The Art of Service Learning by Cathryn Berger Kaye
"You should know that the education of the heart is very important. This will distinguish you from others.
Educating oneself is easy, but educating ourselves to help other human beings to help the community
is much more difficult." -César Chavez

Service learning is emerging as a critical topic in K-12 schools, higher education, and community organizations that work with youth. What is service learning? Simply put, service learning connects school-based curriculum with the inherent caring and concern youth people have for their world – whether on their school campus, at a local food bank, or in a distant rainforest. The results are memorable, lifelong lessons for students and foster a stronger society for us all.

Service learning provides meaningful ways for students, teachers, administrators, and community agencies and members to move together with deliberate thought and action toward a common purpose that has mutual benefits. Students benefit academically, socially and emotionally; develop skills; explore numerous career options; and may come to appreciate the value of civic responsibility and actively participating in their community. Teachers make school and education more relevant for their students, often seeing their students blossom and develop previously untapped strengths in the process; collaborate with their colleagues and community partners to develop exciting curriculum; and may find themselves professionally re-energized. School administrators may observe a boost in the morale of staff and students as they achieve desired academic outcomes while seeing the profile of the school raised in a positive way in the community. Community partners receive much needed help and may find themselves learning from the students as they teach or interact with them.

The beauty of service learning is that something real and concrete is occurring. Learning takes on a new dimension. When students are engaged intellectually and emotionally with a topic they can light up with a revelation or make a connection between two previously separate ideas. What they've learned in school suddenly matters and engages their minds and their hearts. Teachers also frequently respond to service learning, finding their students' eagerness and curiosity invigorating. Education is relevant in the classroom and in the larger community. Math, science, social studies, languages, literature, the arts – all are applied, used, and placed in contexts where they really matter.

In addition to the educational benefits, our society depends on the active participation of its members to thrive. Our acts of service can shape the society we live in. Even young children marvel at how their thinking and planning and doing makes a difference. While it may seem cliché, the truth is, service learning enables a wealth of "differences" to happen. Relationships develop between people with an attendant understanding and appreciation for similarities and differences. Eyes become accustomed to looking for needs in the community and are followed by the recognition of possibilities to, yes, make a difference.

Young people need ample opportunities to express their ideas and opinions and to make decisions. Service learning gives students the opportunity to take initiative, make decisions, interact with community representatives, learn about the role of government in social issues, develop critical thinking skills, and put their ideas into action. Students meet significant age-appropriate challenges with tasks that require thinking, initiative, problem-solving, and responsibility in an environment safe enough to make mistakes and succeed.

Being "response-able," being "able to respond" – to local and global issues that matter is what develops an active populace. When young people recognize their vital role in improving society, working for social justice and caring for the environment, then they truly understand the concept of democracy. Students recognize how participation and the ability to respond to authentic needs improves the quality of life in the community, which may lead to a lifelong ethic of service and civic participation.

By encouraging and supporting thoughtful civic involvement and participation by young people, the entire community benefits. Young people are acknowledged – and see themselves – as resourceful, knowledgeable, and agents of change who can harness their ideas, energy and enthusiasm to benefit us all.

Cathryn Berger Kaye is an educator and consultant on a variety of issues such as service learning, literacy, civic engagement, youth leadership, and impoving school climate and culture. This essay is an excerpt from her book The Complete Guide to Service Learning, published by Free Spirit Publishing.

Artolatry bread image after Salvadore Dalí's Basket of Bread (1926).