Community service needs to come from an intrinsic desire to help. The times when forced community service work successfully are few and far between. I’m talking about this now because our school has a program of forced community service that, in my very strong opinion, isn’t working whatsoever.
Every teacher has to be involved as an advisor to a community service project. Many teachers team up with each other to oversee, at least for the middle school, a single project that involves the kids in doing good things for the surrounding, local community: the school, the old folks up the hill, the visually impaired. The middle school is mixed up together–kids in grades 6-8–into the service projects they’re interested in, and once a month for forty-five minutes, the groups get together and plan. Or, the groups get together and perform their services.
All in all, it sounds like a good idea. We get kids involved with the community in ways they wouldn’t know how or wouldn’t do on their own. We get them interacting with mixed grade levels. We get them interacting with different teachers who run the various projects. It seems like a really wonderful way to get out of the classroom and into the community.
However, here is what my day looked like: for the first 45-minute planning period of the semester, I sat in a room of almost twenty 6th, 7th, and 8th graders planning a collective birthday party for nine elderly men and women who are in a nursing home that’s just kitty-corner to our school. We talked about how to provide entertainment for our guests and what kinds of other things we should do to celebrate their birthdays. While some students volunteered ideas, others just fooled around and took nothing we were doing seriously.
Here are my questions: Why are those students even in this group? What’s their purpose? What do they hope to get out of the experience? How do they plan to really contribute to this elderly community? If they’re not contributing meaningfully to the group, why are they even there? Can a person truly serve a community if a person has no desire to be fully present?
I was so upset today after the meeting because I knew–and still know–how completely fruitless it is to force service on people who don’t want to serve. I’m trying to find perspective, trying to see the other side. As a teacher, I would feel so much better, so much more in control, so much more effective if I could direct community service projects from within my classroom, with the students I teach. As an English teacher, I could help students come up with projects on their own that stem from their own interests; I could help them, as small groups or as individuals, reach out to the appropriate people; I could help them understand the importance of what they’re doing–everyday in class because I would see them everyday in class; I could help them reflect in writing and in discussion on the impact they feel they’re having on the community.
45 minutes every month is nothing. That’s not service; that’s fulfilling a requirement. If I–or we, as a school–want our students to understand the importance of serving a community, of giving back, of donating one’s time to helping others or becoming meaningful contributors to a society–what good are we doing by bunching them all up together in a meaningless way and “throwing something together” at the last minute? It’s a worthless fight for me. It’s a worthless amount of time. I think about the power and influence I have as a teacher, the kind of thinking I can encourage my students to develop by spending time together in a classroom really examining important issues in our communities, and I think about how much more valuable our community service program could be here. I’m so disappointed by the lack of interest, lack of concern, lack of real investment in a real issue that these students have–only because of the forced nature of the program.
If the program were controlled and organized by individual classroom teachers, whereby we could work closely with the students to design projects that truly reflect the concerns, interest, and investment these students have for their communities, the school’s community service program would be so much more effective.
I know my students so well. I know what makes them tick, what interests them, what makes them jump to action. But they’re MY students and I know them so well because I work with them every single day. I know the 7th grade could be so effective in implementing a community service project within our English class because of the strong relationship we have.
We are motivated to help others because we see a true need, because we see the effect we can have on each other, because we have close relationships with others and because we care so much for one another. The way things are now feels bad to me. It feels like no one wants to be there. I don’t want to be there. As much as I love the idea of working with old people and helping them, the last thing I want to do is work with kids who are just fulfilling a requirement. Something has to change.