Successful service-learning projects are tied closely to specific learning objectives, and many of the best are tied to numerous areas of study. For example, when seventh- and eighth-graders studied the historical significance of a local river, they developed projects to build nature trails, test water samples, document contamination of the local habitat, and restore historical sites. Their teachers connected those activities to their studies in earth science, mathematics, language arts, physical education, music, visual arts, and social studies. These connections not only expanded the impact projects had on learning, but also provided the young people with a deeper understanding of how different subjects are interrelated.
These connections can be made from two different directions: either by identifying specific learning goals and developing a project that meets them, or by identifying the project and then exploring the many ways it can be tied to curricula or learning objectives.
As the diagram to the left illustrates, the service-learning process doesn't end when a service activity is complete. A project may be finished, but service-learning is a transformational process where young people, practitioners, and communities continue to grow as they discover the root causes underlying the needs.
Every part of the cycle is rich with learning and growth opportunities, many of them happening as young people are guided through the process of identifying, planning, and carrying out service activities. It's important for practitioners to recognize the learning potential in each phase of the process and get students reflecting so that real learning takes place.
With each step in a service-learning project, discussing three deceptively simple questions helps participants understand what they've accomplished, learned, and need to do next:
What has happened? Take stock of what participants did, saw, and felt. Get their initial observations of what has happened.
What's the importance of all this? Discuss what participants are thinking and feeling about the experience. Ask them what they've learned and how things have changed.
What should we do next? It's time to decide how best to channel this new understanding into continued action.
Successful service-learning relies on trained practitioners, and NYLC can help you gain the skills you need. It only takes a couple of days to get a firm grounding in the fundamentals, and ongoing training is available on advanced topics. NYLC provides customized training and consulting services for schools and community-based organizations.
The National Service-Learning Conference is the world's largest gathering of people involved in service-learning, including educators, young people and representatives of community-based organizations. It brings together nearly 3,000 participants from all 50 U.S. states and many countries, and offers more than 200 workshops along with informal networking opportunities.
NYLC and other service-learning organizations offer many helpful publications. Visit our bookstore for a number of print publications and videos, including The Generator, a newsletter that turns service-learning research into practice. We've also put together a list of publications that are particularly useful for those getting started in service-learning.