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Service-learning activities are an excellent way to take our students’ passion and energy—and we all know that they have an abundance of both—beyond the classroom and into the community. Service-learning activities are hands on; they’re also a great way to encourage critical thinking, collaboration, empathy and civic responsibility. But where do you start? Fear not, we’ve got five service-learning activities to get you started.
Teaching Social Change: 5 Student Service-Learning Activities
Adopt a soldier
Regardless of how you and your students feel about our troops’ mission, they still need our love and support. One way to do this is by adopting a soldier through websites like Adopt a US Soldier or Soldier’s Angels. Many of our soldiers are far away from home and often lack the familial support that we take for granted—and that’s where you and your kiddos come in.
Just remember that when you sign up, you’re making a commitment to regularly send cards and care packages. If you’re unsure what your class should say, check out these sample letters for ideas. Keep in mind that packages don’t have to be expensive and if you’re stumped on what to get for your adopted hero, just ask; you can also refer to the website for a list of the most-requested items. The length of adoption depends on several factors, but generally it lasts six to twelve months.
Sponsor an animal
Gandhi once said, “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” We think there is a lot of truth to this statement, so we’re referring you to SASHA Farm, an animal sanctuary in Manchester, Michigan. Many of the animals who reside there have experienced the cruelty of modern factory farming, abandonment or mistreatment. Luckily, over 250 animals now enjoy the sun, space and fresh air of their 65-acre home. As you can imagine, caring for so many animals is a costly venture and even small donations go a long way.
Animal sponsorships start at $30 and payments can be made online or via snail mail. SASHA allows you to choose the cow, horse, goat, sheep, pig or turkey you want to adopt; in return they’ll send you a sponsor package that includes a certificate, letter, and photo of your new friend.
Volunteer at a soup kitchen
Although we lack conclusive data on rates of homelessness in the United States, the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty suggests that approximately 3.5 million people, 1.35 million of them children, are likely to experience homelessness in a given year.
Many of us volunteer at soup kitchens during the holidays, but remember, homelessness doesn’t end just because it’s a New Year. So hit Google and find your local shelter or soup kitchen; chances are that they’d be glad to have you and your students cook and serve a hot meal. If they don’t need help serving, ask them if you can help pick up and deliver donations, take food inventory or clean up. Keep in mind that soup kitchens need to keep their pantry stocked just like you do, so if they don’t need you in person, try organizing a pantry prep or food drive for them!
Waste not, want not
If you were driving through Bozeman, a small town in Montana, you just might see students biking the streets in search of coffee grounds. Yes, coffee grounds. Why though? Coffee grounds are rich in nitrogen and provide bacteria necessary to turn organic waste into compost. That’s interesting, but what’s the point? Bozeman’s Coffee 2 Compost program estimates that they have not only created partnerships with their community coffee houses and saved them the effort of disposing of the grounds, but they have also helped to divert 5,000 pounds of coffee waste from the landfill every year!
This particular service-learning project may not be your cup of…ahem, coffee, but it just goes to show you how far a little incentive and creativity can really go.
Plant a community garden
If you decide to start a coffee-to-compost program, you’re probably wondering where in the world you’re going to compost the grounds. Why not take them back to the community garden you and your students planted right on campus?
Planting a garden is a fine way to interact with the local community, sure. But it’s also rife with pedagogical opportunities: The soil, seeds and plants your students grow will give students physical contact with nature, an experience that makes theoretical principles and biological processes they read about in textbooks come to life.
And once your garden is flourishing, why not use the fruits of your labor in the school cafeteria?
There’s no shortage of service learning activities out there. All you need is a little creativity and a classroom full of passionate philanthropists!
We can talk about merit pay, accountability and tenure. We can debate (endlessly it seems) students first, testing, failing schools, poverty and unions. We can go toe to toe over the value of choice, charters and vouchers. PISA, Finland, Arne and Rhee. Ravitch, Race to the Top and common core. All worthwhile conversations. And necessary.
And perhaps moot.
While we haggle over evolution and intelligent design, revisionist history texts and the best way to grade and fire teachers, there is a larger beast afoot: The increasing global instability caused by (and/or exacerbated by) climate change.
Were we hunter gatherers, this might not be much of an issue. We could simply gather up camp and follow the mouth watering scent of big, tasty mammals. A bit warmer here? A bit cooler there? No big deal. Heck, we might even appreciate a few more roasty-toasty days. "It's only the spring equinox and it's already time to break out my summer loin cloth, dear. And look, the ocean is closer than it was yesterday! Let's go nab some fish." But we aren't hunter gatherers. (Unless hunting for sales and gathering coupons counts. Which may explain why we are only peripherally aware of warning signs so large we almost can't see them.)
