Lessons in Service-Learning: After School Programming

A student and his bird feeder.
After School programs can be a great place to develop education for sustainability and service-learning projects to enrich the curriculum.

Lessons in Service-Learning: After School Programing

by Tiffany Tillman

 For the past year, as the Sustainable Schools Project’s AmeriCorps/Vista member, I have worked with Champlain’s After-School Program Coordinator to help infuse Champlain’s sustainability work into after-school programs. In September, I began “Let’s Map,” a school-yard mapping and species identification project, and “Living Machine Stewards,” where students maintained the school’s Living Machine and increased the biodiversity of this model aquatic ecosystem. In the winter, students in the “For the Birds!” program created a bird viewing and feeding station.

In all cases, students chose to participate in programs whose scope and objectives were set long before the students signed up. The programs helped students develop communication and problem-solving skills, gain experience working cooperatively, connect with their place, and contribute to their community. What they didn’t do, however, was give students a sense of ownership over the project. Service-learning projects at their best not only improve the community and support academic learning, they also help young people develop resiliency and positive civic behavior.

How then, I wondered, could Champlain’s after-school service-learning programs continue to foster students’ personal resources and academic skills while making room for student direction? I decided that students needed to shape each service project based on their own passions and dreams for making a difference. But could we incorporate student direction without detracting from student learning? The answer became quite clear. Students learn best when they are inspired to act. Their learning is authentic. Making the projects student-directed would only add to the overall success and meaning of the after school programs.

After much thought, a promising project model was born: “Schoolyard Stewards,” an after-school program created by students. This spring, the students who signed up for the program spent the first two weeks brainstorming a list of projects, researching them, democratically deciding on a few, then developing plans of action. They went dipping for macroinvertebrates and pond organisms to put in the Living Machine and planned a clean-up project for Green-Up Day in Burlington. Not surprisingly, the enthusiasm, creativity and dedication of the participants far exceed those in the other programs. As one participant said at the end of a session, “Man, I can’t wait for next week, and then Green-Up Day. This is so fun!” This student struggles in his regular classroom, but gleams with pride while in Schoolyard Stewards.

Service-learning reaps many benefits. When students participate in the actual project decision-making themselves, it can change lives and lay the foundation for future citizens who are dedicated to community involvement.

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