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"I Never Knew I Could Be A Hero":
Thoughts on Service Learning



Voice of ExperienceEducator Kathie Marshall values service learning as a highly effective strategy for engaging students' interest in the curriculum and in their community. She shares her love of service learning and demonstrates how it can be implemented in any classroom on a shoestring budget. Included: Project ideas, plus links to additional resources.


Kathie Marshall


I first became interested in community service when I was a teacher at a private K-6 school. We made sandwiches and collected toiletries and other essentials for the homeless, and each year, my sixth graders accompanied abused children on a trip to Disneyland. I saw firsthand how meaningful those activities were to my students, and realized that they benefited at least as much as those they were helping.

Community Service
vs. Service Learning

With community service, there is usually little or no connection between the service activity and what students are learning in the classroom. For example, students might be asked to bring canned good to school to help others at Thanksgiving. Service learning, by definition, takes community service a step farther. The service activities are innately tied to the curriculum. As an added benefit, service learning allows students to take their learning beyond the four walls of the classroom. Students who are studying American history, for example, might investigate their own community's history and share it with others.

See the Additional Resources section at the bottom of this essay to learn more about service learning.

It wasn't until I returned to public education as a middle school teacher, however, that I learned about service learning. (See the sidebar for a brief explanation of the difference between community service and service learning.) After implementing service learning with at-risk students in an intervention language arts class, I quickly saw its power, and began looking for additional ways to incorporate service learning into all my classes.


As students progress through the grades, more and more of them begin to disengage from school. Students who choose not to succeed academically or participate in school activities become increasingly vulnerable to dropping out of school. Some estimates suggest that nearly 90 percent of high school students are significantly disengaged from classroom learning.

I've discovered that service learning matters to students because it personalizes their educations and increases the "real life" relevancy of what they learn. In addition, I have found that service learning empowers students personally and academically in ways that traditional methods may not. By connecting students to the broader community, service learning teaches positive civic values, leadership skills, goal setting, and a sense of optimism, resilience, and personal responsibility. That's pretty exciting stuff, I think!

Through service learning activities, students also feel they have an opportunity to demonstrate to adults that the negative stereotypes about young people aren't true for all of them.

Finally, middle and high school students naturally gravitate toward ethical issues, and service learning gives students the sense that they as individuals can make a difference in the world.

The quotation in the title of this essay -- "I Never Knew I Could Be A Hero" -- stands as a testament to the power of service learning. Those words were written by Carlos, a former intervention student of mine, in his reflection on one of our service learning activities. The following summer, Carlos was placed in a work camp for adolescent offenders because of his involvement in tagging (defacing property with graffiti). When school resumed in the fall, Carlos told me he actually enjoyed the incarceration because he was involved in service activities there!


Following are several examples of service-learning activities that were well received by my students. Keep in mind that the projects were done with students who ranged from years below grade level to gifted and honors level. Note how each activity connected to the curriculum and engaged students -- often directly -- with members of the community.

Poster Project. One of the first guest speakers I invited into my classroom was Elizabeth. She was a member of our school community; she ran the school's Parent Center. Elizabeth spoke to my students about services offered by the Center. When I commented, "I didn't know so many things happened there," one of my students countered, "We should tell people about it!" That was the impetus for a project in which students created posters in both English and Spanish explaining the Parent Center's services. Students also chose where they thought the posters would be most effective; then they got permission from the local businesses owners to place them there. As a result of the students' efforts, community use of the Parent Center increased significantly.

Hospital Project. Each year, beginning at Halloween, after learning how to write various rhyme schemes, my students wrote and designed holiday cards for pediatric and geriatric patients at a local hospital. Those holiday cards were placed on patients' dinner trays on the day of the holiday. My students learned what that activity meant to others when one patient, blind from diabetes and with a recently amputated leg, had his wife send a very appreciative response to one student's card.

