Service Learning 101

By Amanda C. Symmes, LICSW

Service Learning 101When I was in college, I fumbled around for a bit trying to find a major that suited me. I tried on English, psychology, education, and sociology, and then in the midst of my confusion took a yearlong leave of absence to complete an AmeriCorps program called City Year. The experiences I had were complex and messy and beautiful and real, and without a doubt they changed my life. Intensive service learning taught me that I could absolutely have an immediate impact, and that this work could in turn change me in positive ways. Beyond this, service learning helped me believe in the power of relationships, which is why I talk with fellow educators about this so much.

Fortunately, when I returned to college, I was guided toward a service learning degree program. I jumped in and never looked back, graduating with a degree in public and community service studies. I tell you all of this to give some background about why I am so passionate about this topic. Also, to remind you that real-life stories and practical application of ideas and concepts can facilitate intrapersonal and interpersonal learning in fundamental ways. Offering thoughtful service learning experiences enhances the educational landscape, and I encourage you to read on and follow my SERVE acronym to gain some basic tips for enriching your service learning programming:

S Is for Select
Give some thought to the service opportunities that you present to young people. Consider that your intention may be to do something “good” for others. When these experiences are truly meaningful for kids, the learning can be transformative. You could begin by collectively defining community. Who are the people in your various communities (school, city/town, state, country, and so on)? Does a community include young people? What are the responsibilities of community members? Take inventory of local or larger community needs. Brainstorm a list so you have new ideas to move on to later, if you wish.

E Is for Empathize
Once you have selected a project idea, discuss the fact that the issues we target in service activities are undeniably connected to various root causes. Encourage students to consider why the need might exist in the first place. If you are providing support to a group of people (homeless, hungry, elderly, and so forth), have students consider the challenges of being in these circumstances. This is also a good opportunity—especially if the dialogue gets complicated—to remind kids that everyone is going through something and that we all need a little help sometimes to bounce back. This will allow you to highlight and recognize our shared humanity while minimizing possible stigma connected to the persons served.

R Is for Reflect
Once you have engaged in service, reflection becomes an integral part of the service learning experience. Without it, the opportunity for a deeper and more meaningful experience is lost. This can be done in a variety of ways. You might have students write their reflections individually. Or you could consider small-group work with open dialogue and a group presentation in which students share their thoughts and ideas. Or you may choose to stick with a whole-class reflective dialogue. Specifically, you will want to inquire about what the students are getting out of the helping experience. Do they feel good about themselves? Are they meeting a need? Will this need always exist? Do they feel inspired to do more? Might they be inspiring others in some way through their acts of service? Does this problem need different kinds of attention?

V Is for Value (The Relationships)
I encourage you to consider relationships as fundamental to our identity as people and to talk about this as much as possible with your kiddos. Many children who have endured trauma struggle in relational spaces, and their dysfunctional experiences with relationships can be deeply impactful. However, the flip side of this coin is that we can also heal and transform within the context of healthy relationships. Mindfully choose service projects that encourage the development of positive reciprocal relationships. Perhaps your school has chosen to engage in service around a tragedy at a school in another state by collecting money or needed supplies. Why not also send letters to the students and invite them to write back? Explain to your students how much this might mean to the students affected by tragedy by reminding your students of how special they felt when someone took the time to pay attention to them. Powerful connections can develop through acts of service, so keep this in mind when creating your service learning programs.

E Is for Engage (Consistently)
Ideally, service learning is something that can be woven into the fabric of the school experience. That’s why service learning should not be presented as something contained in a binder to pull off the shelf at 1:30 on Tuesdays. Service learning work lends itself naturally to being layered into character development work you might already be doing. Barbara Gruener’s What’s Under Your Cape? gives practical, tangible insights, skills, and activities to emphasize these values. Take time to explore and take inventory of what it is that students care about. Identify small acts of service that can happen within your school community, and then notice them as “big and important.” Widen your scope of what service can look like and spread kindness abundantly.

Service learning is something we all can do, and it can be a really special thing for students to experience. Service unites us in our shared humanity, allowing us to be both industrious and giving. Beyond this, it teaches us how to receive and accept with grace. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Everybody can be great, because anybody can serve.” I hope you will honor this message as you set sail on your service learning adventures!

Amanda SymmesAmanda C. Symmes, LICSW, is a social worker currently serving as a school adjustment counselor in Haverhill, Massachusetts. She adores her work with children and is continually amazed by the talented and caring staff she is surrounded by each day. Aside from her work family, Amanda lives with her supportive husband and three kids (ages 16, 13, and 6) and enjoys spending time with them taking in all the beauty and joy in the world. She enjoys writing, knitting, laughing, walking, and using mindfulness. Connect with Amanda on Twitter @LicswAmanda and on her blog

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