Wednesday August 27th 2014

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The Beauty of Service Learning: What Are You Doing?

One of the new buzz terms, especially in the emerging world of charter schools, is the idea of Service Learning Projects. SLPs are generally projects undertaken by students where they identify a need in the community and address it through community service. There is usually some sort of research paper attached to it, and over the course of the experience they should accomplish something meaningful, learn about it, document it, and reflect on it in the end.

Starting on March 1st, one of my classes is going to be spearheading a Service Learning Project. The problem I’ve had with SLPs in the past is that it is surprisingly difficult to pair up a need in the community with 30 high school students. You run into difficulties of liability, you find the need is difficult to address, and you struggle with making it both meaningful and academic. It seems easy enough. It doesn’t seem like it should be too hard to reach out to your community and see who could use 30 kids to help with their cause.

This year I didn’t just want to go pick up trash one weekend and write about it, so I came up with this: A Health Pledge. I thought it would be much more worthwhile to attack the problem in our community of teen health, obesity, and nutrition, and try to raise awareness about these issues, not just around campus, but in the lives of all the family members of my students. Rather than run the risk of making the Health Pledge too complicated, I simplified. For the month of March, my class is going to eliminate the following from their diets: Fast Food, Chips, and Soda. They can Supersize their Health Pledge by also getting rid of Cup ‘O Noodles and Candy.

Needless to say, the students panicked at first.

Any urban high school teacher knows that most high school kids skip breakfast, or substitute a bag of Flaming Hot Cheetos and a liter of soda. For lunch, instead of eating the school food, they have another bag of Cheetos and some candy. Girls are more likely to skip breakfast, for obvious reasons. These grim dietary realities do not bode well for our next generation. Already 60% of Americans are obese, and it is predicted that more than one out of three people in this generation will get Type II Diabetes.

I decided to confront the issue head on by hitting my students over the head with two excellent films: Food Inc. and Supersize Me. The latter is especially poignant because Morgan Spurlock basically does our pledge backwards—he eats nothing but fast food for a month—and it almost kills him. We also read excerpts from Fast Food Nation, by Eric Schlosser, as well as current articles online.

We then began researching aspects of health and nutrition, each group chose a topic to research, then created a Powerpoint and wrote a research paper. One statistic we found was that just 7% of 9th graders at our school passed the fitness test in PE class last year. That is–7% of Sophomores this year were able to stretch, jog a little, and change clothes. We took the month of February to do this research and work, and the kids have already given their Powerpoint Presentations to some 9th grade classes. Some of the topics were: How Healthy is Mexican Food? What is Diet Soda, and Is It Good for Your Diet? One group even researched the school lunches, interviewed our Operations Manager in Nutrtion Services, and their Powerpoint ended up urging students toward this surprising thought: If you are going to succeed in this health pledge, you need to eat something healthy at lunch—and the healthiest thing on campus is—The School Lunch! Thanks to a push by our newest generation, and Michelle Obama, and movies like those mentioned above, and books like Fast Food Nation, and progressive ideas in general, conditions in the school lunch rooms of this nation are improving. It is a slow process to be sure, but when I was in high school, we had an actual Taco Bell IN OUR CAFETERIA. That was how ridiculous things were just ten years ago. But today, as class we went and picked lemons from a tree here on a public school campus, and sliced them up to garnish our water.

Starting today March 1st, my students and any friends and family they have signed up will eliminate these horrible foods from our diet in the hopes of making our bodies healthier and, after 30 days, perhaps making it a lifelong habit. I’m not giving up much, because I rarely eat the foods on our list, and never eat fast food. Like I tell my students, if I went to a McDonalds or Taco Bell today, I would be sick later that night.

I think the beauty of SLPs like this one is the way it truly shows students the value of education. Examining the facts—like one out of three adults in their generation will have Type II Diabetes—amazes young minds with how much they don’t know. This project in particular is a clear illustration of how being educated can directly impact your life, and how those not in the KNOW are left behind and lead a life dictated by corporations and advertisers who own our politicians. Like I also tell my students, if everyone was like my close circle of friends, fast food companies would go bankrupt.

Service Learning is the best combination of education and action. Already my students have signed up their family members, and encouraged their parents to buy healthier foods at the supermarket. We have reached out to local food groups and received our first shipment of oranges, lemons, limes, vegan granola, and pitchers we fill with water. I figured my classroom needed to be a place where kids could come at lunch and eat water and fruit instead of chips and soda. Next week we get a shipment of spinach. My student teacher performed a Smoothie Tutorial with an actual blender in my classroom, and students are expected to be blending their breakfasts instead of skipping them. They are also expected to include the spinach.

I wanted to share this project, but also hear what some other educators are doing this year with Service Learning. Every year I like to do something different, and I would love hear what you are doing. These projects are fun, unpredictable, and valuable in a way it is sometimes difficult to achieve in the sterile classroom model. Just today I asked a girl to cut one lemon and one lime and put the slices into the pitchers of water. Five minutes later I checked on her and she had cut five of them—enough for a week, proving that interesting teenage syndrome where they are looking right at you but hear nothing you say.

Follow us on Instagram @puentehealthclass. My students will be posting photos of healthy meals all month with the hashtag #puentehealthpledge.

Reader Feedback

5 Responses to “The Beauty of Service Learning: What Are You Doing?”

  1. Kudos!

    I’m passing this on. I’m eager to learn about student responses.

    Kudos!

  2. Katrina Neill says:

    This documentary couldn’t have shown up at a better time for you Matt! I remember showing my 7th grade AVID students Food Inc. 3 and 4 years ago, they were mesmerized with the content!

    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1736049/

    Best of luck with your SLP!

  3. Janel says:

    Fantastic idea, Matt!! Year after year I am perplexed and a bit annoyed by the research-a-type-of-cancer, raise money for your Polar Plunge, do your Polar Plunge in January, donate your money to a cancer charity SSL project that our freshmen engage in. And then, as seniors applying to college, this one event where they jumped into the freezing cold Chesapeake Bay for 30seconds and donated $20 to a charity is the ONLY thing they can list as “Volunteer/Community Service.” Clearly they have learned nothing about giving back or continuing their quest to make the world a better place.

    I positively love this idea. Can’t wait to hear other responses. I’m certainly sharing this via Facebook but also sharing with the powers that be at my Board of Ed!

    Thanks for all you do.

  4. Sarah Milligan says:

    Matt, I love your ideas! Not only are you teaching your kids to take responsibility for their own health, but you are presenting the material to them in an interesting and engaging way. I like that your students are presenting researched topics to other classrooms and spreading their knowledge. High school lunches are notoriously unhealthy, and your project promotes healthy living and self-awareness. Maybe it will help students make healthier choices when choosing what food to eat for lunch. I hope these healthy behaviors last beyond the 30 days!

    I really liked your student’s survey of students who passed the fitness test. You gave your students the opportunity to collect data on something real and meaningful to their school community, and clearly something needs to be done to promote better health. Good luck with this project in the future!

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