Service Through the Arts: Where Principles Meet Passion
- Students in language arts, music, and art assumed leadership positions to help organize and implement special service events throughout the school year
- Students developed collaboration skills through work with community agencies, a teaching artist, and other students.
When budget cuts moved Katrina Macht out of a role coordinating service learning at her New Jersey school and back into the classroom, the 6th grade teacher wanted to make sure that the school’s long history of involvement in service projects didn’t end. As Macht and a peer began exploring ways to integrate service learning into the language arts curriculum, they quickly zeroed in on the “arts” component of language arts.
“It had to be more than a nice mural across our front door,” Macht says. “We needed to walk the walk.”
Today, Hillside’s Youth Engaged in Service Through the Arts (YES A+) project challenges the school’s language arts and science students to identify and then explore over the course of the year “problems of importance to them”—everything from puppy mills to child labor to climate change—as a means of strengthening community outreach as well as student ownership and engagement. “The only criteria is that it’s something they care about passionately, because they have to stick through it for several projects and a final,” Macht says.
Journaling and a portfolio of work help students reflect on what they learn over the course of the year, but they also needed the opportunity to share their areas of interest with the broader community, according to Macht. “There has to be a place where kids can showcase their work in front of an authentic audience,” she says.
The NEA Foundation grant helped pay for an artist-in-residence program at Hillside, a program in which a teaching artist worked with students during the school day to help them develop short performance pieces about their projects. “Students were able to hone their performance skills and work on monologues, and the consistent feedback provided helped them further develop their skills and shape their work,” Macht says, calling their interaction with a professional an “essential part of 21st century learning.” Along with musical and dramatic performances in community settings, students also took what they learned and wrote letters to the editor, newsletters, and messages to lawmakers urging changes, bringing the impact of their work far beyond the walls of the school. One student created an interactive presentation about the problems caused by puppy mills and presented it at the school’s annual community festival. “I have learned a lot about puppy mills and what they are … I thought this was the best way in my school that I could make a difference to help stop the cruelty of puppy mills,” Deanna writes. “I believe people can make a difference with this solution!”
Macht says the project has been particularly helpful for at-risk students and those who struggle in school. “It’s an opportunity for them to have a voice in what they’re learning,” she says. “They are struggling as readers and writers while getting drilled-and-killed, and having a choice of what they have to study is really powerful for them.” Equally important, tight integration of the project into broader learning objectives helped ensure that service learning remained in place at the school. “It’s now been memorialized in our district curriculum,” Macht says, and in Hillside’s third year of YES A+, all of the school’s language arts teachers are now using the service learning framework to have students “research a problem and take it to the step of proposing a solution.”
YES A+ has helped maintain the school’s long history with Roots & Shoots, a service-learning project founded by Jane Goodall. It’s also served as proof that individual teachers can make lasting contributions to a school’s culture and curriculum. “Some teachers, particularly ones new to the profession, have a hard time seeing how you can be creative within the boundaries that exist now in education,” Macht says. “You can still do it—you just have to think a little more out of the box.”