Making Sustainability and Service-Learning Mesh in the Classroom

by Natalie LaRose

A major theme of sustainability is improving the quality of life for all. One way in which my classroom is going to improve the quality of life for all is through a service-learning project  planned during my professional development time at Shelburne Farms for the Community Works Institute’s  (CWI) on Service-Learning. The project aligns with the first history unit of the school year:  “North Street Then and Now.” Over the course of the unit, students will learn about the history of North Street, the street on which their school is located. North Street is located in Burlington, Vermont’s Old North End, an area with rich cultural diversity and history, but also traditionally an economically challenged area of the city. 

 I teach 2nd and 3rd grade at the Sustainability Academy in Burlington, Vermont,  the nation’s first K-5 magnet school with a sustainability theme. The Sustainability Academy is one-of-a-kind, in that sustainability is integrated into our curriculum, campus practices, and culture. Our partner Shelburne Farms’ Sustainable Schools Project has supported our efforts for a number of years now.

 At the Sustainability Academy, we engage young citizens to make a difference in the community by exploring our diverse society, our local economy, and the environment through hands-on projects. We define sustainability as ‘shared responsibility for improving quality of life for all— economically, socially and environmentally— now and for future generations.’ Every day students experience the theme of sustainability. Students explore their community, learn about food and nutrition by visiting local farms and gardens, help build a school garden, compost in the classroom and cafeteria, recycle, and eat locally grown food.

When I look back on the week of training at there is one aspect of the experience that will remain in my mind for some time to come. It was a reassuring feeling to be surrounded by educators who shared the same priorities and ideals that I do. I felt a strong sense of purpose and camaraderie in being surrounded by others who are planning extraordinary service-learning projects —educators who are committed to witnessing their students succeed in the community. Working and learning with passionate educators reinforced the drive in me to provide the greatest service-learning experience to my students. 

 I had two goals in signing up for this Institute. The first was for me to gain a better understanding of the difference between community service and service-learning, the second was to learn how I could incorporate service-learning into my already packed curriculum. I feared that service-learning would be an add-on that I would not have time for. As I reflect back on the Institute, both of my objectives for attending were satisfied in great detail throughout the week-long event.

  I was especially inspired by one presenter— Steven Colangeli, a guest presenterfrom Middlebury High School in Vermont. Steven spoke about school based agriculture education. His presentation sparked me to create a unit titled, “Where Our Food Comes From.” The main objective of this unit is for students to develop an understanding of the source of the food they eat on a daily basis.  Students will also learn how our community can grow healthy food thereby improving our health. Students interview farmers, vendors at the local farmers’ markets, and other members of the agricultural community. In the end, students gain a better understanding of the foods they are consuming and how some foods are produced. 

I now understand that service-learning should be curriculum-based, should address state standards, and be assessed. The most significant change in my way of thinking centers on the understanding that service-learning is not simply an add-on or additional project– it can be easily incorporated into an existing unit of study. Students will start the North Street service-learning project by researching and interviewing

members of the community. Based on their interviews and research students will identify a need within the community. Examples of community needs might be a lack of books at the local homeless shelter, or a lack recycling bins outside of stores. Students will then brainstorm how they can address the need they have identified— be it raising money, writing letters to the City Councill, or asking others for creative options. As a culminating activity students will take parents on a tour of the areas they helped improve around the community.

One of the biggest take-aways of the Institute was the concept of giving students the opportunity to have their voices heard. I consider myself an organized person who always has a plan and knows what is coming up in two weeks, two months and in two years.  Before CWI’s Institute I rarely allowed students to offer input regarding what service-learning needs they thought were best for them. I was concerned that allowing such input would somehow create a loss of control and organization.  As a result of my newfound understanding I realized the importance of shifting my way of thinking. Giving students a voice allows their learning to be much more meaningful to them and brings learning to life.  

The second breakthrough was my realization of the power of reflection. I once viewed reflection as a “wrap-up” tool that was to be applied only at the end of a unit. I now realize that reflection should not be limited to a sustained exercise used as a means of conclusion.  Reflection should be applied throughout a unit.  It is a great way for teachers to receive student feedback and determine what segments of instruction provide the strongest foundation on which to build. Reflections can be performed during morning meeting, at the end of a lesson, or at the end of the day during closing circle. My personal brainstorming sessions on how various reflection activities might be used has brought possibilities such as paintings, skits, newspaper articles, etc. to mind.

This service-learning project would  not be taking place if it were not for my time of reflection this summer. My time at the Institute broadened my perspective and created a useful vision as to the planning of an in-depth service-learning project that aligns with the theme of sustainability and a unit of study. Sustainability is at the heart of our community and service-learning is at the heart of my teaching.

 Natalie currently teaches a second and third grade combination at the Sustainability Academy in Burlington, Vermont. More information on Community Works Institute can be found at:

Originally published in Community Works Journal online magazine. ( Reprinted with permission.

This article appeared in the SSP's Fall 2011 Newsletter.

Download a PDF of the article here.

Download the Fall 2011 entire newsletter here.

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