Making Service Learning More Than Service

And getting rid of a ‘big mess of paper’.

GUEST COLUMN | by Dennis Pierce

CREDIT x2VOL.pngIn addition to meeting minimum grade standards, student members of the National Honor Society are required to participate in community service. For NHS students at Westside High School in Houston, that means 40 hours of community service in their junior and senior years. For Jeff Schroeder, who oversees the NHS students at Westside High, managing that many service hours has been “a big mess of paper.” When they switched to a digital system in August 2015, they discovered an unexpected benefit well beyond easing the paperwork avalanche: Personal reflections about students’ experiences made their service much more meaningful and helped students think about the future.

Meaningful Learning

Like many high schools, Westside High had relied on a system of paper and spreadsheet to track student hours: Students take a form to their service location, get a signature to confirm hours, and then return that form to the school where a counselor or teacher records hours in a spreadsheet or, rather unbelievably, in file folders or binders. Rarely is there a requirement to write down reflections. No one has the time to read all of that.

Schroeder’s school was a little more sophisticated by tracking hours in a spreadsheet that was created by a former NHS student. Reflections, however, didn’t come into the process. “I would be getting slips of paper all the time, every day, where students had some sort of signature verifying their service hours for different activities,” he says. “I’d hand all those papers to one of the NHS leaders, and they’d put the information into a database.”

When Schroeder’s wife, who also works at an area high school, realized how Westside managed their service hours, she told him about a community service tracking platform which her school used to manage, track and schedule student service hours digitally, without paper. Ecstatic to have found a better system, Schroeder brought the system to Westside High—and they’ve never looked back.

A platform for managing and recording service hours, one significant benefit is in the reflection segment where students type in their impressions and experiences from their service.

Clearly, removing a few paperwork steps makes life easier in administration but Schroeder feels that the reflections process is one of the most significant impacts of the digital system. “This reflection is one way to help the service process become more than just checking off a box,” he says.

“It is enormously difficult to make students tell you anything personally significant about their community service,” says Michele Pitman, who created the platform, x2VOL. She says that until a digital system—with a mobile app, because that is where most students prefer to work—is in place to record reflections or require it, students will usually finish their service and then move on. Making reflections a requirement turns service into a meaningful learning opportunity.

“You can’t submit hours without reflecting,” Schroeder says. “If you leave it blank, the system won’t let you submit it.” He says he occasionally goes in and reads what students have to say, and it’s clear that they are learning the value of service to their community.

Pitman says that more schools are making reflections a required component to make service hours valid. “In our system, schools have the choice to require reflections or not but more and more of them are making it a requirement because they recognize the educational and personal value.”

Intentional Paths

This follows the trend of education leaders pushing students to be more intentional about their path to education beyond high school or directly into a career. Growing emphasis on career and technical education is not only practical but also an exercise in character building. “Programs like the National Honor Society are great opportunities for self-discovery and building leadership but not every student can qualify for the NHS. We’d like to see more schools adding service learning into their curriculum and make a tighter connection into their CTE,” says Pitman. “We know for a fact that students who participate in service and who reflect on their efforts have a leg up on finding a meaningful career as adults.”

Middle schools are also aware of the benefits of formalized tracking and reflections. Cathy Adkins, a reading lab teacher and National Junior Honor Society faculty advisor for Hunt Middle School in Frisco, Texas, uses the platform to track the service hours of her 120 eighth grade NJHS members—turning what she describes as a “nightmare” into a much more simplified process.

Adkins says having such a tool ensures that students in her school have an official, verified report of hours they gave during their middle school years. They can print a comprehensive list to give to their high school counselor when they move up to ninth grade. Depending on the school, those hours might count toward earning their community service honor cord or scholarship and college applications. There are many motivated students who give hours to community service in their younger years and the platform ensures those hours don’t get lost in the transition from middle to high school.

Syed Raza, a Westside senior and NHS officer has worked through the paper based system and the digital system. “Usually, paper systems for recording service hours do not ask for a reflection, but the platform’s requirement of a reflection makes students really evaluate what they learned from the volunteering opportunity.” In the process, Syed has learned “that self-reflection is critical in evaluating yourself and truly learning what you are passionate about.”

Dennis Pierce has been writing about education and technology for 20 years. Follow him @denniswpierce

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