A+ Advice for Parents

Service Learning Teaches Kids How to Go Beyond Volunteering

Q: We want to start something this summer to get our middle-school kids ready for the district's rigorous high school service learning program. Many local kids want to volunteer. We just need to help organize them. Where can we find good activities for this age?

A: How great that you're making this effort! Many tweens have informed opinions on serious issues. They want to help, but need guidance on how to make an impact.

Your district's high school program probably makes a distinction between volunteering and service learning. It's important to learn this if part of your goal is to prepare your kids for what is to come. Service-learning experts say volunteering is giving time, talent and resources to help others in need -- all good!

But service-learning programs take volunteering a step beyond. They are designed to get kids to learn about the need they're serving. Kids grow individually and as a team while strengthening the community around them.

For example, your tweens might volunteer to clean a local park, even pruning trees and pulling invasive plants. To turn it into a service learning project, add an educational component, such as researching the long-term impact of invasives, making a proposal on the future care of the park, or publishing a guide on proper tree care.

The YMCA Center for Asset Development has just released a terrific new curriculum to equip youth as change agents in the community: "Seasons of Service: Engaging Youth in Service-Learning Throughout the Year." It's free at theassetedge.net/seasons-of-service.pdf.

The folks at DoSomething.org, an organization for teens dedicated to social change, compiled an interactive workbook for tweens: "Do Something! A Handbook for Young Activists" (Workman, 2010). With action plans and 41 projects that range from disaster relief to bullying prevention, you're sure to find something that will appeal to your kids.

Another book, "How to Be an Everyday Philanthropist" (Workman, 2009), has a practical spin on how to make a difference in the world. It's all about "using what you have, not what you earn," says author Nicole Bouchard Boles. Many of its 330 ideas will appeal to tweens.

When tweens and parents volunteer together, it's the best of all worlds, according to Long Valley, N.J., middle school teacher Matt Marciano. For several years, he has engaged his sixth-grade social studies classes in "Change the World" projects to improve their community. He emphasizes the philosophy of "paying it forward" -- returning good deeds by helping others. His students have created a recycling program, made teddy bears for family shelters, established a pet therapy program in a local nursing home and helped an area homeless family. This past year, parents joined in, allowing students to expand their impact.

Getting tweens to think big about changing the world often starts with small gestures close to home, such as running errands for a sick neighbor.

"I tell students their summer assignment is to perform a random act of kindness every day," says Helena Wright, a Massachusetts middle school counselor. "It helps them be more other-directed and less focused on 'me, me, me.'"

Find ideas at www.randomactsofkindness.org.

(Do you have a question about your child's education? Email it to Leanna@aplusadvice.com. Leanna Landsmann is an education writer who began her career as a classroom teacher. She has served on education commissions, visited classrooms in 49 states to observe best practices, and founded Principal for a Day in New York City.)

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