Black swan events have almost become routine. We practically don't even notice them anymore. "Another one hundred year flood of the Mississippi? Ho hum. Monster hurricane? Yawn. Obscenely enormous tornado devastates entire city? Been there, done that." And that is just here in the states.
Take a peek beyond our borders and the trend continues: droughts, heat waves, blizzards, monsoons -- all breaking records at an alarming rate. When athletes annihilate records at a break neck pace we suspect The Juice, and congressional meetings ensue. When the planet breaks meteorological records at the same rate, we implement standardized tests and line up to buy Priuses.
Unfortunately, the Purchase-A-Bunch-of-"Green"-Stuff Solution will not suffice. We can't buy our way to a more sustainable planet. We may have to go so far as to -- eek, eek -- educate our youth; and not just in how live more sustainably, but in how to assess and adapt in a rapidly changing environment. Or, more simply, how to: Learn. Apply. Repeat.
In an article in the New York Times, "A Warming Planet Struggles to Feed Itself," Justin Gillis unpacks some of the myriad factors currently affecting the global food supply and hints at potential calamities coming to a destabilized ecosystem near you. It is not a pretty picture. In fact, for people in developing countries, it is absolutely bleak. With over 900 million people (NEARLY 1 BILLION!) already lacking access to clean water and adequate food, and the population set to hit 10 billion well before the end of the century, and more fantastically gigantic natural disasters sure to come, we must ready ourselves, or at least our students.
And our education system.
I'm a fan of reading, 'riting and 'rithmetic. All are important. As is STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics). I'm also a fan of standards. I like knowing what students should be able to do, as long as the standards don't limit learning and growth.
However, more so than the skill achievements quantifiable by a company's question bank and bubble sheets, I'm a fan of doing, engaging and tackling. I want to see my students wrestling with issues beyond them and larger than life.
When the Gulf Oil spill happened, we teamed with an FSU marine biologist to help conduct baseline mole crab surveys in the event the oil made it this far. We couldn't stop the spewing gas, but dag-nab-it, we could take the learning opportunity and squeeze it for all its worth.
Did we meet standards? You betcha. Did we read, 'rite and do 'rithemetic? You betcha. Did we apply the scientific method in a relevant context, analyze data and investigate systems? You betcha.
More important than all of that, however, is that students made connections between scholarship and the environment. They investigated a local ecosystem and increased their knowledge of the many dynamics at play while also sensing the unquantifiable value of an unspoiled stretch of nature. We need more of that. Students must become experts in the land we have and architects of the Earth they want.
This won't happen through test prep and bubble sheets, text books and number 2's, or sentence diagrams and grammar worksheets.
Students need to get their hands dirty. They need to experience where their food comes from, where their poop goes and what it actually means to live on a cup of rice for a day. They need to feel and learn about the profound connection between dirt and life. We need an education system that gives students transformative and empowering experiences that bring them face to face with the delicate balance between the environment and humanity.
If climate change predictions are correct (and I'm believe they are), oceans and temperatures will rise; droughts, floods and storms will increase; and lives will be disrupted.
People will suffer. People will die. One of them could be one of my girls. One of them could be one of yours.
Our children must learn how to live on this planet sustainably, with everyone, peacefully. Everything else is just blissful white noise.
Race to Self-Destruction: Easter Island's Statues and America's Test Scores
Race to the Top, Obama Administration’s $4.35 billion education initiative, has been touted many times by the President and his Secretary of Education Arne Duncan as the most meaningful education reform in a generation. It is also been proposed as the blueprint for the upcoming reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), currently bearing the more notorious title No Child Left Behind (NCLB). I have always found Race to the Top amusingly sad and educationally harmful and written about it in different places including an op-ed piece in Education Week and a couple of posts on my blog. Today when I was re-reading Jared Diamond’s brilliant book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, I found his story of how the Easter Islanders’ race to build the most magnificent statues eventually led to their collapse chillingly similar to what is happening to American education.
