A New Lens for Action

October 2, 2014


NIST students learning from the Maeramit hill tribe village in Omgoi, Chiang Mai to plan collaborative efforts for community renewal.

I have been wondering. When it comes to service learning and taking action, are we doing all we could be doing?

Truly, I have seen well-meaning teachers design and engage students in a service learning process and have rich investigation of the issues, purposeful connections that continue to advance the curriculum in preparation, and then when it comes to action be cautious. Before you read on, think about it—have you seen “cautious” action?

This may look like older kids teaching a skill or knowledge to younger children in their same school when a nearby school has a much greater need for assistance. Students may do a sensational job of recycling at their school and connect this to academics and then are “done.” Is there anywhere else in the community that needs coaching about recycling that would be amazed at what students know and are doing? Putting on a performance for parents or holding a school assembly on an important societal issue is good to do—yet are we playing it safe?

If we want students to be problem solvers we must give them a problem to solve.

If we want students to be risk takers, we must let them take a risk and then consider the actual consequences.

All too often we (educators) are there too quick with a safety net and don’t enable students to experience the resilience they need by (Japanese proverb) Fall down eight times, get up nine.

Let’s be a bit bolder because we can be. This is their time, their learning laboratory. And with service learning we have the opportunity to let go of some of the controls and s t r e t c h the boundaries so they can have a real, real experience.

We have long discussed service learning action as direct service, indirect service, advocacy and research.

Four additional considerations as a lens for action. All have value. And all can be applied at every age. Some actions may apply to more than one of these categories.

Service that is kind. At all ages students and the community benefit when students find a need that can be responded to with kindness. Showing appreciation, spending time with a person who may be isolated or lonely, beautifying an area of their school or the community are kind acts.

Service that is helpful. Some acts of service provide needed assistance. Getting books to schools that have empty library shelves. Assisting at a community event, organizing a blood drive. Helping is of value.

Service that is compassionate. Some acts of service are in response to an urgent need or crises, a hurricane or earthquake. A fire in the neighborhood. A lack of food in the local pantry. All are important.

And this next one I am most drawn to at present, even though all the others are relevant and important, and when our students thoughtfully investigate and prepare and then determine that kind service, helpful service and/or compassionate service are best for the situation then I am 100% in agreement. Still, consider:

Service that is disruptive. Consider that this kind of service represents an interruption in the status quo by improving the situation for people, animals or the environment. With disruption we make a seismic shift. From what I can tell, for example, youth had a big part in encouraging recycling in the United States and also with getting their parents to stop smoking. In Hawaii they also disrupted adults from tossing cigarette butts on the ground with their Plant Your Butts initiative to protect their local environment (Make a Splash! by Cathryn Berger Kaye and Philippe Cousteau). Children have caused disruption by learning about slavery in the Sudan and then speaking before Congress during the Clinton administration (Boulder, Colorado, read Dream Freedom by Sonia Levitin). Children have disrupted hospital emergency care of children by designing a care room for children (North Adams, Massachusetts). Students have worked with scientists to determine ways to repair coral reefs in the Florida Keys and dive during school time to make these repairs (see Going Blue by Cathryn Berger Kaye and Philippe Cousteau). Cassandra Lin and her 5th grade classmates had no idea that their science experiment about turning cooking oil into home biodiesel fuel would result in TGIF: Turn Grease Into Fuel and ultimately a state law requiring all businesses in Rhode Island to recycle cooking oil. What about the students in Edina, Minnesota speaking to their city council, where they argued for the legalization of beekeeping, the encouragement of bee-friendly gardens, and the outlawing of the local use of pesticides that have been a major factor in honeybees’ decline? Students at NIST International school in Bangkok realized they needed to listen more and longer to the community they were visiting so they could be more responsive and respectful of the needs; this led to a collaborative course of action that already has brought safe drinking water for the first time ever to the Maeramit hill tribe village in Omgoi, Chiang Mai.

Here’s what I have seen. Little steps that can be disruptive. And I have seen little steps leading to medium steps then to bigger steps. Listening so carefully that students discover an authentic need that merits time, attention, deeper understanding and engaged learning all leading to purposeful ideas and reciprocal partnerships.

As teachers we can create a more expansive canvas for students rich with possibilities.

I know we have much to do in schools. I know there is the curriculum to cover. I also know that at the end of the day what will matter most is students discovering what actually does matter most.

Andy Warhol said, “People say that things change with time, but actually you have to change things yourself.”

I am collecting stories of service that is disruptive. Teeny and huge disruptions. Please send yours to

In service,


Cathryn Berger Kaye, M.A.

Follow me on Twitter @cbkaye and on Facebook and Linked In at Cathryn Berger Kaye.

Download articles at and visit www/ for a catalogue of books to enliven learning and service.

Check out the Calendar or email to find out about scheduling a visit to your school or district or for a conference keynote or presentation.

Announcing an Advanced Summer Service Learning Institute: Academic, Engagement, and Purposeful Action, July 20-22, 2015 – hosted by the New York State Association of Independent Schools. Learn more here and register here.