Service Learning at Innovation: First Steps and Missteps
As all teachers know, things don’t always go as planned when working with young people.
When I returned from Japan last summer, I had all sorts of visions for amazing active citizenship projects at Innovation Academy. I had been a part of a fabulous team of educators and we were really excited to get our students involved in Education for Sustainable Development.
My plan was to have students at Innovation design their own service projects, and share the process with students in our Japanese partner school. In the beginning of the year, we received some fabulous videos from Japan, and we were really excited. Students at our school made some awesome introductory videos and we sent them off to classrooms in Japan. Here’s a taste:
As the year progressed, we did achieve many successes, though there were some hardships too. Communication with the teachers in Japan was difficult, due to language barriers, differences in our school year schedule, and many other distractions which kept us busy. There’s no doubt that our service projects also could have gone more smoothly. However, for the first time in the history of Innovation Academy, every student in our middle school was involved in a service project during the school year. Not only was this goal tied to my experience in Japan, but it was an exciting new initiative implemented along with our new advisory program. This year, each student had an advisor who worked with his or her group of 12-13 students, offering academic advising, team building, and work building social and emotional skills.
Each advisor worked with his or her advisory to choose a service project that was meaningful to the students. Some groups, like the Quinlan/Orpen Advisory, decided to focus on helping animals. They made their own dog treats and donated them to the Lowell Humane Society. Other groups, like the McCarthy Advisory, decided to focus on helping children in need. Their advisor, Elizabeth Quirbach-McCarthy, described the process saying, “We felt a strong connection to making a difference in our local community so with some research, we chose the House of Hope in Lowell. We coined the phrase ‘Wish Tree’ and the idea grew from there.” Each advisory chose their own unique focus.
My advisory had some difficulty choosing a topic, but eventually settled on working to end cyber-bullying. They had an ambitious goal, to start a viral internet campaign, by dividing into three sub-groups to make posters, a website, and a video. We worked at least once a week from February through the end of the year. While we never got our posters up and didn’t really fully finish all parts of the video and website, I think it is worth sharing their final product. Even though it’s not perfect, I’m proud of their commitment to this difficult endeavor:
Giving students choice in their projects made them more invested and enthusiastic about the work. Samantha Pereyra’s advisory chose to support Project Linus, which gives security blankets to children in need, whether critically ill, traumatized, or otherwise. The students were more invested in the project because all the decision making was theirs.
Some advisories stayed local to work on their projects, while others left campus. The Destramp Advisory stayed late on a Wednesday after school and did an extensive trash pick up all over our school groups. The Falewicz Advisory decided to get off campus, volunteering at the Wish Project, where they organized clothes donations for people experiencing homelessness. A fifth grader in that advisory wrote, “While we were working someone came in and looked so happy to get some items from The Wish Project. I felt, and think others did too, as if I had done something to help this person. Seeing how happy they were made it even better to know we were helping.”
Participating in these service projects was a bonding experience for most advisories. My advisory had a lot of laughs while working on our video. Many advisories elicited student leaders to support their classmates in accomplishing the project. For example, one eighth grader, Thea, organized and supervised her advisory to make “kitty blankets” by cutting out and tying the ends of pieces of fleece. The McLure Advisory later took the finished products to the MSPCA at Nevens Farm, and had a great time getting Chinese buffet on the way.
Many students were inspired to do more after their advisory’s service project. The Haley Advisory started with a simple idea to help a family in need have a nice Christmas. They ended up collecting so many supplies and raising so much money that they were able to provide gifts and even trees to many families. One student was so touched by the project that she fundraised on her own and she and her family were able to help feed nine families a delicious meal, complete with a turkey, for the holiday.
Service learning at Innovation Academy is still a growing program. Whether a one time project or something ongoing throughout the year, each advisory was able to make a difference to others in some way. So, yes, my advisory wasn’t the only one that struggled to start (and finish) a meaningful project. But, overall, this year was a pretty exciting first step in getting students involved in being a part of real world change. Oh, and I think most advisories also had some fun along the way.