Use Service-Learning to Enhance Your Curriculum

Information on benefits and implementation of service- learning projects for students, including case studies.

Use Service-Learning to Enhance Your Curriculum

Connecting kids to their communities through service is an idea that has become exceedingly popular in the past decade. In a recent U.S. Department of Education study, sixty-four percent of all public schools indicated their students participate in community service activities via school.

Benefits of service-learning:

  • provides real-life examples

  • gives students responsibility for learning process

  • connects students to their communities

  • connects the community to the school, providing relationship-building
  • The numbers for service-learning, however, are smaller, with thirty-two percent of schools indicating participation by their students in service-learning as part of the curriculum. Why the difference in these numbers? Many people use the terms community service and service-learning interchangeably. So, what exactly, differentiates the two?

    Service-learning is curriculum-based

    There is no single definition for either, though community service is the broader of the two terms and is probably more widely used. The U.S. Department of Education recognizes community service as encompassing non-curriculum-based student volunteer projects that are either organized or recognized by the school. Such projects may be mandatory or by student choice and may take place either on the school grounds or outside of school.

    Service-learning, by contrast, is curriculum-based and integrates classroom instruction with service. Clearly understood objectives and connection to the curriculum, as well as student reflection are key components of service-learning projects. Other important aspects of service-learning include that projects be student-directed in terms of goal setting and time-line building. In short, the difference between community service and service-learning is student attention to the process.

    Almost any community service project could be turned into service-learning. For example, if a student is volunteering at a homeless shelter once a week with no curricular connection, he or she is providing community service. There are ways to tie this community service to the curriculum: the student surveys the community and decides where time is particularly needed; the student develops a time line of work at the shelter and a list of objectives; the student reflects on the experience (using a a journal or other method)—then the community service becomes service-learning.


    Educators who are fans of service learning taut relevancy as one of its central benefits. For example, in Chico, California, high school students studying World War II created a book featuring the stories of local war veterans. What had been a study of history via standard formats – textbooks, teacher lectures, and research – became a connection to real people in the students’ community.

    Other benefits of the project were an added sense of responsibility on the students’ part and a greater connection between the school and community. The students came to realize that their elderly subjects were counting on them to relay stories accurately, thus making students more aware of the appearance and correctness of their work. And, in the process of the project, the students and veterans gained respect for each other, uniting two generations who often have little communication.

    Since service-learning students have some degree of say in the nature of a project, they generally are more invested in the learning process than they might be in an assigned project. Having planned the project themselves, including the establishment of timeframes and accessing outside materials, they better understand the complexity and integration of a large project, as well as the repercussions when a schedule goes awry or a project is over budget. These are exactly the kinds of skills many young people need when they enter the work place and which are difficult to teach through more traditional methods.

    Considerations of service-learning:

  • can be time-consuming to plan and oversee

  • student growth may not be visible through testing

  • when working with groups outside the classroom, plans can change

  • funding is sometimes necessary for organization or materials
  • The coordinator of a wide range of service-learning projects at Malcolm Shabazz City High School in Madison, Wisconsin, Jane Hammat-Kalvaloski, cites several other benefits: "Service-learning affects a wide range of learning styles. Students involved in service-learning projects usually have better retention. There’s also a component of character education; their attitudes change toward the people they’re working with, such as homeless people or the elderly. These projects help to build bridges between kids and groups of people with whom they wouldn’t often have contact. And, of course, it gives them a sense of responsibility for their community."

    Although few educators enumerate any academic drawbacks to service-learning, there are organizational and administrative difficulties. The projects can seem overwhelming and the teacher can not control all factors. Some schools, such as Malcolm Shabazz, have been doing service-learning for years and can now build on their experience and well-honed community connections. To a newcomer, the scope of such projects can be daunting. Also, any new project can feel like extra work for a teacher who already has a busy schedule. But experts, such as Hammat-Kalvaloski, stress that small, short-term projects are effective and will often blossom with time into more established programs.

    Experienced service-learning organizers suggest the following:

    • Start small: Even a weeklong, very focused project can benefit all involved.

    • Let the students be the leaders: Don’t carry a load that your students should be carrying; remember that part of the goal is for them to take responsibility.

    • Be flexible: Working with community organizations means being mindful of their schedules and of the changes they experience.

