Why Service Learning Matters
Why Service Learning Matters

Contributed by Margie Wallace Gibson '84, Director of Service Learning, Lower School Teacher

My commitment to service in the Princeton Day School community runs deep. I'm incredibly proud and honored to be a Third Grade teacher and Director of Service Learning here at PDS. I'm also proud to be a PDS alumna, a parent of four alumni, the daughter of a Princeton Country Day alumnus and the granddaughter of a Miss Fine's School alumna. Through each of these lenses I have witnessed the impact of service, the fourth pillar in our mission statement.

Head of School Paul Stellato created the position of Director of Service Learning in October 2017 to renew and strengthen the School's commitment to service in the 21st century. I'm so grateful to Paul for leading the way to establish this position and for appointing me to this role. Our work to re-envision Community Service as Service Learning truly began to blossom a year later, in 2018, when the PDS community collectively chose Service Learning to be our Middle States Focus for sustaining excellence. This critical step helped ensure that Service Learning would gain the momentum needed for a successful and purposeful rollout.

Why a shift from Community Service to Service Learning?

Through a Service Learning approach, service projects transform into service experiences. The Service Learning model focuses on developmentally appropriate ways to:

  • raise awareness among children about local-to-global needs and challenges
  • build empathy as they begin to understand and question issues
  • engage students in the process of deciding on and directly participating in service experiences they can share about and reflect on with the community.

For our students to be global citizens and civic-minded individuals, they need tools to develop solutions. Community Service traditionally is project driven - past efforts include successful food and clothing drives or collecting financial donations in response to crises. Despite their success, these projects generally are temporary band-aids set up in a way that doesn't allow for deep learning or for mutual reciprocity: PDS students are typically on one side and recipients of the donations on the other. Service Learning replaces the 'us vs. them' framework. As soon as deeper learning about issues occurs, students have an opportunity for empathy, and the us vs. them becomes a collective 'we.' Service Learning gives students tools to mitigate issues and to be change agents as they begin to understand about and empathize with the those affected.

Student voice is at the core of service experiences

Service Learning is relevant, rigorous and engaging. At its core is student voice. The first step in Service Learning is investigation -- the final step is reflection. During investigation, students explore and question as they learn about an issue and then prepare, plan and take action.

Think about a simple trail cleanup, which is always helpful to the environment and a worthwhile project. Given an opportunity to pre-think about the experience, to give students time to ask questions and to find answers, a trail cleanup may turn into something far greater than picking up garbage. What does it look like when we ask our students to consider where, why and for whom are we picking up garbage? With answers, issues behind the activity take center stage. Rather than a trail cleanup being marked as a success because bags of litter were collected, a cleanup may be considered successful because students have researched the issues and decided to take action to protect the fragility of an ecosystem where chipmunks and salamanders coexist.

Another essential component of Service Learning is built-in reflection time. Service Learning does not end with action, but with processing the experience individually and collectively, assessing the original plan against the final outcomes, identifying highs and lows, and considering the participants involved, relationships formed and feelings created. By taking time to reflect and to 're-experience' the experience, the activities become richer, more meaningful and potentially sustained.

Leadership's critical role: providing time and resources

Our School's commitment to this initiative includes important resources for professional development for our team as well as intentional opportunities for the full faculty to understand Service Learning. Last summer Service Learning team members -- US Dean of Students Elizabeth Monroe, MS teacher Tarshia Griffin-Ley, LS teacher Beth Hatem, Jill Goldman '74 and US teacher Chris Rhodes, attended a four-day institute. The institute provided us with new information, resources and a large network of Service Learning colleagues to bring to bear on the School's collective action plan.

At our opening meetings this August, we hosted 11 area organizations focused on a range of social issues in our community from food insecurity to safeguarding our waterways, teen homelessness and animal care. The organizations brainstormed with faculty members using an institute-inspired activity to explore creative ways to deepen PDS community partnerships with the organizations. The feedback from our faculty was enthusiastic and has already prompted at least two new connections between students and the organizations through an Upper School English elective.

These allocations of time and resources are vital for the Service Learning team to work directly with faculty during school days throughout the year, creating space during department and division meetings for our faculty to embrace and reimagine their curriculum with a new lens of service.

Recent examples across the School build excitement, momentum, action...

