Community Service 101

There was a time when schools were the hub of the community, strengthening ties between families and businesses simply through their presence. After all, it’s easy to bring neighbors together when they all frequent the same place. But families are more mobile today, and it’s hard to build community amid this frequent movement.  

Today our mobility, coupled with the ability to send students to school outside their neighborhood, means schools don’t have an inherent community simply due to their location. Thus, they need to be intentional about building that community. Service learning programs are an ideal way to start.

Service learning combines learning goals and community service in ways that can enhance both student growth and the common good (Bandy, 2019). As a result, students learn social development skills while  practicing civic responsibility.

Many high schools have service requirements for students to graduate, but service learning can be introduced in elementary grades as well. Use the tips here to build a service learning program in your school.

Step 1 – Align Academic and Community Goals

Benjamin Franklin famously said, “Tell me and I forget, Teach me and I remember, Involve me and I learn.”

When it comes to teaching citizenship and character, experience is the best path to understanding. In other words, when the community project is aligned with the learning goals, students are more likely to internalize the lesson. When this occurs, students show an increase in self-awareness, improved communication skills, and a higher recognition of community needs.

To further internalize the lesson, teachers can include students in the process of choosing the service project. Start by identifying the lesson you want to learn and give students options on how to apply that lesson based on community need.

For example, if the goal is to teach history, and there are old buildings in the area, students could have the option of participating in the cleanup or renovation of that building, creating a brochure to educate visitors on the history of the building, or working with local legislators on an initiative to designate that building as a historic landmark.

History is a great way to incorporate service learning, but lessons can be applied to virtually any curriculum. For example, biology classes may plant trees as a way to study ecosystems, learning how to care for the environment in the process. Social studies classes may study government by participating in a political campaign, where they can learn how to engage in civil discourse. Younger grades may practice measurements by making goodies for a bake sale, and learn the importance of giving back by donating the proceeds to a food bank or shelter.

Remember, while the goal is to educate via real-world scenarios, the lesson is most effective if the emphasis is placed on the student experience, so they understand the impact of their efforts.

Step 2: Reflection

Some lessons are easily learned. Beware of hot things, for example. If you touch a hot stove or drink a hot beverage and you get burned, the brain makes the connection between ‘hot’ and ‘pain’ almost instantaneously, which makes a lasting impression.

Academic learning doesn’t work that way. Concepts are learned over time, so the end result isn’t always attributed to one particular event. For example, a bad test score could be the result of the student being distracted during a lesson, a learning disability, or an inadequate amount of time to take the test. How can we know which factor led to the bad grade when one or all could play a role? This is where reflection comes in.

Reflection is a way for us to move knowledge from short-term to long-term memory. With respect to service learning, it’s a way to correlate the activity with the end result, which helps students identify how their actions made a difference.

Journaling is an effective method of reflection because it continues the lesson beyond the act of service. Consider, in the ecosystem project above, when students plant a tree, they remember the experience of planting a tree. By incorporating a journal where students record why trees benefit the environment, and how a healthy environment benefits the community, students learn how the act of planting a tree can have a ripple effect across their community.

Journals can be a recording of the activity and the result that was achieved, a personal reflection on how the activity made the student feel, a presentation to the class or even a creative writing exercise where students have to build a story around the project they participated in. The simple act of revisiting the experience in some way after the lesson has been completed can ensure that the lesson is internalized.

Step 3: Feedback

Service learning is a great way to teach civic responsibility and character alongside traditional concepts like math, science and history. But since this curriculum is designed to benefit the community as well as the student, grades aren’t the only feedback mechanism to track success.

Understanding how your community partners view the project is critical both to ensure objectives were met and to establish and maintain positive relationships with those partners, who might represent more than just one project.

Using the historical building example, feedback might be that students did a thorough job of painting and cleaning up after themselves, or that their argument for receiving a historic site designation was well thought out. Or perhaps the students’ activities resulted in more visitors to the building, or a renewed sense of pride in the local community because people cared about it.

Although some feedback from community partners can be subjective, if the core objective is to benefit students and the community alike, then the community opinion should be taken into consideration when evaluating the success of any service learning program. This feedback should be shared with students as well, so they understand the impact of their actions beyond the classroom grade they receive.

Join The Conversation

Service learning is more about doing than giving. It helps students correlate classroom lessons to real- world issues, and in the process helps them gain a deeper understanding of themselves.

How does your school practice service learning? What activities would you like to see students participate in to compliment the lessons they learn in class?


Bandy, J. (2019) – Vanderbilt University. Best Practices in Community Engaged Teaching.

Bandy, J. (2019). – Vanderbilt University. What is Service Learning or Community Engagement?

Edunators Staff (2019) – The Importance of Reflection in Education.


Kennedy, L. (2019) – The Teacher’s Guide to Service Learning