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Service Learning at AISJ

By Tara Barton
Service Learning at AISJ

At the American International School of Johannesburg (AISJ), we have been working hard to ensure that “service” indeed becomes a part of our “learning”—totally connected to classroom learning, and demonstrating positive and meaningful action within the community alongside academic learning, personal growth, and social responsibility.
Our aim is, through the course of our students’ education at AISJ, to lead them to an understanding of what meaningful service looks like by responding to genuine needs identified within the community, and responding to these needs in an effort to improve the lives of others.
So what does service learning look like at AISJ? Currently, we are developing a continuum of service learning units throughout the school. Service has become a graduation requirement for all high school students, and service is built into not only our classroom units, but into all “Classroom Without Walls” extended field trips (camps) from Grades 4 through 10.
Grade 3 students are lobbying high school students to support their local township Tembisa service project through their persuasive writing and presentation skills. Our Grade 2 team at the Pretoria Campus has developed a fully integrated unit of inquiry with service embedded in all subjects around a community garden.
During this unit, students are actively involved using math, literacy, social studies, health, science and technology in learning how to grow a variety of vegetables. They share their gardening learning with the local Mamelodi township Meetse A. Bohpilio Primary school.
Middle school Spanish and French students are creating games to play that will teach world languages to their Meetse A. Bohpilio primary school friends, and in-turn they will then teach AISJ students African languages through games they play.
How do we “teach” service learning?
The American International School of Johannesburg has developed its own service learning standards and benchmarks used pre-kindergarten through 12th grade with the school-wide curriculum. This has enabled teachers to effectively embed service within the curriculum as they plan classroom units.
Starting with our vision, mission, and strategic goals, and followed by teacher professional development, teachers have learned to embed service learning standards and benchmarks into current units. Meaningful connections are then furthered through the preparation, teaching and assessment of students to ensure student understanding of service learning. Rubrics that give students levels of proficiency addressing the service learning standards and benchmarks are an effective way for students to demonstrate their understanding.
Why is this necessary?
For students to understand how to make service effective they need to understand the five stages of service. Without the service learning standards, one is led to believe it is just a cycle with five components; thus a deeper understanding of the five stages is clearly articulated through our service standards and benchmarks.
The service learning standards and benchmarks are trans-disciplinary in that they are able to be taught within all subjects across all grade levels… We believe strongly that no child is too young to learn about service.
Why has this happened?
Previous to the development of standards and benchmarks, teachers tended only to consider the five stages of service learning (outlined by Cathy Berger Kaye in her book The Complete Guide to Service Learning, Free Spirit Publishing 2010). This did not allow for practical and meaningful understanding of service learning and many still believed it was just “community service”—or something “tacked” onto the existing curriculum.
We trialled the service standards outlined in The Complete Guide to Service Learning but found that teachers did not adequately understand how to teach or assess them, and thus realized that the development of standards would allow teachers and students to more clearly see the alignment to the five stages of service.
A team of teachers were then identified to begin working through a process of developing standards, and with further feedback from Cathy Berger Kaye, we developed our own set of five standards and benchmarks for service learning as follows:
• Investigation - Learners understand that investigating the needs of the community makes service effective.
• Planning and Preparation - Learners understand that preparation and planning ensure that goals and needs are met.
• Action - Learners understand that implementing a plan of action generates change and results.
• Reflection - Learners understand that reflection is ongoing, prompting deep thinking and analysis about oneself and one’s relationship to society.
• Demonstration and Celebration - Learners recognize that through demonstration and communication they solidify their understanding and evoke response from others.
Service learning, then has become more than just a teaching methodology, and far more about developing a deep understanding. It goes beyond “a project” and integrates cohesively with subject curriculum. Students look further than a service cycle and see that service is not just something they do within the community, but rather it is connected with everything they do in the real world.
What Now?
This year we are piloting the new service learning standards and benchmarks in our school-wide curriculum with supporting rubrics for assessment. So far it has been a great success and teachers from pre-kindergarten to IBDP are finding ways to embed service into their subject areas.
For example in Grade 10, Social Studies students learn about human geography. Students were able to use their Math and geography skills to calculate the rise and slope of pathways for wheelchair access around the school. They were able to make recommendations based on their research, data collection, and analysis for improvements to the school for accessibility for the disabled.
We have also launched the new service learning standards to other international schools at our Service Learning Weekend Workshop in October 2013, jointly presented by AISJ and Cathy Berger Kaye. They were also shared during the African International Schools Association (AISA) regional conference in March, 2014 in Kenya.
We welcome other international schools to look at our curriculum, use it and give us feedback.
Please see our website for details:
Tara Barton M.Ed. is Service Learning Coordinator at AISJ.

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