The School's Service Learning rollout is sensitive to differences between each division,
purposeful and long-range in scope. It incorporates key elements of past projects as we plan for current and future service projects. The Middle States action plan also incorporates our curriculum and and identifies goals that build on the existing framework.

Photo below: Lower School students created thoughtful and positive messages for foster children as part of a Service Learning collaboration with One Simple Wish.

Calendars that advocate: Like the trail cleanup, simple tweaking can transform experiences. In prior years, 2nd Grade students made adorable calendars of unicorns and butterflies, soccer balls and superheroes, and sold them to adults in the community for $5 each. What wasn't as clear to the students was where the money went; often, they could not answer this essential question. This year, the 2nd Grade team framed their efforts around the study of landforms, researching issues that might negatively affect them. Calendars this year feature pictures of mountains, lakes, mesas and buttes, with messaging about threats to our landforms. The 2nd Graders then considered which organizations should be the recipients of their proceeds. A representative from D and R Greenway visited PDS and spoke directly to the 2nd Graders about their topics. As research experts, the students now understand where money might go to combat some key challenges to landforms. Advocacy is Service Learning at its finest.

Food insecurity as a year-round priority: After consulting with Homefront, an organization dedicated to breaking the cycle of poverty and homelessness, we've opted to move our food drive from the holidays when shelves are full to a less visible time of year. This change stems from our year-long study of food insecurity. With a deeper understanding of the chronic nature of food instability for populations, our community will fight hunger in profound ways now and in the future.

Students are exploring ways to make this food drive more nutritious and to understand more fully the issues around food insecurity. In Middle School during DaVinci classes, students have investigated and planned Public Service Announcements for our entire community regarding nutrition and obesity as part of our discussion about food insecurity.

Hurricane research and relief: Our Hurricane Relief Day this fall included 4th Graders researching hurricanes and interviewing a PDS member directly affected by Hurricane Florence. They created posters and a roadshow based on their work to inform the entire Lower School about their findings, with a focus on how the small amounts of money contributed to the collection jar could help the victims of Florence.

Upper School reflections: And in Upper School, in addition to reporting their hours for credit towards their graduation requirement, students are now required to complete a written reflection about their Service Learning experiences. Students in the Upper School, who typically generate service efforts, are working hard to rethink their approaches with a Service Learning framework in mind.

With a Service Learning model, there is every reason why initiatives should include some aspect of a deeper understanding of the issue that is being addressed. As faculty open up their content and raise awareness through studying different angles, we foresee many more service learning experiences as students ponder deeply about issues already embedded in curriculum.

Intentional planning and positive, spontaneous outcomes

Cultivating positive, spontaneous outcomes requires a careful balance of encouraging student initiatives while also framing larger-picture thinking. At times, we have had to disappoint students with ideas to hold drives or collect money for selective causes. As a School, we have to be mindful about drive fatigue and making careful choices about what we officially endorse. However, with this new Service Learning framework, students are offered a much more durable and objective platform to teach our community and become involved in important 21st century societal issues. The decision to be part of the solution is then left individually to students and families.

Our Service Learning model also opens up potential opportunities for collaborative parent and alumni engagement with our School, particularly in areas where extended community members have expertise to share during the research phase for an initiative.

Finally, with deeper student engagement, we see Service Learning experiences sparking students' emerging passions and deeper thinking about pursuing certain career paths.

Turning challenges into opportunities

We understand that planning and implementation challenges might arise across divisions, but we believe we can turn these into opportunities. The foundation is a framework, not a rigid requirement that every teacher be involved. It's also flexible enough to consider incorporating Service Learning experiences into co-curricular areas such as advisory in grades 5-12, which offers potentially powerful collaborative bonding experiences.

Given the significant shift in the service model, the School is also thinking about ways to give the larger community shared learning experiences about what Service Learning looks and feels like. We will need to continue to develop thoughtful and strategic messages across communications platforms to engage and foster support among parents, alumni and prospective community members.We look forward to sharing our story as the shift continues to unfold. Thank you for your support of this important work.

Photos: Above, PDS Service Learning Division Representatives, Tarshia Griffin-Ley, Elizabeth Monroe and Beth Hatem with Director of Service Learning Margie Wallace Gibson '84. See the Flickr album from this week's Wrap-In activities supporting One Simple Wish, featuring students' handmade cards with positive and thoughtful wishes for children in foster care, and gifts children accompanied their parents to purchase for foster children.