Wednesday, July 23, 2014

How We Do Service Learning

I've had some inquiries about how our class (and now our entire grade level) does service learning. I consider myself very blessed to work with a grade level team filled with women who are also passionate about serving others! The entire 5th grade at our school participates in service learning. The joy of serving others has spread, and our second grade team partners with us as well! The focus on service learning makes teaching even more enjoyable, I believe.

So, why teach students to serve other people? One of my major beliefs as an educator is that I need to expose my students to the needs of others both in our local community and around the world. I believe that a focus on service learning teaches character and problem-solving with a real live audience! That is a true motivator.

In order to make service-learning successful, students need to drive the majority of it. If there's no student buy-in, it's less meaningful and you are more apt to have behavior issues during the project. When the kids are working on something they believe in, they'll all be engaged and want to produce their very best work to serve whomever they are serving.

The three projects we have done in the past are The 9/11 Care Package Project, the Partnership with The Guest House, and The Sandwich Project.

Two of the service learning ideas started out as my brainchild. I introduced them as, "Hey, do y'all want to do this?" I took the "excitement" temperature of my class, and if it was high, I asked the kids to decide how they wanted to proceed. This was how the 9/11 Care Package Project and Partnership with The Guest House began. The kids would share their ideas at their tables, then I would appoint a "project manager" to take ideas on the board and lead the class discussion. It's totally okay for a teacher to suggest a service project idea... but it's very important to let the students run with it!

The Sandwich Project (detailed at the bottom of the page) was completely the idea of my students. It was a beautiful thing to behold! Of course, every year after that, I had to reintroduce it to my students and see if they still wanted to run with it. Each year when we make sandwiches, the totals are announced to the whole school over the intercom, so the kids generally come to 5th grade excited about participating in this project. 2nd grade also participates in making sandwiches with us every year, so most of the kids have already done it once and look forward to doing it again!

Without further ado, here are details about the 3 major projects we focused on last year!

9/11 Care Package Project

In honor of 9/11, our entire 5th grade decided to sponsor soldiers and send them care packages! As a grade level, we sent care packages to 12 soldiers. All of the soldiers we chose were people with whom we had a personal connection. The kids wrote letters of thanks for the soldiers' service, drew patriotic pictures, and packed some essentials for the soldiers.

Once boxes were packed, students had to fill out the USPS form detailing what was in the box, how many of each item, etc. This service learning project incorporated writing, art, and math. (I would argue that it included engineering, too, considering they had to pack, unpack, and repack the boxes a few times to make everything fit better!)

We got lots of suggestions from many different people (all of whom knew a lot about the needs of military folks) about what to include in our care packages.

Interested in doing this project? Some of the items we included:

  • baby wipes (sometimes the only way they have to wash up depending on the area!)
  • turkey jerky (stay away from pork as it is not allowed in some middle eastern countries)
  • toothpaste, mouthwash, floss, toothbrushes, etc.
  • deodorant, bar soap, lotion
  • cookies, fig newtons
  • playing cards
I forget how much it costs to ship these boxes, but you could drop in your local post office to inquire.

Partnership with The Guest House

The Guest House is a local day facility for senior citizens who need some care and supervision during the day while their family members are at work, running errands, etc. They have anywhere between 8-18 people there at a time. The Guest House has full-time nursing care on site as well as several wonderful staff members.

The Guest House recently moved just up the street from our school, so it is within walking distance! Hooray! We did 3 events there this year. On Halloween, we walked up in costumes and read scary stories that the students had written themselves. They happened to have a man-and-wife duo who came to play the guitar and sing that day, so our kids got to dance and sing with the seniors. It was so much fun!

For Christmas, my students all made cards for their friends at The Guest House. I took 4 of the students with me after school to go deliver the cards and spread some Christmas cheer.

At the end of the year, the students had planned a Civil Rights Concert and sang some songs they had learned during that unit. They also made posters about famous Americans during this time period and presented those as well.

When you're working with seniors, it doesn't really matter that you do anything fancy! They just want someone to come spend time with them. I know that when I was in 4th grade, we visisted a nursing home and played cards and bingo with them. We will be doing some low-key things like this next year as well.

So far, only my class has visited The Guest House, but the rest of the grade level is excited to be joining this project in the upcoming school year!

Interested in doing a similar project? Contact a local nursing home or senior center to see what their needs are. Our seniors always love hearing kids talk or sing, and many of them love to share their life stories with kids. There's always a need to be filled! If you can't walk somewhere, talk to someone at your school about getting permission for a special field trip. There's something about service projects that defintely makes them harder to turn down!

The Sandwich Project

This is our BIGGEST project. It all started in September 2010, and it began with a book... Something Beautiful, written by Sharon Dennis Wyeth and illustrated by Chris Soentpiet. This has been my service labor of love, and I am so pleased with how big this project has become!

Instead of rewriting a post I have already published on my class website, I am going to copy what I have written on my service learning page and paste it below. To see even more pictures, visit that page HERE.

In September of 2010, I decided to read one of my favorite picture books to my fifth grade students. Little did I know it would be the start of something amazing...

I like to use picture books even though I teach fifth grade. To leave these books out of my reading class would be denying my students exposure to some wonderful literature. As an added bonus, picture books can be read, start to finish, in one class period. These books also often have rich details about character and setting, and we can reach the resolution of a conflict quickly. 

