Service learning helps elementary students see 'big picture'
Plenty of schools collect cans for food pantries.
Others encourage students to volunteer in the community at charities, senior centers or shelters.
But some take their goodwill a step further, connecting volunteerism and the classroom under an umbrella called "service learning."
The movement took root on college campuses more than 20 years ago, and the idea even trickled down to many high schools across the country. Lake Park High School in Roselle, for instance, offers an elective class called Service in Action for upperclassmen.
But the concept is rare in Illinois elementary schools, especially as a schoolwide curriculum. About 46,000 students -- roughly 2 percent of the state's total public school enrollment -- participate in programs through the federal Learn and Serve America program. Less than 30 percent of those are elementary students.
Joining that group this year is Wood Dale Junior High School, which is testing out a new curriculum that asks every student to help out with projects such as recycling -- and requires teachers to integrate these concepts into classes, often science, math and social studies.
Principal Tony Murray said he was inspired by a program at Field Middle School in Northbrook, where he conducted research while finishing his doctorate. Field is one of only two in the state designated as Service Learning Leader Schools by the Illinois Department of Education.
"We wanted the kids to gain a deeper understanding of what the problems are that they are helping with," Murray said. "So it's not just a fundraiser or donate an hour."
Instead, the junior high's students have been actively engaged in the new service learning curriculum since it launched this winter with a kickoff breakfast. At the event, student leaders from each class interviewed about a dozen representatives from charities throughout the suburbs, including the Northeast DuPage Special Recreation Association, the Wood Dale Historical Society and Public Action to Deliver Shelter, or DuPage PADS.
Students then worked with teachers and voted on which groups fit best with their learning goals.
"We wanted them to get an idea of 'What service do you provide, and how can we help?'" Murray said.
'School and self'
After 13 of years of running a service learning program, Field Middle School in Northbrook is a well-oiled machine.
Program director Mary Beth Hulting said concepts grow along with the students. Field's sixth-graders focus on "school and self," annually handling recycling for the whole school and organizing a 5K race for the entire Northbrook community that raises money for the recycling cause.
"They are making their own fliers, writing papers on the subject for language arts, working the 5K concept in their physical education class and exploring recycling principles in science," Hulting said.
In seventh grade, the theme is "service to community," whereby students work with local senior citizens on computer skills. While this offers an obvious tie-in with computer science, the project is also connected to a health unit on changing and growing. Field also links the project to social studies, so students often complete tasks such as organizing a schoolwide Veterans Day assembly.
"It's pretty expansive at this point," Hulting said.
In their final year, Field students shift their focus to the nation and world, launching their project with a leadership day, where they've heard from guest speakers including U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk. Hulting said students often pick a human rights cause, which might find them writing letters to ambassadors on behalf of people enslaved in other parts of the world.
Ultimately, Hulting said, the program teaches students to become involved in the big picture and grooms them for leadership.
"The umbrella idea of this whole thing is just learning that there's something bigger than themselves," she said. "They need to really look at how can they help out in the world and make a difference. When a lot of these kids go to high school, you'll find they are the class president or president of a club. They are not shy about taking the initiative."
Murray said it would be wonderful if his school could eventually mirror this example, but for now it "needs to start small."
Here's how Wood Dale Junior High's oldest students launched their first service learning project, which they chose to do in partnership with Itasca-based Exodus World Service:
Inside the cafeteria, eighth-grade students were grouped into "families."
Some were told to assume the identities of toddlers or young children, others grandmothers or parents. They were also asked to imagine they were being persecuted for religious or political beliefs, perhaps even their ethnicity.
Next, they donned blindfolds and were led away from their families. Soon, whistles blew and balloons popped in rapid succession. Amid the commotion, students tried to find their assigned family members -- much like someone might have do in a war-torn country like Sudan.
"This simulated a sudden attack in a village square where they were shopping with their family," said Julie Carlsen, partnership director at Exodus. "Due to the smoke and debris, they couldn't see, hence the blindfolds. And the loud noised simulated the attack of planes and guns."
Some students were able to find their family members, yelling their new refugee names and walking blindfolded through the crowd. Others ended the exercise still far from their relatives.
"This simulated the heartbreaking but easy way the family members get separated as they flee persecution," Carlsen said.
During the exercise, students also chose from photos of items that represented what they would take with them as refugees. And they completed such tasks as filling out forms in a different language, so they could get across the border to a refugee camp.
Soon the group will study the refugee experience in both social studies and language arts classes.
The sixth-grade classes in Wood Dale chose to focus on recycling; they partnered with Glen Ellyn-based SCARCE, or School and Community Assistance for Composting and Recycling Education. The seventh-graders chose to work with PADS and are focusing on homelessness.
Carlsen said Exodus has worked with several other schools, including Hadley Junior High in Glen Ellyn, that wanted to do in-depth studies on world issues like refugees and genocide. The experience "enriches education."
"I think oftentimes children are able to meet a refugee family and say, 'Wow, they are children and a family and teenagers, just like me,'" she said. "It is connecting them with refugees not just as an issue but as people."
So far, Murray said the parents at Wood Dale Junior High have offered positive feedback on the new service learning program, telling him they like that their children are "learning about the world around them."
Hulting said Field parents have always embraced the program, and no parent has ever objected to the work that happens either in or out of the classroom.
"It's just part of our culture," she said.
Service Learning 101Service Learning 101
What is it?
A method of teaching and learning that engages students in hands-on service to their communities, while giving them the opportunity to gain knowledge and skills that connect with their classroom studies.
Who is involved?
More than 4 million students throughout the U.S., according to Learn and Serve America.
More than 46,000 Illinois students participate, less than a third of them are at the elementary grade level.
What are some areas of focus for service learning?
Topics can include public safety, the environment, health, homelessness, seniors, local economic development, multicultural diversity, human services, human rights, drug and violence awareness, and mentoring.