Project-Based Service Learning

When I first  heard the term Service Learning, it immediately resonated with me. However, when  I saw how the term was being interpreted and applied, I was surprised.  In most programs that I have seen over the years, there is service, sure. Kids were learning about the importance of community service, no doubt.  People are benefitting from the efforts of the kids, absolutely.

But wasn’t it just really the same old community service?  Were these experiences really projects? Was it service-oriented learning or service-driven learning? Or even learning oriented/ driven service?

How many of these programs actually allow us to get into our community and serve it by using what we have learned and our talent for problem solving? For me, that is what Service Learning means.  A more appropriate term would be Project-Based Service Learning.

A few years back, I developed this personal definition for Service Learning to provide a framework for program development.

Service Learning- An interdisciplinary program that provides for students diverse opportunities to collaborate on projects that serve their community through the use of integral skills acquired in the students’ academic and social experiences in an effort to create, develop, and implement a plan to improve the community (local, national, global) in meaningful and purposeful ways.  (JPR 2012)

As I look at where we are in independent school education, we have a tremendous responsibility to provide opportunities that will allow our students to learn, grow, and contribute to our communities.  In fact, as I was developing this blog, my little guy asked me what I was doing.  If you read my blog, you know that I relish these moments to share a learning relationship with my son because when I have to explain to him in terms that a 5 and half year old can understand, I better understand the concepts, too.

So in response, I told him how important it is to help people in our community, and the best way to do that is to work together and  share what we know, our energy, and our creativity in helping to solve a problem.  
I told him that there are people out there that don’t have enough to eat.  Ryder responded that we should share our bananas with them.  I liked his idea, but I took it a little bit further.  In doing so, I realized that we were collaborating on solving a real problem using creative strategies.

Me: So if we have 10 people who are hungry, how would we feed them?

Ryder: We can give them bananas!

Me: How many will we need? I mean, how many bananas do you need to make you not feel hungry anymore? (math and empathy)

Ryder: I need 2 bananas.

Me: So 2 bananas each for 10 people? That’s more bananas than we have- how many is it? (we use some pennies to solve this mulitplication problem- Ry needs a little help on this one)

Me: So if we don’t have 20 bananas, what are some of the ways we can get them?

And so on down the line, we make a plan to get bananas. With older kids, maybe we get to the nutritional value of bananas and then determine the most efficient way to get them to people.  In any event, the point is that there is no age-restriction for this type of project based service learning experience.

 Using skills from Algebra, 21st century skills, the Vietnam example of positive deviants (, agricultural geometry, and many other skills, we can provide high level project based service learning that is truly a meaningful project, that is serving in impactful ways, while our students are experiencing elite level learning.

Here is a sample of a framework for such a project:

From their academic experience, students will determine (with advisor and SME assistance/guidance) essential skills from each academic course. Essential Skills- 3 for sixth grade, 4 for seventh grade and 5 for eighth grade (from each course)

  • Transcendent across all levels of the discipline

  • Discipline specific

  • Measurable

  • Applicable to multiple conditions/ problems

  • Focus on 21st Century Skill Sets integral in our Global community

Pick a social, civic, community, environmental issue, problem, condition for which your team wants to create a solution or better practice.

You will use skills from each of your classes in creating your service learning  project.

For instance:

You will use composition skills from English class to compose plans, letters and reports.

You will use Algebra skills to determine unknown costs of achieving objectives of project and budgeting

You will use Science skills to create hypothesis, experimental models and execute the experiment, breakdown data and interpret/analyze data.

You will use Social Science skills to identify patterns in your project that match historical or cultural patterns and make predictions about outcomes, and create preventative guidelines to avoid historically proven failure- or to imitate successful patterns in preparations.

You will use World Language skills to translate your information into multiple languages to accommodate the diverse population in your community.

There can be artistic connections, too- songs, visual art renderings, dances, TV, publications

Ultimately, technology tools will be intergral in the creation, research, collaboration, and communication necessary for execution.

Advisors act as project advisors, and teachers act as subject matter experts in guiding students during these projects.

Thoughts welcome


Proactive Feedback

In this season of outplacement, mid-year assessment & grades (numerical or narrative), and faculty evaluation, discussions about how to best assess, evaluate, and support the progress of students, teachers, programs, and schools are providing substantial heat during the wintry climes affecting independent schools across the country. 

Having been involved in many of these conversations over the course of my career, I feel confident and secure that in any condition, providing what I have come to term Proactive Feedback in each case best supports the growth mindset we strive to maintain and nurture in all of our endeavors.

While the strategy is not new, I stumbled across this moniker while walking my dog on a wintry January afternoon while we were on a snow day.  Simply, proactive feedback is the approach to sharing the evaluation of performance in a way that is formative, metacognitive, forward-thinking, and action-oriented.

When we share information with students, parents, teachers, or even each other, we need to avoid using terminology and tone that indicate a summative finality.  Whether we use numerical grades, percentile ranks, stanines, letter grades, or narrative statements of performance, the proactive, action-orientation of the report must be the central integral element.  As I have often said “we don’t put a 75% on a paper, then slap it on the kid’s shirt for him/ her to walk around thinking- ‘this is who I am, I am a 75%.’”

We need to share meaningful and essential information. This essential information falls into three simple categories:

1)    What is being done well, or is mastered, or is a “strength”.

2)    What can be improved upon significantly, needs work towards proficiency/mastery, or is still a challenge that requires outside support ( I personally prefer to avoid terms like “weakness” or  “struggle”).

3)    What is the plan to continue to nurture those elements in category 1, while providing support, strategy, instruction, and deliberate & meaningful practice for elements in category 2.  In other words, what is the plan moving forward to continue to grow.

Ultimately, the feedback on performance is proactive because it provides specific detail on where we are, where we want to go, and how we are going to get there.  *Notice the pronoun “we”…

In developing assessment and evaluation tools, establishing a direct link between skill and tool is paramount.  Further, organizing the tool in a way that the evaluator can easily aggregate individual and universal strengths and needs will make the process both more efficient and effective.

The sharing of the proactive feedback needs to be clearly explained as a formative process, and not a summative finality.  The summative finality approach can evoke in an individual the negativity of performance orientation.  The formative, growth-minded approach of the proactive feedback inspires a positive mastery orientation that often liberates learners and creators of school programs.

Finally, involving the families in this process, in the collective “we”, is integral.  Front end communication and explanation not only of the process, but more importantly of the rationale behind it is a paramount pre-requisite for partnership for student growth.

Likewise, with the evaluation of faculty and staff, an opening of the year explanation and discussion of these elements will make the process a positive one, rather than the sometimes threatening one that can exist with evaluations.

I look forward to anyone who has proactive feedback on how I can improve this piece.  Stay warm folks.