THE POWER OF SERVICE LEARNING IN MIDDLE SCHOOL
Design thinking and a commitment to service intersected throughout the semester for Middle School students at GEMS World Academy-Chicago.
As part of a unique class titled Educating for Sustainability, and known informally as "X-block," our sixth- and seventh-graders collected and delivered books to orphanages around the world, raised awareness of wasted food in the school cafeteria, made blankets for children in hospitals and created items to solve everyday problems in the school community.
The four service-learning projects grew out of the X-block mission — to encourage students to adopt a systems-thinking approach and solve problems they are passionate about.
"This class is such a valuable part of what we do," teacher Katie Hellerman said. "I had the opportunity to stand back a bit as the teacher and let the students work things out on their own. It's rare to see that in schools."
Hellerman led a group of students as they sewed together blankets for Project Linus, an Illinois-based organization that sends security blankets to children dealing with serious illness or trauma. The students created the blankets from scratch, sewing them together piece by piece. The project required students to learn the basics of sewing (with machines) and understand the responsibilities involved in being part of a group that's working toward a single goal.
"We had a lot of discussions about the importance of doing good work and being precise," Hellerman said. "The students really came to understand how the quality of their work affected others in the group and the final product."
Another group of students organized a collection for Bookwallah, a nonprofit organization that delivers books to orphanages in select countries around the world.
The students began by researching the organization, meeting with its founders, going on a site tour and developing Bookwallah fact sheets. They then launched a book-collection drive that netted more than 1,500 books, which they delivered to the group's Chicago warehouse. The students also created videos (see an example below) and other materials to document the project.
"It was great for me as a reading teacher to see the students take charge," said Jay Annadurai, the teacher who led the project. "The students were really committed to taking action to bring books to children who otherwise wouldn't have access."
The third service-learning project focused on waste management and sustainability. Students monitored the amount of food that was thrown away during each lunch period at GEMS, graphing the results. They met with the GEMS food-service provider to discuss the issue of waste. They toured Plant Chicago, an organization that develops methods for sustainable food production and waste reuse, and interviewed its staff. They also conducted a survey of fellow Middle School students on the subject of food waste in the cafeteria.
"I'm so proud of the students, because they became motivated to really make a difference," said teacher and project leader Carla Shortino. "The level of commitment reached the point where some students became very angry with classmates who didn't seem to think about how much food they waste at lunchtime."
The fourth and final project involved designing solutions to everyday problems in the school community. This group of Middle School students created a website that allows people to submit requests for problem-solving items, like a cup that could hang on a teacher's MondoBoard and store styluses, or a set of paddles for the Middle School's new ping pong table. The students designed the items using a variety of software programs, then created them in the school's Design & Innovation Lab using laser cutters, 3-D printers and other tools.
"It wasn't a typical learning situation," teacher and project leader Elysia Sheehan said. "It was student-directed and goal-oriented. By taking on these kinds of problems in the school, the students developed a sense of how they can apply that thinking to bigger, global issues."
All of the teachers involved said Educating for Sustainability/X-block exemplifies the inquiry-based approach that GEMS World Academy-Chicago takes to education.