03 March 2008

Service Learning: it’s the effort –right?

Two weeks I had a disturbing experience I want to share. I contacted two national organizations offering service learning opportunities. The first one was offering inner city project opportunities and the second was vaguely described as looking for volunteer coordinators. I sent emails to both form their web pages.

The first sent me an automated response with contact person email information and I replied to that. My reply was speedily returned as undeliverable. I went back to the web site and sent a feedback form about what happened. That produced a response from a person who sent me another email address and phone for the same contact person. I sent a new email to the contact and that was returned as undeliverable. I called the number of this person and heard a voice, left my message, and then nothing. It’s been two weeks and I’ve heard nothing.

The second opportunity responded promptly to my inquiry in a short message, one sentence, something to the effect that they needed volunteers and was I interested? I didn’t respond. Why? Not inspired.

I’m a teacher. I have organized high school students into doing service work, without all the lofty terms. They just want to make the campus a better place. I did it by providing information, facilitating discussions, and fanning the flames of their commitment to the campus and neighborhood.

I think that the keys to effective service learning and stirring up volunteer efforts in a community are:

1) Make the connection: sparking an interest about a specific issues or challenge
2) Allowing potential participants to take a level of responsibility in the issue/challenge
3) Meaningful action to resolve the issue/challenge
4) Local organization to administrate the action
5) Time for reflection on the “good” being produced

I don’t think throwing money at service learning is going to accomplish meaningful work or even increase numbers of participants. And, I think speakers that talk without making the connection are mere advertisers to an action item on the “looking good” agenda.

Students and people want to help, they want to pitch in and do some work. If you don’t have participation in your program then I guarantee you … you aren’t doing the five points above.

I hope we don’t run an excellent teaching method, service learning, amok because all we’re doing is throwing the almighty corporation dollar, or even worse - the almighty donation dollar, in an effort to run enough advertisements to peak interest and fill some volunteer slots in a plan.

What to do? Let’s keep this real and stay focused. Teachers are the resource for the five point plan because they already have the connection with students. Let the teachers promote the opportunity. I know, from my own experience in a classroom, it’s possible to instill service learning in the minds and heart of our future leaders while people are having fun and learning too. Organizations that partner with teachers are taking a step in the right direction.

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