Service Learning Done Right

This school year, one of my roles at school is Service Learning Coordinator. Each student in my county is responsible for volunteering 75 hours in the community before high school graduation. The goal of service learning is for students to learn new skills, become more compassionate, and make a difference in the community.

I can attest that students at my school perform a lot of service. Each day, my mailbox overflows with forms verifying that students have tutored, coached, assisted, cleaned, packed, and advocated for any number of organizations. While it’s heartening to see the extent of students’ commitment, I sometimes wonder how much they learn during each of these activities. When they complete service learning, are they merely checking a box, or are they growing as citizens?

This Saturday, I had the opportunity to observe a fantastic service learning experience in action. 

The organization Project Management for Change requested student volunteers to help set up for a “Project Management Day of Service” event that happens each year on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day at the University of Maryland. The event pairs nearly 200 volunteer project managers from the DC area with over 40 local nonprofit agencies. The project managers use their skills and knowledge to help the nonprofit groups plan projects for maximum impact. This year the event helped all of those nonprofits pursue their missions more effectively, from providing hurricane relief to combating human trafficking.

What really stood out to me on Saturday is how the Project Management for Change leaders structured the Service Learning process for the student volunteers. They emphasized the learning, not just the service!  Here are a few of the ways they made the experience meaningful for students:

  •  Establishing a purpose. The leaders explained the mission of the organization, and how the students’ work would directly support that mission. The students understood that their work would help create positive change in the world.
  • Creating teachable moments. The leaders gave the students a mini-lesson on project management, using the task at hand (packing gift bags) to demonstrate how project management can make work more efficient.
  • Providing autonomy. The leaders involved students in decision-making throughout the experience, allowing them to make informed choices and discuss their reasoning.
  • Enabling reflection. At the end of the task, the leaders conducted a summarizer activity with students. Students reflected in small groups, evaluating the task and suggesting upgrades for the future. The students were encouraged to use critical thinking and to support their conclusions with evidence.
  • Honoring perspectives. The leaders actively encouraged students throughout every step of the experience, and treated them as equal partners rather than unpaid labor. They listened to the students and valued their opinions.

 As a result, students left the experience enriched and motivated. Several commented how worthwhile they found the day’s activity. If you know any teenagers, you are aware that they are not always effusive in their praise! The impact on the students was truly stunning to witness, and inspiring to this service learning coordinator. Bravo, Project Management for Change!

Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, “What are you doing for others?”
Martin Luther King, Jr.

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