Middle School Celebrates Year-Long Service Learning Projects

In late May, the Middle School honored their year-long forays with service learning in a community-wide celebration. On the Middle School blog, Principal Kathy Christoph explains the background behind the projects: “As you know, our School Mission begins with the words, ‘As a community’ and ends with ‘to meet the needs of a changing world and make it better.’ Bringing these words to life drives our educational program and the accompanying activities, experiences and courses. A thoughtful service learning program combines community service with academic instruction, focusing on critical reflective thinking and personal and civic responsibility.”

Eighth grade dean James Aitken further describes, in detail, the rationale behind service learning in the Middle School:
Why Service?

The concept of service and public purpose is an essential part of belonging to the Dwight-Englewood community. Dwight-Englewood firmly believes that learning experiences can be just as strong and impactful outside the classroom and outside the confines of its campus. Community service offers tremendous opportunity for personal growth. It provides students with practical, professional experience while also fostering an understanding of our school’s core values of courage, commitment, judgment, honesty, community and respect. The second sentence of our mission statement reads: “We seek excellence, honor integrity, and embrace diversity in order to develop the skills, values and courage to meet the challenges of a changing world and make it better.” It is our belief that service actually serves everyone and that it is our responsibility to leave a better world behind us.

What is the guiding framework?
The service learning program at Dwight-Englewood’s Middle School is rich and robust. Students across all three grade levels are given multiple opportunities to understand and practice meaningful service learning which is deeply embedded both in our HomeBase program and curriculum. Our three grade level guiding questions serve to tighten and clarify the link between our curriculum and public purpose:
“How does where you live affect who you are?” (eighth Grade)
“How do you connect to the world around you?” (seventh Grade)
“What makes us who we are?” (sixth Grade)

An essential part of our HomeBase program is helping students make positive moral and ethical decisions. At the heart of this is a three-pronged paradigm – “How do I treat myself? How do I treat others? How can I make better moral and ethical decisions?” With these two guiding frameworks, our service learning program has a strong foundation upon which to flourish.

What does it look like?
We follow an intentional curriculum designed to maximize the actual learning in our service learning projects. Each activity will usually involve five distinct stages that are all equally important in order to maximize the value of our efforts. The stages include Investigation, Preparation, Action, Reflection and Celebration. Keeping this curriculum alive is a student-led committee of students who take on most of the leadership aspects of the program, including making phone calls, leading students in prep-activities, documenting our experiences, creating surveys and reflection discussions and planning and implementing our actual activities. At the core of this student-led philosophy is the concept of choice. Committee members are not chosen, but rather decide to join the committee. Students are given surveys to indicate service interests and eventually given choice sheets to choose their actual service locations. This concept serves to enhance and embolden the impact and learning of our students.

Through various full-grade service days and smaller HomeBase service projects, each grade level participates in a variety of activities over the course of the year. As a school, we try to give back to our school community, our town, our state and regional area, another part of America and internationally as well. Here is a list of some of the organizations we work with each year:
· Bergen Family Center
· Bergen Ramapo Animal Refuge Center
· Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission
· Oasis Center for Women & Children
· Food Bank of New Jersey
· Center for Food Action
· Project Cicero
· Malaria No More
· Red Cross International
· Palisades Interstate Park
· World Challenge
· America’s Grow-A-Row

The sixth grade service learning project, as detailed by class dean Tasha Urbanowski, focused on hunger in New Jersey: “We worked with two local non-profit organizations, America’s Grow-a-Row and the Bergen County Center for Food Action (CFA), to help us learn about this issue in workshops on campus, and then we headed off-campus to help out by planting vegetables for needy families at two venues: America’s Grow-a-Row (AGAR) farm at Peaceful Valley Orchards in Pittstown, NJ, and the CFA garden plot at the Englewood Community Third Street Garden. The D-E vegetable garden and greenhouse served as a training ground for all the various jobs involved in planting a vegetable garden — from testing soil and starting seeds to transplanting seedlings. Families interested in continuing the work sixth graders have begun are invited to visit the websites of our two partner organizations and volunteer to tend, harvest and deliver the vegetables we have planted!” [Editor’s Note: For more on the sixth grade’s partnerships with CFA and AGAR, please see page ___.]

According to seventh grade dean Elizabeth Traub, the seventh graders partnering up with the Lower School’s second and third graders was just one of their three service learning projects: “The partners met about seven times during the second semester to play games, teach lessons and have fun together. The seventh graders also had the annual Staff Appreciation Breakfast, where each HomeBase was assigned a staff member or department. At the breakfast, the students showed their appreciation for all the staff does to help the students during their days at school. The last project was with our sister school in Kopeyia, Ghana. The students had a bake sale to raise money so the students in Kopeyia could buy books for their library. Our seventh graders also wrote pen pal letters to the Kopeyia to help them with their English, the national language of Ghana.”

As for the eighth grade service learning program, says Mr. Aitken, it is “student-centered and -organized. The program includes two specific components – a grade-wide component and a HomeBase advisory component.

“On their initiative, a guided committee of about 12 students worked over the course of the entire year to plan and implement the grade service projects. Going through each stage of service learning, including investigation, preparation, action, reflection and celebration, the committee chose five organizations that the students traveled to during the course of the year. They then organized a choice survey where each student listed their top three choices for where they wanted to go for their service trips. Then the committee organized the students into groups based on their choices, and in November as well as April or May, the eighth grade went out in groups to the five different locations. This year, these locations included the Ramapo-Bergen Animal Refuge Center, the Community Food Bank of New Jersey, the Bergen Family Center, the Oasis Center for Women and Children, and the Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission (for environmental/river clean up). The committee played a leadership role throughout the trip as well by taking photos and videos, and also through recorded interviews and reflection questions.

“In addition, the eighth grade also participated in a HomeBase choice yearlong service project. Each year, members of each eighth grade advisory decide upon a worthy service learning project to complete at some point during the year. In celebration of D-E’s 125th year, this year’s eighth grade advisory groups participated in a community video interview project to document and celebrate our school’s great history. This project included student-organized interviews with past and present faculty members of their choice. These interviews were then compiled into a celebration video.”

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