  In high school and college, I took it upon myself to find community service opportunities.  In all my schooling, I was never mandated to perform community service.  In retrospect, that seems baffling to me.  How did I learn to be kind and help others?  I suppose I learned a lot about compassion and helping others from my parents.  However, I wonder what might be had I been given the opportunity to serve others throughout my schooling.

At my school, community service is a vital part of our mission.  To prepare our students for lives in a global society, they need to know how to help and serve others.  However, most of the opportunities our students are given seem superficial and forced.  Helping the headmaster with menial tasks is not true community service.  So, in the sixth grade, we’ve made it our mission this year to make community service a meaningful and integral part of our curriculum.

Today in Humanities class, the students continued working on the community service projects that they began working on in November.  They generated the ideas and process.  Today they continued growing the plans, gathering materials, and talking to people at the school who would be able to help and assist them.  We, as the teachers, meandered about and asked questions, but did not offer much guidance.  We want the students to own their community service.  Some of the ideas include organizing a community sledding party for the local townsfolk, creating a community-wide reduced cost fuel oil plan with the local provider, creating a community garden that is created and maintained by the students with the bounty being shared with the local food pantry and senior center, and a community skating party.  The students brainstormed more ideas and started putting the wheels in motion.  The community skating party is already set for January 11.  The oil group is going to meet with a representative from Irving in early January.  The other groups are very close to bringing their ideas to fruition.  The students were engaged and on task throughout the double period today.  They were excited about helping others and devising ideas.

Was this an effective use of our time?  The students spent 80 minutes working on bringing their ideas to life.  Was this too much time?  Did it take away from the curriculum we need to cover?  Was it a useful activity?  How does it allow the students to meet any objectives?  Why are we really doing this?  These are all questions that have popped into my head since we started working on these projects.  We want the students to see the value in being a good neighbor as they learn about the town in which the school is located.  Rather than tell them what we think they should do, we wanted to give them options and choice.  Our students look at the world from very differing perspectives and so to let them drive this was crucial to the whole process.  They need to own the ideas in order to be engaged.  Is that why they were so focused today in class?  While we don’t have any objectives in our curriculum regarding community service, they are learning how to work together, delegate tasks, talk to adults in appropriate ways, advocate for themselves, and solve problems.  Aren’t these the big skills they need to be successful in a global society?  These projects, one might say, are part of our hidden curriculum.

So, while the community service projects the students worked on in class today are works in progress and will take much more time to develop, they are a productive use of our time together as the boys are applying what they are learning about our town.  They are learning to be compassionate and kind young men and realizing that community service is more than raking leaves and picking up trash.

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