J. D. Lewis is at Eastover Elementary in Charlotte, North Carolina, demonstrating to a group of 200 third through fifth graders how a gorilla bodychecked him. “I was so scared,” he confesses, lunging forward like the great ape that muscled into his shoulder while Lewis was in Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda. The gesture, he explains, was just the gorilla’s way of offering friendship.

Lewis was at Eastover for the kick-off celebration for Twelve Good Deeds, a service-learning program he designed for schools. An acting coach, Lewis started the program after taking his sons, Buck, then 8, and Jackson, then 13, to 12 countries in a span of 12 months to engage in humanitarian work. Their journey took them to Russia, China, Australia, and Peru, among other countries.

A before- and after-school program for schools nationwide, Twelve Good Deeds is a striking example of how service learning has evolved in the 21st century to combine meaningful volunteer opportunities with curriculum essentials (an in-school curriculum is under development).

Here’s how it works: Students retrace the Lewis family’s journey, learning about a different country each week and receiving stamps in their passport booklet. They are also required to perform one or two good deeds per week, such as donating toys to a charity.

Each child agrees to get a dozen sponsors for their good deeds. Spon­sorship costs $12—$1 per deed—so each child raises $144. Eighty-eight percent of the money goes to the nonprofits that the Lewises served on their journey; the remaining 12 percent funds a need at the child’s school.

The results have been impressive. Funds from good deeds are building new school desks and a lending library in Mwiko, Rwanda, and better housing for Tibetan refugees in McLeod Ganj, India. Through the Twelve Good Deeds website and Facebook page, “children get to watch the money they raise build projects, in real time, all over the world,” Lewis says.

Kristy Hill, a fifth-grade teacher at Eastover, liked the program’s effect during its first run last year: “My students were more empathetic to lives that were different than their own, and seemed to be more cognizant of the issues in our own community.”

The benefits of service learning don’t end there. Multiple studies conclude that students involved in quality service-learning programs are more cognitively engaged at school and show improved academic achievement. Attendance rates tend to be higher as well. And students exhibit qualities of social development, such as appreciation of diversity.

DYoP—Design Your Own Program

Inspired to create your own service-learning unit? Follow these tips.

■ Start Small

Ryan Steuer, a coordinator with generationOn, a nonprofit that provides resources for service learning and professional development for teachers, says that when he was teaching, "I wanted every one of my 120 learners to do a project so they could explore their passions—a noble goal, but it was impossible to follow through with 120 unique service-learning projects.” Now, he coaches teachers to be realistic about time and resources.

■ Get Kid Buy-In

Laura Rog, director of training technical assistance for generationOn, recommends letting kids’ interests and talents lead the way: “Allow students to come up with their own ideas. Let their voices be heard on what they are seeing in their neighborhood.”

Try selecting several ideas, hold a classroom discussion on each, and then ask students to vote. Continue giving students choices once your project begins. Let’s say you divide your project into four main tasks, with a team of students handling each one. When possible, allow students to choose which task they’re interested in pursuing. A sense of control encourages students to be more invested in the project they’ve undertaken.

■ Use the News

Connecting the project to current events lets students see how they can influence the world. Sara Mischke, a third-grade teacher at Lancaster Central Elementary School in Bluffton, Indiana, built a project around Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines. The class learned about Filipino culture and researched the disaster. Students wrote letters to persuade their community to donate to the American Red Cross, and placed the letters with donation jars around town. “Students need to be empowered by adults to realize they can influence change,” Mischke says.

■ Ground It in the Curriculum

It’s not as hard as you might imagine to embed service learning in the curriculum. “If the project involves a collection of some kind, progress can be shown using graphs or charts,” says Amy Salogar, principal at Shepherd Elementary School in Michigan. Writing can be incorporated in many ways. Students can reflect on how their project changed the community and themselves. “They could even choose to write to those they are helping to find out what impact their donation has made,” adds Salogar.

Third graders in Jennifer Coffman’s class at Valley Mills Elementary in Indianapolis drew blueprints for raised garden beds to be built at a nearby community center in a project that “moved their learning about perimeter and area from the worksheet to the real world,” says Coffman. Students determined materials and design, researched what would grow well, and helped construct garden beds and benches. “There was so much real-world work that students didn’t realize they were mastering standards and [acquiring] content knowledge at the same time,” says Coffman.

Coffman suggests starting with the end in mind to ensure the service learning ties in to social studies, math, literacy, or science. She also recommends identifying the standards and skills that students should grasp by the conclusion of the project.

■ Collaborate

Collaboration means more minds and hands to tackle the work. If you team-teach, consider supervising students on the initial research, while a colleague oversees implementation. Or work by specialty: In science, students collect water samples; in English, they write and give a presentation on water quality prior to stream cleanup day. Not only is this strategy helpful for planning, it also shows students how knowledge transfers from one area to another, Rog of generationOn says.
Look for other potential collaborators, including community centers, senior centers, and nonprofit agencies. Along with providing help, such partnerships can deepen students’ sense of being part of a community.

Service learning takes effort. But it can excite students and inspire teachers, giving everyone new opportunities for critical thinking and creativity.

J. D. Lewis has seen the benefits in his sons and in the Twelve Good Deeds participants. “The more knowledge they get, the more they want to know. The program has made kids realize that it is real people out there with real needs. They like the idea of being philanthropists.”


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Image: Megan Klumper