Classrooms buzzing with community service learning can look very different. Mainly because teaching encompasses so many content areas; from science to the fine arts, it is my believe that any content area can make this type of learning work. So, why is it so rare that community service based learning is taking place in public school?
As a seventh grade-public school science teacher, my contract is based on my ability to teach students specific information at a district mandated pace. Essentially, this means if my students don’t learn the required content each quarter, my paycheck could be in jeopardy. This is the fear every teacher lives under, the constant weight of, will they or won’t they pass the state test. It took me a years to wrap my head around how to make community service learning possible under this regime.
Several life experiences allow me harness innovation and make this happen for my students. First, I am a former AmeriCorp volunteer. I served with the Florida State Parks and again with Smokey Mountain National Park, mainly in restoring natural habitats. AmeriCorp, our national service organization celebrates “getting things done.” It is this life choice, to get things done that supports me in bringing this into the classroom.
Second, Earth Force, a non-profit dedicated to engaging students in community service learning was partnered with my school district. I was trained by Earth Force in using my curriculum to blend community service into the classroom. Now, nine years later, community service is seamlessly blended into our classroom activities. We begin each year with the first step of the Earth Force curriculum, the community inventory.
In a science class such as mine, the community inventory logically doubles as the science fair process. To facilitate this, I provide my students with a topic list for suggested projects. This list, created by me, provides students with issues within their community to study based on the seventh grade learning standards outlined by the Virginia Department of Education. This looks very science-y because that’s what I teach! Students are just now finishing their data collections. From testing nitrate levels of local streams to analyzing ridership of public transportation, they are intensively looking at their community through a scientific lens.
In two weeks they will present their finding to their class and from this list of topics our community service project will be born. On the precipice of witnessing these students transform into youth advocates, I comfortably wait for them to step into their student-led roles.