(This post is part of a series – let me encourage you to read the previous posts that precede this post for helpful context – scroll down to view #1 & #2, then #3 above.)
One of the ways that we can help students experience the connectedness and meaning and beauty of the cosmos is through connecting learning, loving, and doing. A full-fledged Christian education is an experience that connects head, heart, and hands, weaving together love, discernment, and virtue. What follows is an article by Jane Hilbrands describing service learning and a resources project that was described in the Nurturing Faith blog post of May 18, 2009 and what promises to be a great support for Christian teachers. Thanks, Jane, for your leadership and hard work to make this project a reality! Attention principals: Hopefully you always pass Nurturing Faith posts on to your teachers, but be sure to pass on this post and the link within it to your staff!
You may have heard some buzz in the education world about service-learning. Perhaps you feel that your school has that angle covered; after all, there is the Thanksgiving food drive, the Angel Tree at Christmas and a few other projects. Perhaps you feel that service projects really should be the domain of church youth groups and families, not sucking precious minutes away from the curricular crunch of the classroom. Perhaps you think service-learning is the “Hands” part of CSI’s learning paradigm “Heads, Hearts, Hands.” Perhaps, when finished with this article, you will have a whole new view of service-learning’s place in your school curriculum.
Unlike many service experiences, service-learning should always incorporate three distinct stages: preparation, action, and reflection. Many students give money, accumulate service hours, earn project points or volunteer without preparation. Students zip in and out of a service experience without intellectually grappling with the underlying issues involved. Without preparation students’ personal understanding and ownership of social justice issues may be minimized. Students then may misinterpret their experiences and actually increase their prejudices or stereotypes. Preparation is crucial in a service-learning experience, giving students a historical, cultural, and Biblical context for the situations they encounter.
This is the “Head” of CSI’s “Heads, Hearts, Hands” at its best, introducing students to the complex and interrelated issues within immigration, poverty, war, disease prevention, hunger, economic justice, racism and others both in the U.S. and globally. These social justice issues can dove-tail with the traditional subjects of science, math, language arts, Bible, and social studies. Although this may sound like a lot of research for teachers, wonderful resources are just a few clicks away online. A conglomerate of resources has been compiled through a CRC Office of Social Justice/Kuyers Institute of Faith and Learning grant, organizing CRC-based background readings, statistics, videos, activities, resource pages, projects and more according to school level (elementary, middle, high) and by subject and issue. These resource summaries and curricular suggestions can be found at www.crcna.org/pages/osj_kuyers.cfm
The second stage, action, is the one usually envisioned when folks think of service-learning. Students step beyond “Head” knowledge and move to “Hands” participation: helping younger students or the elderly, collecting food items, raising money, cleaning up areas, visiting hospitals, scooping soup, planting, etc. Some educators resist hands-on actions because they feel there simply aren’t enough minutes in the semester to cover the curriculum they already face, let alone add-on more things. Research supplies a different perspective however.
Students who participated in service-learning activities in high school were 22 percentage points more likely to graduate from college than those who did not participate, and students who participated in service-learning scored 6.7 percent higher in reading achievement and 5.9 percent higher in science achievement than those who did not participate in service-learning (National Educational Longitudinal Study, reviewed by Dávila & Mora, 2007). Ritchie and Walters (2003) showed that both middle and high school students involved in service-learning had statistically significant increases in their motivation to learn. Furco (2007) writes that a review of research indicates that high quality service-learning, because of its utilization of effective, experiential learning strategies, can enhance academic outcomes in such content areas as reading, writing, mathematics, and science. Given our God-created multi-sensory bodies, hands-on actions are an effective and essential tool in deeply assimilating “head” knowledge. Simply, the more we involve ourselves, the more we comprehend and retain information.
The important concept to remember in the action stage is connectivity. Service actions should not be disconnected from curriculum learning, but instead should be a natural progression from classroom lessons to active responses. For example, PE or science students studying nutrition should participate in a hunger service project; science students studying the properties of water could act to clean-up a local creek or improve a third world community’s access to safe drinking water; language art students can read literature of minority cultural or economic groups and participate in advocacy writing or campaigns for improving literacy. These are only a few ideas – many of the online links given in the CRC/Kuyers grant also head towards opportunities for taking action. The local and global possibilities are varied and many. Once students’ eyes are opened during preparation, actions follow naturally and Christian responsibility and stewardship begin to grow.
The final stage, reflection, is where the wonder happens. As details from preparation and action are individually and corporately revisited and reviewed, horizons are broadened, questions are posed, worldviews are adjusted, empathy becomes possible, and God’s Spirit has space to cultivate current and future fruitfulness in an informed and engaged Christian student. It’s a time for reflection, for internal reckoning of responsibility and calling. This is the “Heart” where life-long growth and learning happen. Although it is often listed in the middle, it is most prosperous as a final step, with both Heads and Hands before.
Each step in service-learning’s “preparation, action, reflection” or CSI’s “Heads, Hands, Hearts” is essential. Without the head preparation of historical, cultural and Biblical context, the action of hands can lead to misguided conclusions. Without service actions, head knowledge becomes impotent, lacking participatory ownership of God’s restorative work. Without heart reflection, personal positions and identity may not be solidly forged. Together these three stages form a solid educational paradigm, enabling students to be informed, engaged and deeply convicted of their role in God’s world.