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Service Learning Done Right

This school year, one of my roles at school is Service Learning Coordinator. Each student in my county is responsible for volunteering 75 hours in the community before high school graduation. The goal of service learning is for students to learn new skills, become more compassionate, and make a difference in the community.

I can attest that students at my school perform a lot of service. Each day, my mailbox overflows with forms verifying that students have tutored, coached, assisted, cleaned, packed, and advocated for any number of organizations. While it’s heartening to see the extent of students’ commitment, I sometimes wonder how much they learn during each of these activities. When they complete service learning, are they merely checking a box, or are they growing as citizens?

This Saturday, I had the opportunity to observe a fantastic service learning experience in action. 

The organization Project Management for Change requested student volunteers to help set up for a “Project Management Day of Service” event that happens each year on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day at the University of Maryland. The event pairs nearly 200 volunteer project managers from the DC area with over 40 local nonprofit agencies. The project managers use their skills and knowledge to help the nonprofit groups plan projects for maximum impact. This year the event helped all of those nonprofits pursue their missions more effectively, from providing hurricane relief to combating human trafficking.

What really stood out to me on Saturday is how the Project Management for Change leaders structured the Service Learning process for the student volunteers. They emphasized the learning, not just the service!  Here are a few of the ways they made the experience meaningful for students:

  •  Establishing a purpose. The leaders explained the mission of the organization, and how the students’ work would directly support that mission. The students understood that their work would help create positive change in the world.
  • Creating teachable moments. The leaders gave the students a mini-lesson on project management, using the task at hand (packing gift bags) to demonstrate how project management can make work more efficient.
  • Providing autonomy. The leaders involved students in decision-making throughout the experience, allowing them to make informed choices and discuss their reasoning.
  • Enabling reflection. At the end of the task, the leaders conducted a summarizer activity with students. Students reflected in small groups, evaluating the task and suggesting upgrades for the future. The students were encouraged to use critical thinking and to support their conclusions with evidence.
  • Honoring perspectives. The leaders actively encouraged students throughout every step of the experience, and treated them as equal partners rather than unpaid labor. They listened to the students and valued their opinions.

 As a result, students left the experience enriched and motivated. Several commented how worthwhile they found the day’s activity. If you know any teenagers, you are aware that they are not always effusive in their praise! The impact on the students was truly stunning to witness, and inspiring to this service learning coordinator. Bravo, Project Management for Change!

Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, “What are you doing for others?”
Martin Luther King, Jr.
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Conserving Community

Centropa is an organization based in Europe, and dedicated to the preservation of Jewish history. IThe organization started by conducting interviews of elderly Jewish people in Eastern Europe. Each interview began with a simple premise: tell the stories behind your family photos. In the years since, it has expanded to much more. A peek at the treasure trove of resources on the Centropa website reveals not only interviews but short films, student projects, lesson plans, and a vast archive of rare photographs. Behind each resource is a unified mission: to foster connections among people of different backgrounds and beliefs. The more we can understand about each other and how we are linked, the less likely we are to commit atrocities against fellow humans.

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A mosaic of Maryland’s past

This February I attended a workshop for teachers in Baltimore, Maryland sponsored by Centropa and hosted by the Jewish Museum of Maryland. There, I met educators from as far away as Texas and Illinois.  Together, we toured nearby Baltimore neighborhoods, learning about the diverse groups of people who had lived in the area over the last three centuries. Residents of different races, faiths, and national backgrounds opened businesses, raised families, attended schools, and worshiped locally. We visited the Lloyd Street Synagogue, the oldest synagogue in Maryland and the third oldest in the United States, which has operated since 1845.

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The Lloyd Street Synagogue

While immersing us in the rich history of the Baltimore area, the workshop also inspired us to bring history and community spirit to life in our classrooms. The Milton Wolf Prize, sponsored by Centropa, honors work in community-oriented diplomacy. Students can enter projects that examine a local problem and how it’s being addressed. Several students presented their winning projects during the workshop. I loved seeing their passion and their innovative approaches to addressing environmental and social issues.

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Touring Baltimore with Centropa participants

The Milton Wolf Prize also includes a teacher component, for lessons that incorporate the work of Milton Wolf and La Benevolencija, the topic of the short Centropa film “Survival in Sarajevo.” The teacher contest is accepting entries until June 8. If you work in a school, I invite you to explore and enter the contest!

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Learning about Maryland’s Jewish history