By Cathryn Berger Kaye, M.A.

Perhaps at one time we considered school a bubble isolated from the world. Not anymore.

Across the globe, school administrators, teachers, and students aim to connect what they are studying to the array of societal issues and concerns they see or read about every day. More and more as educators, we aim to dissolve this separation and recognize school is the real world for youth. And what’s more, they love to look out the windows! And rather than just “looking”, we can create learning that allows for permeable walls. This way we create authentic connections between the academic knowledge, transferable skills and dispositions developing and strengthening in our classrooms with the genuine learning that is available by connecting with community. Once learning connections are made and students become more cognizant of community assets and needs, like all of us, children and teens want to take action.  

What could this look like? You probably know. This concept of service learning emerged, as we know it today, in the  mid-1980s to provide a viable framework for applying what occurs in math, science, humanities, arts, physical education, and social studies (to name a few subjects), toward alleviating the problems we see in our neighborhoods and communities. Who would have suspected this to become an international phenomenon occurring in K-12 schools and universities around the world!

Your school may already have the beginnings of service learning or a more advanced program. Or you may have a community service program operating on the fringes of the classroom and you recognize that service learning embedded within an academic study has a myriad of benefits including to:

  • Improve the eagerness of students to be self-motivated to extend their learning
  • Stimulate curiosity and question-asking that leads to deeper understanding
  • Engage every student in a way that both differentiates and encourages students to appreciate the abilities of their peers
  • Create multi-disciplinary pathways for connecting curriculum
  • Heighten social and emotional development as students become more sensitized to the lives and stories of others
  • Bring learning to life!

Service Learning Snapshots

Weaver Academy (Greensboro, North Carolina)

How do power tools relate to reading? At Weaver Academy’s high school construction class students are building 138 tiny houses, complete with shingles, to promote literacy. Teacher Thomas Bader states, “We know how important improving literacy is in the country; we are combining literacy, service learning and construction class to one little house at a time to build Little Free Libraries.” Student Brianna Smith is excited to populate every elementary school in the county with two libraries – one for K-2 books and another for grades 3-5. “I love to read and if I had this in elementary school I would be the one to use it.” Student Shane Archer explains, “I hope the kids who like to read use it a lot, and when they finish a book they really like, they share it with another kid.” Interested in developing the concept of sharing, giving, and thinking of others, and at the same time harness enthusiasm for the joy of reading? Here’s a prime example, one little house at a time.

Valley View Middle School (Edina, Minnesota)

CBK_VV1.pngConsider how a common academic standard for grade 7, studying the human impact on the environment, could happen strictly within the four walls of a classroom, or you can be in Edina, Minnesota. At Valley View Middle School the walls came down as students went on an investigative walkabout in search of human environmental impact—both the assets and the challenges—in their school neighborhood. They identified assets: speed bumps and stop signs show that the community cares about safety. They identified challenges: water run-off with high concentrates of salt end up flowing into storm drains, along with dog waste and other garbage in the stream in back of the school, and no means to catch rainwater. Students conducted interviews with different community stakeholders to learn from multiple perspective, for example, the school custodian explained that salt is needed on the sidewalks around school to prevent injuries. Students planned multiple ways to take action, and drawing upon their individual and collective strengths, planned and carried out a river clean up, painted a mural to educate the community about water quality issues and painted rain barrels, and made presentations to the city council proposing new guidelines to require new construction to have 10% permeable surfaces. Altogether 350 students showed that caring is best when translated into action.

Singapore American School (Singapore)

CBKS1.pngCan younger children in schools get engaged in service learning? When teachers become excited by the possibility, they open doors of possibility! In January I visited Singapore American School to assist their teachers to identify age-appropriate and meaningful ways to infuse service learning within the curriculum—meeting and likely exceeding the expected standards and benchmarks. Grade one teacher Alicia Angle wrote in a recent email, “I’m super excited about ways I’m putting what I learned into action. The grade 1 team has already made two math units more inquiry-based and transdisciplinary. Also, my amazing students stumbled onto a service learning idea all by themselves! After an interactive read-aloud of Antarctica by Helen Cowcher, part of a non-fiction reading unit, they wanted to help animals. Now we are connected with the middle school Roots and Shoots group [a program of the Jane Goodall Institute]. We have some great ideas in the pipeline including a student-written puppet show about animal conservation; we’ll sell tickets to raise money for a local no kill animal shelter. We’re also working on making some no-sew fleece blankets and cat toys to donate to the shelter, items they have requested.” Who becomes more excited about service learning ideas, students or teachers? Sometimes it’s hard to tell!

Learn More

Wherever you are in the service learning process, there is more to explore and more to learn. Visit my website at and click on Resources for an abundance of articles that explain the Five Stages of Service Learning and also Guideposts to a Meaningful Service Learning Program, and visit Blog for examples galore.

Open the windows, open the doors and explore the wonderful world of service learning!

Cathryn Berger Kaye, M.A., CBK Associates, is the author of The Complete Guide to Service Learning (available in English and Chinese), and two books written with environmental advocate Philippe Cousteau. She offers onsite school workshops, summer institutes, and distance learning opportunities all to advance service learning, engaged classrooms, and a mutually respectful school climate and culture. Learn more at