Engaging Hearts & Minds

In this climate of high-stakes testing and fast-paced teaching, inviting student passion into the classroom can be difficult. Where do we find the time? How do we do it without compromising required academics? Can we find projects that actively involve and engage all students?

Last year, I found a powerful answer to these concerns: A student-initiated service learning project that contributed to our community while deeply engaging all the children in their learning.

What Came First

We’d just completed a storytelling unit about children who had made a positive difference in their communities. The next step was to look at our own community and collectively choose a problem we wanted to help solve.

But what would that next step look like? At first, I knew only this: I wanted something different from the typical schoolwide drives encouraging everyone to bring clothing or food for people affected by natural disasters—important projects, certainly, but ones for which adults choose the goal and decide how children will meet it.

As we talked together, my intern Katie Brooke and I realized that we wanted the children to choose a community service learning project, or CSLP. The children would own the project because they’d be thoroughly involved in everything from choosing a problem that mattered to them to deciding how they could help solve that problem. Having such choices, we thought, would encourage deep learning and participation.

In the only step of the project that did not directly involve the children, I set the educational goals:

  • Engage all the children in choosing, learning about, and addressing a community problem
  • Develop the children’s sense of empathy
  • Nurture the children’s sense of self-efficacy
  • Give the children practice in key literacy and social studies skills in a meaningful context
Successful Community Service Learning projects:
  • reinforce or expand students’ academic skills.
  • provide a genuinely needed community service.
  • match students’ developmental level.
  • offer students structured choices.
  • give students time to acquire needed knowledge or skills.
  • include opportunities for ongoing reflection.
  • end with a celebration and sharing of the children’s work.

Adapted from Kids Taking Action: Community Service Learning Projects, K–8 by Pamela Roberts, © NEFC 2002.

Building Ownership

To begin the project, I read the class Kurusa and Monika Doppert’s The Streets Are Free, a story about children who petitioned their neighborhood to build a playground. The children listened raptly and then excitedly discussed how the children in the book saw a community need and worked together to address it.

We then organized the children into four small groups. “What do you see in our world, in our community,” I asked them, “that needs our attention? What could we do to help solve a problem in our own backyard?”

The room soon buzzed with conversation, and I distributed chart paper and markers so the children could capture their thoughts. Many students were talking passionately about the environment, endangered species, kids in hospitals. Some were offering silly ideas, but before I could intervene, their classmates asked them to “Stop kidding around and get serious!” Everyone voiced opinions and contributed in some way—some scribing, some spelling. Groups then shared their ideas, and we listed all of them. In our next session, with excitement still high, each group voted for their top two choices. Then, with a democratic class vote (heads down, thumbs up), we narrowed the list to two issues: “Save the Environment” or “Help People without Homes.” We were ready to make our final choice.

Holding a Town Meeting

To build on the children’s excitement and investment, I wanted them to make their final choice in a way that would engage them deeply with the two issues. I also wanted them to practice their skills of thoughtful and persuasive reasoning, and I wanted everyone’s voice to be heard.

Katie and I thought a “town meeting” would work well. A New England tradition for 300 years, town meetings offer citizens a chance to address important community issues. Any resident can speak, all voices are important, and everyone’s vote counts equally—a good model for the experience we wanted the children to have. Plus, learning about local government would address a state social studies standard.

After explaining basic town meeting principles to the children, I described the modified process we would use. Each child could try to persuade classmates to vote for one of the two issues. After everyone who wanted to had spoken, we would vote democratically. The issue receiving the most votes would be the class choice.

To prepare the children for the meeting, I reminded them of all they’d learned about public speaking from our storytelling unit. Then I invited them to spend some time deciding which issue they wanted to speak for. “Why is it important to you?” I asked. “Why is it important to us? What can you say that might convince someone else of its importance?”

Next, to set the stage for safe risk taking, we moved our classroom rules chart right into our meeting area. We’d devised these rules together early in the year to help us take care of ourselves, each other, and our environment. Throughout the year, the children had used the rules to guide their behavior, so they knew how to behave during our town meeting: Be fair and listen to each other; be respectful and kind with words and body language.

With our rules visible to all, we began the meeting. Sam volunteered to speak first. Nervously, he cleared his throat and began. “The environment is important because if we don’t have the environment, no one will have a home.” He was focused, very clear, and incredibly serious. His passion and commitment inspired us. Every single child not only spoke, but spoke with strong arguments and genuine feeling.

Jasmine came last, her words barely contained as she took her spot before the class. “This man lived in the alley next to our building, under cardboard boxes and plastic bags. One cold winter day my mom and I hurried inside, and later that night I was cozy in my warm bed with my warm blankets. I thought of that man trying to keep warm outside with plastic bags and boxes, and I felt sad. We need to do something about this. It’s not fair,” Jasmine pleaded.

From the children’s faces, I could see that Jasmine had touched their hearts, as she had touched mine. Our democratic vote confirmed it as a sea of thumbs went up for our second choice: We would learn about and help the homeless.

Doing the Research

Now the children needed to research homelessness. Katie and I invited them to brainstorm a list of questions [see box below]. The list guided us as we chose read-alouds, videos, guest speakers, and websites that could offer answers.

As the children proceeded with their research, we saw signs of their deepening understanding and empathy. “Homelessness just seems mean,” Lauren blurted during one of our many discussions. Her classmate Jamie shared his own insight: “Homelessness makes people lonely, and then they get sad and angry. If I were homeless, I would lose hope.”

That word hope surfaced repeatedly as the children continued researching. We heard it when we hosted visitors from Habitat for Humanity. We heard it again when Julie Agron from the Amherst Survival Center spoke to the class. “Everyone wants to belong,” Julie told the children. “Most people visit our center because they need to feel the sense of hope and community we offer all who visit.” Along with hope, the word community became our project focus.

Taking Action Together

From the children’s research, three key facts about homelessness emerged. First, it is a serious problem affecting many people; second, people become homeless because of problems in their lives, not because they’re bad people; and third, homelessness is usually temporary, lasting only until people get the help they need.

The Children’s Questions about Homelessness
  • How do people become poor and homeless?
  • What is it like to be homeless?
  • Why can’t we all have homes?
  • Why do we call them homeless?
  • How many people are homeless in the United States?
  • What do I say when I see a person who seems to be homeless?

The children decided they wanted a way to help homeless visitors to the Survival Center feel hopeful and cared for. Inspired by the many quilts lining our classroom walls, each made by a preceding class, we decided to make a quilt—and give it to the Survival Center. Ours would be a Community of Hope Quilt to raise awareness of homelessness and share an important message: There is hope, even when people have serious problems in their lives.

Our classroom became a busy workshop as the students made quilt squares incorporating words of hope they’d researched or written themselves. Poems, sayings, and quotes were captured in a five-foot by five-foot array of colorful squares. We unveiled the quilt to family, friends, teachers, administrators, and the Survival Center, where the quilt now hangs, offering a bright message of caring and community to all visitors.

Passionate Learning

As our CSLP drew to a close, I reflected on how much the children had learned. They now knew a great deal about an important community issue, and they also knew they had the power to do something about that issue. And Katie and I had learned something, too: Even young children can speak with eloquent and persuasive passion about subjects they’re invested in, and this passion can be tapped to support deep and memorable social and academic learning.

Elaine Stinson teaches third graders at Wildwood Elementary School in Amherst, Massachusetts.

Tags: Building Schoolwide Community, Whole-school meetings