Writing Projects. Because I usually taught English and history, my students did lots of writing. We always incorporated writing into our service learning activities; on occasion, however, the writing was the activity! Sometimes, students wrote stories and turned them into books; other times, their book reports actually were small books. In both cases, students took their "books" to a local elementary school where they read them to students, then left them there.

Books on Tape. One year, I got a small grant from an independent booksellers' association. I bought picture books -- geared mostly to middle elementary grade levels -- and my students taped themselves reading the books aloud. They shared their books-on-tape with students at local elementary schools.

Service Learning
Articles from the Education World Archive
* Four Schools With Award-Winning Service-Learning Programs
* Service Learning in Action Across the Grades
* Service Projects Help Students Find Their Voices
* Students Learn While Helping at Soup Kitchen
* Special Dog "Guides" Middle School Curriculum
* Community Service: Opportunity or Exploitation?
* Is Community Service a Waste of Time?
* Earth Inc. -- A Community-Service Lesson Plan

Nutrition Project. When a simple activity taught one class that they knew very little about nutrition, they investigated farther. They decided they wanted to share what they learned, so they came up with several project ideas. They designed and created informative nutrition posters, which sprang up all around campus. They created little booklets on the basics of good nutrition that were passed along to homeroom teachers. And they created a nutrition quiz that was disseminated in homerooms. After taking the quiz, students calculated the percentages of right and wrong answers. They visited each homeroom to share with other students some of the common misconceptions about nutrition and the factual information they had learned.

Video Project. Finally, one of my classes created a video for fifth graders advising them how to prepare for middle school. The students planned the video's content and decided which roles each student would play. When the video was completed, they prepared a speech to introduce the video. They presented the speech and video at nine feeder elementary schools. When the video was over, the students addressed anxious, interested questions from the fifth graders.


The Internet offers a wealth of information and resources about service learning. (See some sample links at the end of this article.) All that information can make service learning seem much more daunting than it actually is. The good news is that service-learning strategies can be incorporated into all content areas and grade levels naturally.

The key to getting started with service learning is to start small. I always try to keep the idea simple and the cost of materials to a minimum. In "true" service learning, students themselves identify a need in the community and determine a means of having a positive impact on the situation. I've found it easier, however, to begin by selecting an activity for students until they truly understand the entire process.

One essential element of service learning is student reflection -- oral and written -- about their service learning experiences. Students need many opportunities to assess for themselves what they've accomplished and what it means both to others and themselves. I've handled service-learning activities, in fact, in which the crucial focus was on the students' accountability for their learning and on the positive impact of our service activities beyond the classroom.

Last, but not least, members of every community and community organizations can be a great resource for teachers looking for service learning support. I found two treasures in my own school: Elizabeth, the previously mentioned head of the Parent Center, and Joe, a teacher of the deaf and hard-of-hearing who himself was hearing-impaired. They brought wisdom and concern to my students in a way I myself could not.

Incorporating service learning activities into the curriculum can bring an exceptional energy and involvement to the classroom. Good luck!


Here are a few suggestions for resources to get started with service-learning activities in your school:

  • National Service Learning Clearinghouse. This service-learning database includes information about curriculum ideas, programs, organizations, people, events, funding, and literature.
  • This site includes sample curriculum and related service learning links. It also contains two terrific service learning publications by Cathryn Berger Kaye: Service Learning in Action and Service Learning BookShelf, which offer a bibliography of fiction and non-fiction literature that's a useful stepping stone for new service-learning topics.
  • Constitutional Rights Foundation. The CRF is a strong advocate for service learning. This site includes a wealth of service learning resources, including curricular programs such as CityYouth.

A teacher for nearly 30 years in both pubic and private schools, Kathie Marshall currently works as an instructional coach at Pacoima Middle School in Pacoima, California. She has written two holiday graph art workbooks, "Plotting Points, Grades 2 to 4," and "Plotting Points, Grades 5 to 8." Both are published by McGraw-Hill.

Article by Kathie Marshall
Education World®
Copyright © 2004 Education World


Updated 01/25/2005