by Ricardo Moraes, MS Coordinator, Challenge-Based
- A staff from the Department of Natural Resources explains facts about
Eagles while six special education students have been quietly
listening for the last 30 minutes.
- Another group of students with low academic performance designs a trail
accessible for people of all abilities.
- Students that present behavior problems work as a team to build a garden
at a local nursing home as their teacher stands amused.
The above illustrations are real examples of successfully action-oriented
projects used to support students with special needs to grow and achieve
|Students participate in a service learning project
repairing trail surfaces to ensure access for trail users with
Many students with behavior problems are diagnosed with attention
deficit disorder and attention deficit hyperactive disorder. They
present common characteristics such as lack of social skills, difficulty
on concentrating for long periods of time, history of academic underachievement
and struggle in conflict-resolution. Their high energy and lack
of focus does not fit well with the idea of sitting through 50-minute
periods of classroom learning. They usually cannot perform well
in a regular classroom setting and they are commonly a source of
distraction for peers and teachers. Solution-focused educators have
found service learning projects can engage students with special
needs in the learning process.
An Action Learning Approach
The Research Agenda for Combining Service and Learning in the 1990's
has defined service-learning as "…both a program type and a philosophy
of education. As a program type, service-learning includes myriad
ways that students can perform meaningful service to their communities
and to society while engaging in some form of reflection or study
that is related to the service. As a philosophy of education, service-learning
reflects the belief that education must be linked to social responsibility
and that the most effective learning is active and connected to
experience in some meaningful way."
Service projects are exciting, dynamic hands-on experiences that integrate
multiple skills, empower students, focus on their strengths rather
than their disabilities, and represent real-life challenges. Students
have to use all their potential in conducting a systematic needs
assessment, strategically planning, and implementing a project that
is meaningful for them and their community. Having fun and developing
social skills, students also engage in an academic, interdisciplinary
journey. A project focused on protecting eagles' natural environment,
for example, becomes a motivation to study biology, land management,
math and science.
Service Learning projects can help students to:
- Build responsibility.
- Foster a sense of caring & giving.
- Develop strategic planning & critical thinking.
- Succeed in a team environment.
- Engage in the learning process.
Service Learning in Practice
The following is a real example extracted from a program offered at Bradford
Woods Outdoor Education and Leadership Center that utilizes service
learning as part of the curriculum.
A group of middle-school students presenting emotional and behavior problems
attend an alternative outdoor experiential education program one
day a week for the entire school year. This group of students is
presented with the concept of planning and implementing a service
project. In the first instance the students react adversely to the
idea of a service project. They react loudly by asking "why do we
need to do things for others?" "What will we get from it?" Typical
of their age, they are reluctant. However, when the purpose of the
service project is further explored, students become engaged and
quickly form a committee. Their first task is to go into their community
and identify a project to improve the community quality of life.
The following week, one of the students explains that the local nursing
home for retired citizens needs some improvements in their backyard.
The group agrees that it is a good project based on their skills
and interests. After a brainstorming session, they decide to design
and install a flower garden. Their excitement with the idea is momentarily
halted when one the students asks "where will we get the supplies?
Who will pay for that?" The critical thinking process has just started
and with support of the adult supervisor the students go back to
school with the mission of researching organizations that could
A week later they achieve their next objective. They discover that there
is an organization that sponsors youth groups in developing service
projects. What a great find! The group starts feeling a sense of
belonging, they are not alone and there are people out there that
can give them support. But support does not always come easily.
They now have to go through an application process in order to get
the money they need. They organize themselves in different roles
and each student is responsible for a part of the application: filling
out forms, making a list of supplies, developing a budget, drawing
a design for the flower garden, contacting the nursing home and
getting a consent form, and deciding a name and date for the project.
This process takes a while and the group finally has everything
together, however the most important part of the application process
is yet to come. The students have to present their proposal in front
of committee members that will select and approve projects. This
creates a wonderful experience for students to work on their presentation
techniques and social skills, and to practice for similar situations
they will face in the future. After a nerve-racking presentation
the group is granted with the fund needed to implement the project.
The students are filled with more feelings of accomplishment.
The project day arrives and the young group is anxious to do a good job
and to meet the residents of the nursing home. As the day progresses
on, residents start to come to observe the unusual movement. They
start interacting with the students, telling them stories and sharing
memories from their own youth. They also tell them how impressed
and pleased they are with the job they are doing. At the end of
the day residents and students engage in an unplanned game lead
by one of the residents. Both, elders and youth have a tremendous
amount of fun together. The students wash their tools, clean the
area and take a last picture besides the new flower garden they
have just built. On the way back to school pride is glowing from
each of their faces. Already two girls from the class are making
plans to go back during the summer to volunteer at the nursing home.
Students close out the project with an essay about the experience
which will be incorporated in their school portfolio.
Planning a Service Learning Project
There are important points to consider when planning for a successful service
- Participants should conduct an assessment to find what project is needed
in the community. This will provide a sense of usefulness and
- Focus tasks on the strengths of participants creating a sense of competence
for each student
- Give students control over the project; they will develop a sense of
power and potency.
- Integrate the project into an interdisciplinary curriculum ensuring
- Use reflection (i.e., journaling, group discussions; presentations).
This can be vital to enhance the transferring of skills acquired
in the project to real life for each student.
Bradford Woods Outdoor and Leadership Center
5040 St. Rd. 67 North
Martinsville, IN 46151
(765) 342-2915 (voice or tty)
The National Service-Learning Clearinghouse
1954 Buford Avenue, Room 460
St. Paul, MN 55108
Youth as Resource - a program of United Way
P.O. Box 88409
Indianapolis, IN 46208-0409
Giles Jr., Dwight, Ellen Porter Honnet and Sally Migliore. Research
Agenda for Combining Service and Learning in the 1990's. Raleigh:
National Society for Experiential Education, 1991.
About the Author
Ricardo Moraes, M.S. is the Coordinator of the Challenge-Based Therapeutic
Programs at Bradford Woods, Indiana University. Ricardo has been
involved in outdoor education for over eight years. His eclectic
experience include working with youth development in USA and Brazil
and facilitating outdoor challenge programs for a variety of populations
including at-risk and adjudicated youth and their families
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