Cathryn Berger Kaye, a former classroom teacher and an author, suggests that students do better in school when learning engages both their minds and hearts. This dual approach is known as service learning — a teaching method that develops students’ skills and knowledge as they apply classroom lessons to meet real community needs.
As a middle school special education teacher, I have used service learning projects to give my students the opportunity to address real-life issues through project management, decision-making and teamwork.
My students, who live in the South Bronx, witness the issues of hunger and food insecurity in their communities. Our class formed a partnership with Lead2Feed, a student leadership and community service organization for middle and high school students, to organize a canned food drive and volunteer in local soup kitchens and food pantries.
Lead2Feed provides free multi-week lessons aligned to New York State learning standards. Lessons include learning objectives, activities and online resources. Lead2Feed’s lessons helped my students work with each other to set goals and identify a local charity that could help them address a problem.
By collecting and donating canned goods to local soup kitchens and food pantries, my students saw the ways in which hunger has an effect on their neighbors. Seeing how their work had an impact gave them a sense of their own value and self-worth, which is sometimes lacking in special education students. The project demonstrated they could be leaders and give back to their communities.
Because they were invested in solving a real-life problem, their reading and writing skills improved as they worked to express themselves through their reflections about their experiences. Most important, they began to have more compassion for the people and the world around them.
The first step to launching a service learning project is to find out what real-life issues your students are interested in. You can have your students read and discuss short articles about three to four topics that affect them that can be addressed through a service project.
Next, students can research nonprofit organizations on a local, state or national level that work on the cause they have selected. Forming a partnership with a nonprofit organization will allow students to build a relationship that amplifies the reach of their initiative.
The students need to work on an “elevator pitch” to send to these organizations that clearly outlines why they want to form a partnership with the organization. Students can rehearse their pitches with an adult leader in the school to build their confidence before they interact with their chosen nonprofit.
A partnership with a nonprofit organization helps students realize the importance of working together. It also opens the door for future volunteer or career opportunities.
I have seen my students grow academically, behaviorally and socially as a result of service learning projects. Service learning has engaged my students and helped them become more invested in their community and its needs.