Service learning is a form of experiential education in which students learn as they address real human or environmental needs in their own communities. Service learning is acclaimed for its ability to help students reinforce self-worth, develop personal and social responsibility, build a sense of empowerment ("I can make a difference"), foster positive relationships with peers and adults, and increase the relevance of academic/cognitive learning to real-world issues.
Definition of Service Learning
Service learning is a method of teaching and learning which engages students in solving problems by addressing issues in their schools or greater community as part of their academic education. Service learning involves more than the act of service alone. Each community service experience not only meets an actual community need but is closely linked to a student's classroom learning activities. Effective programs feature carefully structured learning experiences created in partnership with community representatives. Participants receive training and orientation appropriate to the task, pause to reflect on their experiences (verbally and in writing), exercise choices, and develop leadership. The learning experiences are linked to academic standards so that each participating student has clear learning goals.
Service learning experiences differ in length and in level of infusion in a school's curriculum. Projects can last one-day, several days, and some can last as long as a year. Schools utilize this work-based learning experience differently as well. Some sponsor a few activities during the year while others totally infuse this method of learning into their curriculum.
Benefits to Students
Service learning allows students to make a difference in their communities by meeting real needs. Students develop good citizenship skills and a positive feeling of self-worth. While performing service in the community they understand
the relevance of academics and learn to think critically. Most develop job skills and all are exposed to the world of work.
Benefits to Schools
Service learning allows school staff to interact with students in a different format. Students become partners with staff, other students, and community members. Participants in service learning are responsible for their own learning and
this often leads to more motivated students. Schools involved with service learning report an enhanced school climate, an enriched curriculum, and an ability to evaluate students based on performance.
Benefits to Community
The local community receives a valuable service from the students and is able to get unmet needs addressed, often uniquely. Local employers can see students, as future workforce members, gaining practical skills. Because students
are active stakeholders in improving their community, they become invested in their communities.
Setting Up a Service Learning Experience
Identify Potential Sites
The first step in setting up a service learning experience is finding individuals and organizations willing to take on the responsibility of working with a student or group of students. Many schools mail interest forms to different organizations within the community to establish a pool of possible work sites and projects. Service organizations in your community will often welcome students as workers or can refer you to projects in the community. Students may also identify possible service learning sites on their own. Don't forget that the school itself can be a wonderful site for a service learning experience. The service learning program depends on the maintenance of a pool of potential field sites that match up with students' educational and career objectives. Successful field sites are a valuable resource that can be utilized over and over.
Student placement in service learning experiences can be arranged by the school, teacher, or the student. Connecting students with field sites that will meet their needs and provide relevant experiences is the most important aspect of planning the service learning experience. Many service learning experiences are done in teams of students; some experiences involve an entire class. Organization staff will want to interview prospective volunteers to ensure a good match. Schools may allow students who are already involved with an organization which provides community service relevant to their studies to earn credit for their volunteer experiences.
The field site supervisor, teacher, and student arrange a work schedule that is convenient and that doesn't interfere with the student's class schedule. Some schools have flexible class schedule time (as in block scheduling) where class time is used for service learning activities. It is best if the schedule is consistent from week to week so that the field site can prepare meaningful service experiences for the student and reinforce positive work habits.
The student should contact the field site supervisor to confirm arrangements and to answer any initial questions the supervisor may have about the upcoming service learning experience.
Students need to be thoroughly prepared before embarking on a service learning experience. In addition to classroom preparation that focuses on career research, exploration, and skills needed for the project, there are practical concerns to be addressed as well. Many schools provide students with a service learning experience handbook which contains a combination of the following:
• Service learning experience agreements. These agreements outline the responsibilities of both the field site supervisor and the student, as well as the purpose of and academic expectations for the service learning
experience. The forms should be signed by the student, the field site supervisor, and the project coordinator and/or teacher. Parent/guardian signatures are required for students under 18 years of age.
• Outline of dress and behavior expectations. While classroom preparation for career exploration activities usually covers this information, it never hurts to reinforce the message that dress and behavior standards in the workplace are different than those at school. Remind students that they are representing the school, as well as themselves. The coordinator/teacher should be aware of the dress code at each field site and discuss appropriate attire with students.
• Goals/objectives worksheet. Students, field site supervisors, and coordinators/teachers need to work together to develop a list of goals and objectives for the service learning experience. The list should include skills the student needs to acquire and/or practice and concepts the student needs to understand and apply. Goals and objectives should relate directly to classroom work and career development activities which the service learning experience supports.
• Checklist. Give students a checklist which includes everything they need to do to prepare for the service learning experience. Developing objectives, contacting organization staff, arranging schedules and transportation (if necessary) and doing background research are all possible checklist items.
• Evaluation materials. Students will be evaluated by their field site supervisors throughout the service learning experience. Provide students with copies of the evaluation form so that they can be informed about the basis of their evaluations. Ask students to evaluate their service learning experiences, as well. Students should be encouraged to
write or talk about their experiences as a means of better understanding what they have learned. Student evaluations can also be helpful as an element of continuous improvement in providing service learning experiences.
Prepare Field Site Supervisors
Field site supervisors must be thoroughly prepared for the service learning experience as well. Make sure that they are aware of everything that they are expected to do. Many schools prepare a handbook for field site supervisors which may contain a combination of the following:
• An overview of legal responsibilities. There are many legal issues that field site supervisors need to be aware of, such as safety concerns and child labor, discrimination and sexual harassment laws. Make sure that field site supervisors understand their legal responsibilities and potential liabilities in advance.
• Advice for working with young people. Many work site professionals are unaccustomed to the unique challenges of communicating and working with young people. Remind field site supervisors that they may be faced with student attitudes and expectations that may initially seem unrealistic. Encourage hosts to provide as many active learning experiences as possible.
• Activity suggestions. Remind field site supervisors that the purpose of the service learning is to provide students with an environment where learning can take place in the context of community service. Encourage supervisors to allow students to participate in as many learning activities as possible, especially those activities which offer an opportunity to develop workplace skills and where they can apply their academic skills.
• Checklists. Work site supervisors will probably find a checklist very useful. Checklist items might include: arranging meeting times, planning with project coordinator/teacher to insure that academic requirements are met, signing service learning experience agreements, arranging student workspace as appropriate, and informing students
about organization policies and procedures.
• Evaluation materials. Feedback for all those involved in a service learning experience is essential for the quality of future experiences. Acquaint the field site supervisor with the forms that they will use to evaluate both the student(s) and the service learning experience.
Connecting Service Learning Experiences to the Classroom
It is important to make the service learning experience meaningful by connecting it to classroom learning and to Vermont's Framework of Standards and Learning Opportunities. Connecting activities can take many forms and should take place at all stages of the experience.
• Students research the general career fields and specific organizations in which their service experiences will take place.
• Students write about their preconceptions and expectations related to the organization in which their experiences will take place.
• Students prepare questions based on their research and writings to ask their hosts.
• Teachers emphasize practical applications of the concepts and skills they teach in class.
• Students learn actual job skills by participating in work-related activities.
• Students observe practical applications of academic concepts.
• Students work toward achieving individual goals and objectives that are linked to academic standards.
• Students write about the differences between their expectations and the realities of their service learning experience.
• Students and teachers discuss the connections they see between classroom learning and the service learning experience.
• Students and teachers complete an assessment of the student's learning.
• Students continue their career research in light of what they have learned during the service learning experience.
• Students and community members plan and participate in a celebration of accomplishing the goal.