Questions Asked and Answered: Ideas for Growing Service Learning

August 18, 2016


Conversations comparing community service and service learning with a World Cafe twist, and The Complete Guide to Service Learning nearby for reference

On August 9-10, 2016, I returned to the Greater Cincinnati Service Learning Network to lead an advanced service learning day of interactions and ideas with a K-12 focus. However, as always, the clock arrived at 3:30 with more to cover and more questions.

As a follow-up, I offer this response to four important questions. If these questions exist in the Ohio/Kentucky region, they may relate to where you are — so here they are:

1. Could you share more resources and ideas for primary grades? PreK-2nd. (The response is appropriate for educators working with all ages of students.

2. Ideas around global competencies/world languages?

3. More specific ideas for how to align with standards and time to prep for tests.

4. Can you provide information that particularly focuses on urban schools and their needs?

If you have a copy of The Complete Guide to Service Learning, have it handy while you read. Each participant received a copy, and there are many answers in these pages!

Note: Following the responses, you can find an UPdate of CBK Associates summer adventures and new programs!

Could you share more resources and ideas for primary grades? PreK-2nd. (The response is appropriate for educators working with all ages of students.)

There are endless ideas for service learning in the primary grades. Whenever anyone poses the question, my first go to resource is The Complete Guide to Service Learning. Open to the Service Learning Scenarios in any thematic chapter and voila! Each chapter begins with an assortment of actual service learning experiences. You will see some chapters begin with kindergarten, others with grade one. Also you may be amazed to note that even young children have accomplished meeting needs comparable to older teens, so be flexible with how you think of what young children can do.

During the younger ages we still (emphasis on still) adhere to the five stages of service learning. This stays constant, as does the process connecting with the curriculum. Remember, service learning is not an “add-on” – it is a teaching pedagogy that moves the curriculum forward, consolidating the integration of knowledge, skills, and dispositions.

Open to page 147 in The Complete Guide to Service Learning and you will see the example, “A Child-Friendly Hospital.” I saw this example in a video and called the school and spoke with the teacher from North Adams, Massachusetts. The idea of relieving children’s anxiety about hospitals was their initial impetus, however she connected all the kids did to her curriculum. The children did make a child-friendly emergency treatment room with significant impact and results.

In my book Make a Splash! A Kid’s Guide to Protecting our Oceans, Lakes, Rivers, & Wetlands (authored with Philippe Cousteau and EarthEcho International), there is a fabulous story from Polytechnic School where young children planned and carried out a zero waste lunch day at school. This became the model for all grades. Also throughout this book you will see the water drops with water saving tips—all composed by second graders from the Round Rock School District, in Texas. More about Rachel Brunson and her students here.

Young children using literature to share important ideas through theatre is also a great experience. At the workshop I showed photos from a school in the Seattle area performing The Wartville Wizard to teach others about the problems of littering.

And in a school in Santa Monica, California, second graders studied about animal psychology and partnered with the Los Angeles Zoo to make zoo toys to keep the animals mentally active. Now that’s just fun (and learning, too). See The Complete Guide to Service Learning, page 87. Could high school students in a psychology class do this? I would want to!

There are innumerable ways for our young children to participate in the process of meaningful service learning. A favorite example comes from Hong Kong Academy, an international school in Sai Kung, Hong Kong. When I arrived for my first consulting visit, I heard this story. The kindergarten teacher asked the children to be on the lookout during the first two weeks of school for ways they could make the school better for everyone. They found the stairways very challenging, with people going up and down on both sides. They came up with a solution: giant arrows! They made them, posted them, and suddenly the stairways were safe for even the littlest students! Smart! Then the children saw they had many possibilities all year long.

Ideas around global competencies/world languages?

This is really two different questions rolled into one! For the issue of Global Competencies, please turn to page 43 in The Complete Guide to Service Learning for the section on Going Global. As stated in the book, we want students to think globally even as they act locally. If working on a water related issue, bring out world maps (have them out anyway as a consistently useful teaching tool for global awareness and the often neglected topic of geography). Going global in our thinking: enhances critical thinking, makes the abstract concrete, helps to develop a world view, and is real because we are all deeply interconnected with the rest of the planet wherever we are located. For more on this topic, join me in Luxembourg, January 28-29, 2017 when I present on international mindedness and service learning. Click here for details.

For world language connections, let’s return to The Complete Guide to Service Learning and look at the grids for Making Connections Across the Curriculum. You will notice, in every one of the 13 thematic chapters these grids filled with curricular ideas and connections includes a box for “Languages.” This is a starting place to generate ideas. Every language that students study is an immediate connection to the culture, societal norms, political environment, environmental policies, immigration issues, and a wealth of other topics. Also, in many communities, you may find people from different parts of the world who offer a wealth of information through interactions. Be creative in how you connect with local populations to learn about the assets and needs of different populations. For example, if connecting language and gardens, students can learn the appropriate terms, research fruits and vegetables grown in different part of the world, make multilingual signs for a garden, and read the wonderful book Seedfolks by Paul Fleischman in Spanish.

