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Service Learning: Changing the World

What social skills do you think today’s teenagers need to learn? Integrity? Empathy? Communication? In a world in which the consideration index seems to have plummeted, how can adults help to instill these crucial traits into our children? What if it were your job to do so? What would you do if you had 85 teenagers and six weeks to teach them social skills? How would you do it? Luckily, we had an idea.

We wanted to rock our students’ worlds with kindness—for themselves and for others. The solution: Give unto others.

It may sound a little bit strange, but at one local public school, Forrest Bird Charter School, students spent more than a month serving others while simultaneously studying core classes.

The assignment: Choose any area of service you are interested in, contact the supervisor, dedicate yourself to 20 to 40 hours of serving, work with teachers to coordinate lessons around your service, then do it.

Students chose diversified community-service learning projects based on their own interests. If you happen to walk downtown, notice the new Galaxy Whale in the Galaxy Alley, painted by students and supervised by art instructor Holly Walker. If you walk by the auxiliary volunteer desk at Bonner General Health, note the pictures of the students who spent hundreds of hours, collectively, giving of their time to patients and staff. Hiking and biking trails were cleaned and cleared, Food Bank shelves stocked, Eagle Scout projects worked on, and area businesses accepted help and trained youth. Several nursing homes enjoyed the vocal and instrumental talent of our students.

“This type of learning is beneficial for both the students and the community,” said Boundary County Restorium student volunteer Derek Harlan. “Students get the opportunity to solve real-world problems with their time and energy and learn responsibility to themselves and others.” Students were all around the region, giving of their time, and in return, learning those valuable lessons of compassion, communication and empathy. Student Samantha Miller said, “It gave us a once-in-a-lifetime chance to experience something that others didn’t.”

The result: 2,939 hours and 13 minutes. 367 eight-hour days: the number of combined days 85 teens gave of their time to serve others. On average, each student served nearly 37 hours during a month-long period of volunteering in Bonner and Boundary counties.

On the educational side, “Project Based Learning (PBL) is a teaching method in which units are designed to investigate and solve authentic and complex questions, problems and challenges,” Misty Rains, science teacher, explained. Realizing there are hundreds of organizations, individuals and businesses in need of helping hands, the FBCS faculty designed an innovative and invigorating PBL unit, marrying core learning standards and service learning.

“We created a project that challenged all of us,” said foreign language instructor Eric Fulgenzi. Student-driven curriculum including math, science, social studies, speech and art was integrated into each student’s choice of service. If a student chose to serve Bonner General Health, for instance, their curriculum delved farther into science, while one serving at Washington Elementary focused more on childhood development. Alexus Fryman, who volunteered for Mr. Warren at Farmin Stidwell Elementary explained, “I had the opportunity to experience what it was like to be an adult in a real-world setting.” Individualized learning reflected the service each student chose.

“This type of education and learning most closely resembles life outside of school. When we have an interest in something, say building a gardening box, we go out and research the most efficient and cost-effective way to do that in order to maximize our time. That is exactly what we pushed our students to do in this project,” explained Fulgenzi.

“This project has gotten students out of their comfort zones, pushed them to create new connections socially and cognitively, and has been as messy and beautiful as real life,” he noted. Service Learning pushed students beyond tasks: It helped to teach them lifetime values.

“Volunteering has helped me to grow in character. I am a better person now than I was when I first started. I will definitely do it again,” said student Grace Michelsen.

Not only did the PBL service unit result in many students’ growth in compassion and help to the community, it also helped some identify future careers. Several students walked away from their service knowing they would return to jobs. They had proven their abilities during their volunteerism. Others, like student Kevin, is resolved to pursue higher education so he can work in the ER. “We have a number of students who have received job offers from doing such a great job during their service. These students are getting excited about doing work! They are making contacts within the community. They are representing our school and philosophy with professionalism and dependability. It is great to see,” said teacher Misty Rains.

Teaching was a challenge. It was juggling 85 individualized curriculums, finding time to meet and pushing for mastery of content. Teacher Bonnie Jakubos said, “The students were able to see their teachers collaborating. It was a demonstration of teamwork that we wanted them to see. It was also a great learning experience for teachers.” During school hours, the “class” included all students working together in one room on their core classes. This non-traditional environment, although probably confusing to an onlooker, increased rapport and interaction among students and teachers. Veteran teacher Mark Webber commented, “This project opened my eyes to the power of student-led instruction. Students were able to gain much more than what could be delivered from class instruction if they chose to challenge themselves.”

Following the hours of service and collaborative instruction, students showcased their projects. Along with describing their service, many used time-lapse filming to demonstrate the evolution of their service learning. “Watching them present their projects and celebrate their service and contribution was as real as it could be. Witnessing students weave together the content areas seamlessly was a work of art,” said Lyndsay Holland, teacher.

And for all, the one group who chose to serve by documenting the PBL Service Learning unit displayed a trailer of their film attributing the compilation of all students’ efforts. “The collaboration has been incredible. We built this monster of a project together … and it worked!” said Rains.

“We can all contribute something to someone, whether it be money or food, but only a few can give their time,” said Ashton Thompson, student. “This project taught us that time is worth more than money, because you learn more morals and values if you read to a group of elderly people versus if you give them $100 each. We can all give money, but only good memories are created with time.”

Student photographers: Kai Eagley, Lauren Roth, Kristen De Alba, Kiley Thomas, William Morton.

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