If your school is anything like the schools where I work or the schools where my children attend, parents organize service learning opportunities throughout the school year. There are food drives at Thanksgiving, coat and gift collections during the holidays, a full day of service on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Service, activities on Earth Day, and other opportunities to give back throughout the year. However, it has been my experience that often these opportunities to teach students about service are isolated and outside of the curriculum. This led me to consider the following:

How do we incorporate service learning into the curriculum rather than just providing additional opportunities?

On its Service Learning page, Character.org states, “Students engaged in service learning can answer the question, ‘When are we ever going to use this in the real world?’ When they use their skills and knowledge in real-life situations, learning extends beyond the classroom and into the community.” The page continues to differentiate service learning from community service by explaining that, “Service learning includes student leadership, reflective and academic components, and chances for celebration once the service activity has been successfully completed. Students reflect on community needs and ways to help, and once their service has been completed, they can internalize how their efforts have helped, while learning more about academics such as geography, math, or science.” When engaged in service learning, students do not ask how they will use the skills and knowledge in the real world. Additionally, service learning can be an integrative cross-curricular approach to learning where students can synthesize and apply skills they have learned throughout their school day in various subjects.

Willona M. Sloan’s article, “Integrating Service Learning into the Curriculum,” offers a variety of examples of teachers who have extended their curriculum to include community application. For example, the article tells the story of an eighth-grade science classroom in Washington, D.C., that turned a unit about global warming and energy conservation into a public health outreach campaign. The article continues to list a few more classroom examples and offers resources such as Amnesty International’s Human Rights and Service-Learning: Lesson Plans and Projects. This publication provides educators with an introduction to Human Rights, a description of how to set up service learning projects, and concludes with over 20 lesson plans on topics that will engage students and provide service learning opportunities.

Another good toolkit is K−12 Service Learning Project Planning, created by the National Service Learning Clearing House. One more resource is The Corporation for National and Community Service, which “plays a vital role in supporting the American culture of citizenship, service, and responsibility. We are a catalyst for community solutions and champion for the ideal that every American has skills and talents to give.” The website provides links to additional websites with resources for service opportunities throughout the school year.

One final resource is from one of my favorite websites, Teaching Tolerance, which provides Critical Practices for Anti-Bias Education. This is a great resource to learn how to communicate with cultural sensitivity, include family and community wisdom in the classroom, increase connections among families, find ways to use local resources, and explore ways to engage with community issues and problems.

Whether your school or your classroom works to integrate service into the curriculum, continues to provide additional opportunities for students and families to do community service, or does both, you, your students, and your community will benefit in a myriad of ways. Students learn how to problem solve, connect with others, and hopefully learn about the benefits of service and about people who are different than themselves. Communities benefit from the resources being put back into the community. Having watched students do a variety of service learning projects—organize food pantries, run games at local schools for students with developmental differences, spend time with an older generation, clean up a park, or run a carnival for younger kids—the benefits are immediate and obvious just by looking at the students’ faces and hearing their conversations during and after the event.

As you reflect on the service learning activities and events from this week’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, and look ahead to the service opportunities in the months ahead, remember this: volunteering is good for your health! How do you incorporate service learning into your classroom, curriculum, or everyday life? Please share your favorite tips, resources, and activities in the comments.