By Stephanie Filio
We’re home. We’re home with our work and our kids and our chores. While it has been difficult to alter our lives during self-isolation, many of us are learning how much we appreciate extra time and what we had been missing out on. Even as restrictions are lifting in many states, we mostly remain in our dwellings facing the unknown and settling into being flexible with what comes next.
Our students are also home, wondering when their lives will return to normal and stirring in the anxiety that the COVID-19 pandemic has caused. In my Zoom Lunch Bunches and check-ins, the overarching message I hear from students is that they miss school and they are feeling bored. This boredom has evolved into loneliness and an itching need to feel connected to other people.
Schools are trying their best to fill students’ time with digital assignments, but the full educational environment is rooted in a network of connections. We purposefully orchestrate and encourage interactions with friends, teachers, staff, and administrators to create opportunities for social and emotional learning in between content learning. How can students experience those gems when they are at home?
Service learning has always been a staple of engagement strategies in the classroom. It is a way to take the information students learn in class and apply it to their world. By applying new content in ways that they understand personally, students are more likely to retain the information for future retrieval. Personal projects thicken the neural connections students are making, strengthening retention by attaching experiences to concepts that are already rooted.
Service learning also develops empathy in students and gives them a tremendous boost in feelings of self-worth. Learning to understand different perspectives is helpful in the development of the whole person. Empathetic intelligence can help people in their relationships, ability to work with others, and everyday decision-making. When students learn the impact they can have on others, they experience an increase in feelings of purpose in their lives. Not only is this important for kids, but it may also be our saving grace to combatting the quarantine blues!
Though the scope of projects that students can do during social isolation is limited, there are still plenty of ways to safely engage in service learning from home. School counselors can guide students in these projects.
The typical process for determining what kind of project is needed in the community has stages that strengthen empathy, use critical-thinking skills, and increase problem-solving abilities.
1. Strengthen empathy and identify a need.
To identify the needs of others, students have to think about what other people might like or want. They are encouraged to walk in someone else’s shoes and stretch their ability to imagine what it feels like to experience a different circumstance and put their own needs in a smaller context.
Example: I would feel sad if I were living in a nursing home and not able to see my loved ones right now.
2. Use critical-thinking skills to think of what is involved.
After identifying a need, students can think critically about solutions. Starting with what would elicit positive feelings in a difficult situation, students can begin to collect data on what might help. This is a great way to show students how to set goals. Have them make a list of possible helpful activities and practice reasoning to pare down accessible solutions.
Example: I want to reach out to people in nursing homes so that they get some connection. I cannot visit because that would be unsafe, but I can write letters and send them to a local nursing home.
3. Increase problem-solving by avoiding barriers.
Once students have a good idea of how they will address a need in the community, they can create a plan. By planning for barriers that might be present, students explore and process broader emotions. As they consider safety and governing measures regarding the pandemic, students can alter tactics for how to reach their target.
Example: I will use notebook paper from my school binder and look for envelopes. I will ask my parents to call the nursing home and deliver the letters or buy stamps to mail them.
To find out what your community needs, you can start by providing students with a couple articles or links that elicit empathy and possibly show a need. It is important not to overwhelm students too much and to avoid resources that may add to feelings of anxiety. Smaller articles about efforts that are already being made might work well, and articles that are geared toward younger populations are also an option. Common Sense Media has a list of news outlets that target a younger population.
Here are some ideas to get you started with service learning from home:
- Write letters to nursing homes
- Create happy videos for social media
- Put together picture compilations to send to students and staff at school
- Make a nonprofit business plan
- Build your school in Minecraft for rising sixth graders to explore
- Reach out to essential businesses to see if they would like a basket of goodies as a token of appreciation
- Write a letter about how much you appreciate nurses and mail it to a local hospital or clinic
Bringing the Buy-In
The idea behind service learning is that anyone can find ways to contribute to the well-being of others. It is worth taking time out of our own personal quest for contentment to help others achieve positive feelings as well. In times of isolation, serving others from afar helps us feel more connected and, in turn, more secure. By reaching out to other invested parties, we can support students in their efforts and work together toward the common good. Here are some ways to elicit help from others:
- Home: Encourage families to work on a mutual service project or different projects at the same time. This offers students an opportunity to see their parents in action as well and plants the seed that the whole family stands for helping!
- Class: Ask teachers to allow groups to work together or provide opportunities for extra credit. Digital discussion boards (where available) can be a great source of inspiration to students. Keep in mind that though students might not respond enthusiastically online, they may turn from their screens and complete projects we don’t even know about!
- Sports team/club: Coaches and club leaders may be looking for a way to keep their group active while they can’t participate or condition. Let them know that service projects offer a great opportunity for team building. Any group can self-assign roles and brainstorm together. Highlight participant deeds by sending information to parents and networking groups.
- Support networks: Ask that teachers, staff, parents, and community members give students shout-outs and encouragement as they work on service projects and when they complete them. This helps kids understand that what they are doing matters and might inspire them to extend a project or complete another one.
In the classroom, I have seen some amazing projects that serve the community. I have seen students collect and donate materials, create videos and artwork, build structures, clean areas, make and send clothing, organize parties, hold rallies, and so much more. While we are at home, some things may have to change in terms of what we can safely do for others, but there are still many things we can do.
I don’t know of any other time when critically evaluating the needs of others and acting on ways we can contribute has been so important. Sometimes service learning can be overwhelming for students because they feel the need to solve something huge, like widespread hunger or a national crisis. However, as we all struggle with our own pandemic situations, with thoughtful planning and big hearts little things go a long way!
Stephanie Filio is a middle school counselor in Virginia Beach. She received her undergraduate degree in interdisciplinary studies from the University of Virginia and her M.Ed. in counseling from Old Dominion University. In a discussion with one of her UVA professors about her desire to stay in school forever, her mentor wisely responded, “If you want to be a lifelong learner, go into education,” and so she found her place. Prior to her six years as a school counselor, Stephanie worked in private education, specializing in standardized tests, test preparation, and future planning. She writes about her career and hobbies at her blog, Weekend Therapy, and can be found on Twitter @steffschoolcoun. Stephanie also enjoys spending time with her books, crafts, and family.
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