More specific ideas for how to align with standards and time to prep for tests.

When approached with the mindset that service learning emerges through academics, then there is alignment with academic standards. Of course you will get much more than this, including interdisciplinary learning processes, critical thinking, action research (see page 36 of The Complete Guide to Service Learning for specifics on this MISO Action Research method), and a high level of student engagement. Again, let’s reference The Complete Guide to Service Learning, and turn to page 25. Here are five entry points for service learning. Point of Entry #2 is all about beginning with the standard curriculum. The Planning for Service Learning document can help you organize your ideas and ensure that critical academic markers are met. Similarly, Point of Entry #3 extends the learning form a theme or unit of study. Review the other three entry points as well, because for ALL of these entry points, the teacher still is making connections to knowledge, skills, and dispositions = standards.

Let’s pause again for information about the Planning for Service Learning document. Go to page lX (Roman numeral 9). You will have either a CD-ROM referenced or a Digital Download. On both you can access 36 of the Planning for Service Learning documents completed — an elementary, middle school, and high school example for each of the 13 themes of service in the book: AIDS Education and Awareness, Animal Protection and Care, Elders, Emergency Readiness, The Environment, Gardening, Healthy Lives–Healthy Choices, Hunger-Homelessness-Poverty, Immigrants, Literacy, Safe and Strong Communities, Social Change-Issues and Action, and Special Needs and Disabilities. These align quite well to the UN Sustainability Development Goals also (click for a great video). Print out the entire online/cd-rom guide for 185 pages of additional resources! It’s all here!!!

Here’s a BIGGER point to think about. Put the standards aside. Plan the most robust and engaging learning experience to stimulate interest, curiosity, questioning, and deep understanding on this subject. Use the service learning approach of the Five Stages – InvestigationPreparationActionReflection (ongoing), and Demonstration – and I guarantee you will not have met the standards. You will have exceeded them. When we over-focus on standards standards standards we are possibly limiting how we think about opportunities for engaged learning. Rather than being outcome-focused we need to be student-focused and through this approach we will of course meet the outcomes. Our purpose as educators is to enrich the lives of our students and give them the capacity to apply what they have learned in new ways and situations.

Time to prep for tests? When learning is engaging, students retain more. When students want to do the work because someone (or the planet) is depending on them, they put more of themselves into the learning. When students, through these service learning experiences – with an emphasis on the learning as much as the service – they form a community of learners and will be more supportive of the success of everyone in the class creating a true learning community. Learn well together.

Can you provide information that particularly focuses on urban schools and their needs?

Every school, whatever their location, benefits from service learning. If by an “urban school” we mean a school that may have less resources or is located in a community that has more visible poverty, then service learning is an essential pedagogy. My approach to service learning is to strengthen the transferable skills students need for learning and for life. All too often, in any classroom, a teacher can give a task without ensuring students have the underlying skills to succeed. This has to change. With every assignment, there needs to be a clarification of the underlying skills and a reinforcement. I discuss this in The Complete Guide to Service Learning in chapter 17, page 241 – “Transferable Skills.” When service learning is done well, students gain confidence and competence through the acquisition of being able to construct questions about water quality, by interviewing a representative from a food bank (see page 24 for “Success with Speakers” – then students have a resume for each speaker!), and by heightening their observation skills to discover community assets otherwise not seen right in the middle of their neighborhood. Through service learning students find new connections, and discover ways they can contribute to the well-being of others. Perhaps they start a community garden. Maybe they teach the community about conserving electricity to cut down on bills. Some students offer classes on how to use computers or put together a resume. In several states I know of low level high school math students working with local accountants so the teens can help elderly community members file their taxes. What is the pressing need in the community? Who can be responders? Our students, when we give them the underlying skills, the understanding and experience of the service learning process, and the trust they need to get the job done.

It is my pleasure to travel the globe and open the conversation for new ideas and possibilities. This summer has been rich with these opportunities.

And in my “free time” I am assisting the New York City Mayor’s NYC Service program develop Youth Leadership Councils that will be city-wide, and lead to 30,000 students on councils with government agencies, nonprofit organizations, and high schools. 

Also, this summer I am collaborating with Barbara Cervone (of What Kids Can Do) on a NEW program, Advisory: A Dynamic Process. This program is underway already at The International School of Kuala Lumpur, and is for grades 9-12. 

For questions about any of this work, please email me at 

Thanks for reading and engaging your students in service learning. I hope to hear from you at


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