This one particular school day, I was going to read Something Beautiful, written by Sharon Dennis Wyeth and illustrated by Chris K. Soentpiet. I met the illustrator at a reading conference, and he generously autographed my copy of this beloved book. This is a beautiful story, and I have loved it for a long time because of that. However, I have a weakness for autographs, so that made this book even better in my eyes!

In the book, the main character, a little girl in an inner-city neighborhood, goes on a search for “something beautiful.” She sees the word “DIE” graffitied on her door, she passes a homeless woman wrapped in plastic outside of her cardboard shelter, and broken bottles in the alley. She polls her friends, neighbors, and family to find something beautiful, and finds that beauty can be found everywhere you look: in a baby’s laugh, in the sound of beads in a girl’s hair, in the fresh fruit at a produce stand. She decides to clean up the ugliness around her. She says, “I feel powerful.” At the end of the book, she asks her mom if she has anything beautiful. This is where, even though I read this every year to my students, I begin to cry. The mom tells her, “Of course. I have you.” 

This book, as I said, is a lovely story with stunning illustrations. I had planned, in my opinion, a quality standards-based lesson about the setting influencing the conflict in the story. My students, however, had a different plan in mind.

As always, we discussed what from the book stood out to us. Immediately, one of the students said he was very bothered by the part with the homeless woman, and he said he was sad for her. Other students began to agree aloud. Another student mentioned that she had seen the article in the local newspaper about homeless people in our own community who were living under a bridge and about how tough life was for them. 

In a matter of minutes, we were off the track I had planned. I like to redirect the students when they start to lose focus on the standard I’m teaching, but something inside of me said to let them keep going. Deep down, I knew this was a teachable moment I couldn’t let slip through my fingers.

So, we kept talking about the homeless situation in our hometown. What can we do about it? I remember, with a smile, that the students wanted to do a bake sale and buy houses for the homeless. What big dreams! I told them, however, that I didn’t think we needed to throw money at the problem; instead, we needed to use our hearts and our hands. 

I gave them homework that night - to go home and think about what we could physically do that would show love and compassion for the homeless in Gainesville.

The next day, we had another discussion about our newest endeavor. We decided that we could make sandwiches for the homeless, especially since so many of the students were worried about them being hungry. We called this endeavor “The Sandwich Project.”

I asked the students if they’d like to make sandwiches the next week, and they all shouted, “No! Let’s do it now!” I told the children I’d email their parents asking them to send in supplies for the following Friday, but that wasn’t fast enough for these kids. I then told them that their parents would not be happy with me if I demanded supplies immediately. Unfortunately, even though I have a weakness for autographs, I have an even bigger weakness for puppy dog eyes. With 25 pairs of puppy dog eyes breaking down my attempt at a steely exterior, I gave in and sent an email to all of my students’ parents, describing what had happened and what the kids wanted to do about it.

Imagine my surprise, when in just a few minutes, I had several email responses from the parents, saying, “I’ll bring bread,” or “I’ll send in some peanut butter!” The kids were ecstatic, and truthfully, I was too.

The next day, we spent an hour making 25 lunches for the homeless under the bridge. Some students made sandwiches, other students bagged the sandwiches up;  some decorated brown bags for the lunches, some packed pretzels into baggies, and some added cookies. We completed the sack lunches with napkins and mints, and I sent them off with a local ministry contact who visits the bridge.

After we completed the first ever sandwich-making-day for The Sandwich Project, I asked the students to write me a letter to reflect on the experience. Never before have I cried upon reading student writings like I did that day. Students wrote, “I feel powerful.” (They remembered, from the book.) Some wrote that they now understood what it meant when people say that one person can make a difference. They wanted to keep doing it, and they wanted to do even more.

We decided to make sandwiches once a month. Our first attempt took us an hour to make 25 lunches. We finished the year making nearly 100 lunches in an hour. I guess you could say we perfected the technique!

Parents were our lifesavers - they sent in all the supplies to make this possible. Without 100% parent support, The Sandwich Project might have only been a one-time thing, if even that. I owe them a debt of gratitude.

Students never lost their enthusiasm for making lunches. The inspirational messages that decorated the bags were heartfelt. The students had to work extra hard during sandwich-making weeks; I never gave them less work just because we spent a class period making lunches. They knew they had to work harder in order to do it, but that never stopped them from making sure we took the time to help others who are less fortunate.

I heard from some of the parents that it had become a dinnertime topic in their families, and that they were looking into other ways to help the needy in our community as a family. I hope they continue to be inspired because of The Sandwich Project. It’s been something like tossing a pebble into a quiet pond; the goodness is rippling outwards. It’s been a beautiful thing to witness.

By the end of the year, we fed the homeless with over 200 lunches. Wow! Just thinking about makes me smile. I have been blessed to teach such generous students. Even if they chose to throw my lesson plans out the window. And I’m glad they did.

UPDATE: June 2014
The entire 5th grade at Centennial has worked on this project together for a few years now. Once a year, each 5th grade class partners with a 2nd grade class to make lunches. It has turned into a very special project, indeed!

Interested in doing a similar project? Churches are often a great contact for working with those in need. We worked with a ministry called Under the Bridge and are now branching out to work with a local church who opens their doors to the homeless 3 days a week for food and clothing. (By the way, just because a church is your contact doesn't necessarily make it a religious project.)

So that's how my class does service learning! If you have any questions, feel free to ask me! Does your class do service learning? Share what you do in the comments below!

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