The hundreds of stone statues on Easter Island have been one of the greatest mysteries on earth. Located in the southern Pacific Ocean, Easter Island is over 2,000 miles away from the closest land, Chile, and 1,400 miles away from the nearest island, which is uninhabited. It is also a very small island, only 15 miles long and 10 miles wide. Yet, on this remote and small island are over 800 giant statues carved out of stone. They are large and heavy—ranging from 15 feet to 70 feet and from 10 to 270 tons. The largest ever erected weighed over 80 tons. Some of them have a separate headpiece, a cylinder of red scoria that weigh up to 12 tons. When the first European explorer discovered it in 1722, the island was almost uninhabited, with just a few thousand people living in poor conditions without any advanced technology. The explorers did not find any large animals or trees that could be used to help move and lift the statues.
How could the islanders have carved, transported, and erected the statues because “organizing the carving, transport, and erection of the statues required a complex populous society living in an environment rich enough to support it” (Diamond, 2005, p.81) and such a society was apparently nonexistent when Easter Island was discovered?
Many theories have been proposed. “Many Europeans were incredulous that Polynesians, ‘mere savages,” could have created the statues or the beautifully constructed stone platforms” (Diamond, 2005, p. 82). They attributed these grand works to other civilizations and even intelligent space aliens. But Jared Diamond, a professor of Geography and Physiology of UCLA and a Pulitzer Prize winner for his book Guns, Germs, and Steel, presents a more compelling theory. Equipped with a large cumulative body of knowledge generated by archaeologists, historians, anthropologists, and other scientists, Diamond uncovers a history of tragic self-destruction on Easter Island.
The giant statues were indeed created by the Polynesians who began to occupy Easter Island about 1,000 years ago, when it was covered with forests of big and tall trees, some of which reached to about 100 feet in height and seven feet in diameter. These trees could be used to make seafaring canoes that enabled more productive fishing. Easter Island provided habitats for many species of seabirds. Coupled with a rather sophisticated agriculture, Easter Islanders developed a civilization that once had an estimated population of 15,000. Such a population provided sufficient labor force to carve, transport, and raise the statues. The tall trees provided the necessary tools and materials to transport and raise the statues.
The giant statues were also one of the primary causes of the collapse of the Easter Island civilization. The island was divided into about a dozen territories and each belonged to one clan. Diamond suggests the statues were raised to represent their ancestors and there was a competition going on between rival clans. Each chief was trying to outdo their rivals by erecting larger and taller statues, and later adding the heavy headpiece on the statues. The statues became a symbol of status, power, and prestige to impress and intimidate rivals. And because of Easter Island’s particular situation, building bigger statues became virtually the only race among the clans. As a result, the statues got bigger, taller, and fancier.
The race was costly. It took tremendous resources to carve, transport, and erect these statues. It needed surplus food to feed the people working on the statues and thus required more farming land. Trees were cut down to build vehicles for transporting and supporting the erection. Ropes used to pull the statues were made from barks of the tall trees. As more, bigger, and taller statues were built, more trees were cut down. Slowly, the whole forest on Easter Island disappeared, so were all tree species. “Immediate consequences for the islanders were losses of raw materials, losses of wild-caught foods, and decreased crop yields…The further consequences start with starvation, a population crash, and a descent into cannibalism” (Diamond, 2005, p.107, 109) Eventually, the Easter Island civilization collapsed, leaving hundreds of broken, fallen, and unfinished stone statues littered on a barren island.
Although there are competing theories pointing out that human activities may not be the only cause of deforestation and ecosystem collapse on Easter Island (e.g., some scientists suggest rats as another contributing factor), Diamond provides a convincing “example of a society that destroyed itself by overexploiting its resources.” A significant driving force behind the overexploitation was the race to erect bigger statues.
I can’t help making the connection between Easter Islanders’ race to erect the statues and Obama’s Race to the Top initiative and proposed plan for reauthorization of NCLB, which has already set American education on a race of test scores for a decade. Some may object to this metaphorical connection by arguing that test scores represent the quality of education a school provides, the performance of a teacher, and students’ ability to succeed in the future. But the chiefs and priests on Easter Island also believed that the statues represented the health and power of their clans, the performance of their members, and promise for a more prosperous future.
Test scores have no doubt become American’s stone statue in education. America wants to outscore other countries on international tests such as PISA and TIMSS, just like the Easter Island’s rival clans wanted to out build each other. NCLB and Race to the Top force states, schools, and teachers to outscore each other with either a club or carrots or both. Whether it is the complex AYP calculation formula or the proposed even more complex value-added-measures, the ultimate measure remains scores on standardized tests. Whether it is the prescribed punitive measures of NCLB or the proposed “reward for excellence” by Obama, the criteria are the same: test scores and the intention no different: outscore others.
