Tuesday, 28 October 2014 13:26

Reflections from the Front Lines of Service Learning by Donna Moreau

The middle school at the Anglo-American School of Moscow is an enthusiastic newcomer on the trail of service learning.

One year after committing to the development of service learning practices, we continue to hike up the mountain, sometimes stumbling as we find our way, but always learning and always absolutely devoted to making it to the top where the view of the world will change the lives of our students.

Devising a philosophy that aligns with the school’s mission, developing learning outcomes, and providing opportunities has opened the door to service learning to our teachers and to our students.  AAS, as with many schools, includes global citizenship in its mission, which is an obvious tie-in with service learning.  The second part of AAS’s mission, however, is to empower each student to love learning.  I can attest, rarely have I seen kids love learning so much as when they are working on a service learning project.  I am not implying that students don't love to learn in other incarnations of education, especially when they have choice and decision-making opportunities or are wildly and innately passionate about a subject. Rather, the authenticity - the real-life experiences - that service learning offers sparks a curiosity and a desire within them to extend themselves physically, emotionally, and academically, and to do the work it takes to learn and to make a difference.

Last year, service learning experiences included a campaign to reduce the use of single use plastic water bottles in the school by giving a reusable water bottle to every teacher and staff member in the school so that adults could model responsible behavior to the students. The campaign took a year from beginning research to end action and reflection, and when the kids finally handed out the bottles at a general meeting of the staff and faculty, the look of pride and accomplishment on their faces was inspiring.  Another group of kids tackled the issue of the sixty-six million girls around the world who do not have access to education.  The class worked for a semester researching and understanding the problem.  They finally decided to organize a “Fighting for Girls” community symposium.  They even applied to the PTO for a grant to bring two representatives from the Girl Rising Organization in New York City to participate on the panel during the symposium.  The experience was extraordinary for the students and for the AAS community at large.

These and other projects provided our students with real-life, authentic experiences where they were in control, where they made decisions, and where they felt the impact their labors had on others.  The learning transcended grade books, homework, standards, and assessments, and yet, all of these aspects of education were critical to their success - it simply didn't feel the same as sitting in a classroom anticipating the next learning opportunity.  Instead, students created their opportunities and invested in their learning with the guidance of adults who helped them with the focus and the direction of their projects.

Sometimes I am asked if all the work involved in establishing something new at a school that is already accomplishing amazing things for its students is worth the effort. Honestly, sometimes, while in the midst of a million other things to do, I, too, wonder.  I will never wonder that again because during an assembly at the end of last year, the students were asked about the moments they will never forget.  Right up there with the wonder of performing in plays, contributing to the success of their sports teams, and traveling on Discovery Week, were the experiences the kids had working on their SL projects. 

That testament should be enough to say, YES, IT’S WORTH IT. Last summer, I attended a week-long summer workshop for service learning. I had many takeaways, but the most profound moment was during a conversation I had with a professor at Middlebury College in Vermont.  He said, "The most successful students in the first years at Middlebury are the students who have had service learning experiences . . .” 

The reason students with experience in SL are successful in college is because they have:

  • interacted with adults in professional situations,
  • made decisions - good and bad - problem solved and dealt with the consequences,
  • organized projects and participated in long-range processes to make a difference - locally or globally,
  • proposed and presented ideas,
  • invested time and energy for the benefit of others,
  • seen authentic results from the research, the planning, and action, and
  • reflected upon their work.

The middle school is preparing students for the expectations and rigors of the IB programme, which includes service learning.  Providing our students with meaningful opportunities will help them to not only be successful in high school, but as citizens who not only wish to, but know how to take action for the betterment of their world.

AAS believes in kids and their ability to make a difference. They are the future, a cliché, but so true because they are the ones that will lead the way up the mountain of change. We need to support them with the tools and the opportunities in their early years so they have the knowledge and the confidence to move the world in a positive direction as they mature into adults.