Learning and the Evolution of 'Service'

Bill Fisher
All across the elementary and middle school universe, today's teachers increasingly favor the concept of "service learning" over the older notion of "community service." According to Shore's Service Learning Coordinator, Pamela Torres, the shift reflects educators' desire for a more expansive, inclusive, and up-to-date understanding of service at school.

"The traditional idea of community service implies that we, the privileged, go and do something for others who are less privileged," says Torres. "But at Shore, as at many other schools, we no longer feel that's the way we should think about service; instead of understanding it solely as some kind of donation to the less fortunate, we want to acknowledge that it can teach us something about the world and ourselves, as well. Through service, we all benefit."

One definition, from Loyola University, emphasizes the importance of mutuality in service learning: all participants should benefit, learn, and grow from the experience. The U.S. government's Youth.org program notes two key components that distinguish service learning from community service: experiential activities that integrate with the academic curriculum, and opportunities for reflection on and application of learning in real-life contexts. In other words, the service learning experience in some way should encouage critical reflection on the conditions which create the need for various types of community service in the first place. The program's materials cite studies that suggest students who participate in service learning are more likely to pursue civic engagement, volunteer, and take an interest in world events and politics.

Here at Shore, many students have witnessed the evolution toward service learning in real time, as over the past few years teachers have increasingly begun to tie service-based projects and trips to different phases of their curriculum, ensuring hands-on projects translate into benefits for students in the classroom as well as recipients in the field. While Upper Schoolers and upper Lower School students have all seen evidence of this shift, perhaps none have experienced it more starkly than Shore's ninth graders, who two years ago welcomed the addition of a transformative week-long trip to Glendora, Mississippi, with Ipswich-based Partners in Development.

"The Mississippi trip is Shore's best example of service learning," says Torres, with an itinerary that takes the ninth grade from the culturally and historically rich city of Memphis, Tennessee, to the remote village of Glendora, where the students assist with projects to benefit underserved local residents. In the words of Partners in Development's founder and president, Gale Hull, Glendora is "a place where the population for generations has felt that their lives have been controlled and dominated by others. There is much entrenched hopelessness, depression, and inertia. We have been entrusted with a huge responsibility."

Before students even depart in the fall, explains Torres, they lay the academic groundwork for the experience in history class by studying the Civil Rights Movement and other topics. Then, while on the trip, they visit the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis and the Emmett Till Museum in Glendora itself, learning the story of the 14-year-old African-American who was lynched nearby in 1955, after a white woman said she was offended by him in her family's grocery store. Upon their return, students delve into an English class study of Tracy Kidder's Mountains Beyond Mountains, the story of Massachusetts native Paul Farmer. Doctor, Harvard professor, renowned infectious-disease specialist, anthropologist, and the recipient of a MacArthur "genius" grant, Farmer made it his mission to diagnose and cure infectious diseases and to bring the lifesaving tools of modern medicine to those who need them most, in countries such as Haiti and Rwanda.
Though the ninth grade's Mississippi trip—as much a service experience as a first-hand encounter with critically important issues of social justice—may stand out at Shore, students in every grade find new opportunities for service learning each year. Upper Schoolers consult the new and improved Service Learning Board in the Walsh Building's North Wing to find projects with local organizations such as Beverly Bootstraps and Appleton Farms. Seventh and eighth graders regularly spend afternoons working, and learning, with those and other regional nonprofits such as The ARC, Family Promise, and the Essex Shipbuilding Museum. From each of these experiences they'll bring back new ideas and understanding to share with peers in their history, social studies, language arts, and science classes.

Shore families are just as involved in these efforts. Through the Shore Parents Association's United in Service partnership with the United Way, hundreds of members of the Shore community have the chance to work with and learn from nonprofits in Beverly and surrounding towns. This fall, with the string of recent natural disasters that have devastated parts of the United States, the Caribbean, and Central America, students and faculty plan to join alumni and friends to stage a free concert to benefit the survivors.

But not every example of service learning has to be of such grand scale, insists Torres. "We see service opportunities right here at school and in nearby Beverly," she says. "Our Upper School students are invited to volunteer to read or help with math lessons in Lower School classrooms; our annual Fall Rummage Sale helps to benefit the Beverly Children's Learning Center, right across the street. For Shore, service isn't just a once-a-year effort anymore; it's in our classrooms every day."
    • Eighth graders at the Essex Shipbuilding Museum

    • The ninth grade trip to Glendora, Mississippi

    • First graders installing a Little Free Library at Appleton Farms

    • Volunteering in Pre-K

    • United in Service

    • The Upper School's Service Learning Board