In their race to build bigger statues, Easter Islanders put increasingly more resources into carving, transporting, and erecting statues. Likewise, in America’s race to obtain higher test scores, American schools have invested more resources in raising test scores. A large proportion of schools have spent significantly more time on the tested subjects (math and reading) and reduced time for other subjects and activities. Teachers have spent more time preparing students for standardized tests and focused more time on tested content. Millions of hours are spent each year for students to take the standardized tests. Billions of dollars are spent each year on testing or simply measuring whose statue is larger.
Just like the Easter Islanders’ obsession with building statues damaged their ecosystem, America’s obsession with test scores have already begun and will continue to damage its education ecosystem. The high stakes attached to test scores have already forced states, schools, and teachers to improve test scores at any cost—manipulating standards, cheating, teaching to the tests, and only focusing on those students who can bring the most gains in scores. Students who are talented and interested in things that do not contribute to improving scores are considered at risk and put in special sessions to improve their scores. Teachers’ professional autonomy is taken away so they can more easily forced to raise test scores. Local democratically elected school boards are rendered assistants of the federal government to raise test scores. American’s traditional educational strengths—tolerance of diversity, respect for individual difference, and celebration for creativity—are replaced with standardization so as to raise test scores. A broad and balanced curriculum is narrowed to what can be easily scripted and measured so as to raise test scores.
What is more dangerous is that the Easter Islanders perhaps did not realize their collapse before it was too late. Blinded by the short-term glory of their magnificent statues, they were preoccupied with creating even more magnificent ones while the last palm tree was cut down. Equally blinded by the potential of common standards and testing programs to improve test scores, the current administration is ignoring the real civil rights issues facing our children: poverty, unsafe neighborhoods, and unequal access to educational resources. Basking in the victorious sunshine of forcing some 40 states to change laws and policies and trade their constitutional rights to education for promised federal dollars, the Obama Administration may be getting closer to cut down the last palm tree in American education land.
And ultimately, just like Easter Island ended up a barren island filled with big statues, America may succeed in raising test scores but it will likely end up as a nation of great test takers in an intellectually barren land.
Actually, this has happened before. China’s imperial testing system, keju, enticed generations of Chinese to study for the test so as to earn a position in government and bring glory to the family. But it has been blamed as a cause of China’s failure to develop modern science, technology, and enterprises as well as China’s repeated failures in wars with foreign powers because good test takers are just that: good at taking tests and nothing else. Until today, China is still working hard to move away from a test-oriented education in order to have the talents to build a knowledge-based economy (See Chapter 4 of my book Catching Up or Leading the Way).
Diamond, J. (2005). Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. New York: Penguin.
Family is the dominant factor that causes dropouts in Indonesia. (Isnantri, 2008; Raharto, 2008; Handoko, 2009; Abidin, 2009). In general, most of the dropouts happen in rural areas. Students in these places have parent that never went to school and are economically poor (Handoko, 2009).Their parents work as farmers or fishermen. More likely parents prefer that their children learn the skills of farming or fishery rather than go to school. By learning these skills, their children will be able to help them make money for the family, whereas, if their children go to school, they have to spend money for tuition and learning facilities (Isnantri, 2008). If their children do not want to work as a farmer or fisherman, the families will more likely to ask their children go to town to get a job. However, because the children do not have a good education they will not be able to get good jobs. Therefore, may end up as household servants, construction workers, or dock workers (Abidin, 2009). Moreover, some of these unlucky children will become beggars, pickpockets, drug dealers, and prostitutes (Abidin, 2009). These children are at risk to become victims of trafficking (Raharto, 2008).
Another important cause of dropouts is the lack of school facilitaties and teachers (Pramono, 2008; Agussupra, 2009). In rural and remote areas, government built elementary schools but only some villages have junior and senior high schools. For that reason, after graduating from elementary school, students do not continue to the higher levels because the schools are far away from their home. In addition because the areas are remote, teachers are reluctant to be placed there (Pramono, 2008). The school cannot run well because of the lack of teachers. Furthermore, most of the schools were abandoned and the buildings were badly damaged. .
Dropout in Indonesian rural areas is a social problem (Astuti, 2009). Lower motivation and support from family as well as the lack of facilities are the causes of this problem. Solutions for this problem will not be exactly the same as the solutions taken in the US. Yet, reflecting and learning from the US, I can get background information to consider the appropriate solutions that I can choose for solving this problem.