    • Closely tie the project to your curriculum: You may be able to substitute or cut back on part of your instruction if the service-learning project adequately helps students to understand the same material.

    Service-learning projects can be implemented through various school avenues. Some schools use service-learning as a unifying factor for a grade level, or another small, non-subject specific unit within the school. Each grade of a middle school, or each home room, for example, might choose a different year- or semester-long service-learning project. Or, a classroom teacher may decide to connect service-learning to part of the curriculum by requiring students to come up with individual or small group projects, or through an all-class project, such as the World War II veteran's memory book.

    One way to connect service-learning to district- or statewide-standards is to share standards with the students and ask them to come up with proposals for service-learning projects that will fulfill a series of the standards. This involves students in the planning and makes them aware of the requirements of their projects.

    Keep in mind that the more service-learning projects occurring at the same time, the more potential work there is for the teacher. Many educators find it easier to oversee one large project than many small ones. The level of teacher involvement necessary to make a project run smoothly is also tied to student grade level. Ava Mendelson, a middle school home economics instructor in Maryland, has started a series of service-learning projects for her students. Her eighth graders often contribute ideas to the ongoing project, suggesting new partner organizations and seeking out project resources, but with her sixth graders, Mendelson presents a set structure for the project and the students make small adjustments. In other words, more preparation and teacher involvement will be necessary with younger students.

    In addition to helping with the overall planning of a project, teachers should also be responsible for making sure the students receive recognition for their projects. If an entire school is taking part in service-learning, this might be done via an assembly or an open house during which student work is shared. Newspapers and other media can also be notified in order to profile the projects for the larger community.

    Steps to implementing service-learning

    Whether a service-learning project is large or small, including an entire class or just an individual student, the following steps will help guide you and your students through the planning and execution:

    1. Propose ideas: Share with students the curricular purpose of their project (e.g., to cover certain standards for a course), and then have a period of brainstorming during which students can suggest various project ideas. If there's already a successful project in place, such as a school garden, students might decide what special contribution they want to make to the garden.

    2. Research and assess proposals: Students should consider their list of proposals from several angles: Is it realistic given their timeframe and resources? Which proposals would serve the most people, or do the most good? Is there a need for this in the community? (Through answering the final question, students might find other, more pressing needs in the community, landing on a new and improved proposal.)

    3. Plan your project: Make a schedule; identify resources, including materials and "experts" you'll need; find out if you need permissions (this may be a teacher's job, especially when an adult signature is necessary); assign tasks; consider how participants will reflect on their experience while it's happening and how projects will ultimately be evaluated.

    4. Do the project: Especially if a project is of a longer time scale, you'll want to return frequently to the decisions made in step #3—do adjustments need to be made to the timeframe? to the work assignments? etc.

    5. Reflect on the process: During the project, students should reflect on their experience. They might keep journals, write articles, make a video or digital photo report, or connect their "in the field" learning to readings and other in-class activities.

    6. Share and celebrate: Students need a way to share their work and reap appreciation and validation. Meeting with people in the community, such as taking something they've made to a shelter or hospital, can provide a way for students to connect with their recipients. If a project is particularly successful, students might be asked to present their work to the school board or at educational conferences, helping them understand the relevancy of their contribution to the adult world. Coverage in the local press can also make students feel successful.

    7. Evaluate: It is difficult to test for results of service-learning. Thus, you must establish criteria and methods for evaluating your projects. Some questions you might ask of students: Did the project have an effective impact? Did you vary from your original plans, and if so, did you make improvements? Did the team work well together?

    Service-learning can bring learning to life for students. It can re-ignite disaffected students and provide a sense of spirit to a group of kids who need skills in working together. It can bring members of the community into contact with young people, reminding both groups of the values of tolerance and understanding. Its benefits are numerous, even when the results aren't measured in percentage points. If you'd like more ideas about how to use service-learning in your school, read about the very different projects started by three schools and educators mentioned in this article.

    Case studies:
    Chico Unified School District, CA
    Malcolm Shabazz City High School, Madison, WI
    Rosa Parks Middle School, Montgomery County Public Schools, MD

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    TeacherVision Staff

    TeacherVision Editorial Staff

    The TeacherVision editorial team is comprised of teachers, experts, and content professionals dedicated to bringing you the most accurate and relevant information in the teaching space.

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