Taking Service From "Nice" to "Smart"

Using Service-Learning Techniques to Build Your Service Experiences with Youth

By Laura Rog
Director of Training and Technical Assistance, generationOn

As a service-learning trainer with generationOn I meet regularly with inspiring educators from around the country. I get to hear amazing stories of how these educators  work to help youth make their mark on the world, and it often strikes me that in a world of demanding schedules and standardized testing, these teachers and principals make service skills as much a priority for students as reading, writing, and arithmetic.

These stories prompted a question I like to ask during workshops - "Do you want to conduct a nice service project, or do you want to facilitate a smart service project?"

Obviously, we all want our service projects to be nice.  We want youth to have fun and be excited about what they do.  We love to talk afterward about how cute they were with the senior citizens, or how funny they were when they had to wade in the creek while collecting water samples.   Nice is a core element of service projects.

But what about smart?  A smart project takes service up a notch and connects it to a higher purpose.  One of the things I am increasingly aware of is that it's no longer enough to do things because they are nice.  As individuals we are faced with increasingly complex changes in the world we know; as educators our communities rely on us to address perceived societal deficits; as a human race we are responsible for what we pass onto future generations.

It may seem that I am stating the obvious, but it's worth putting it out there in black and white - service needs to MEAN something if we expect youth to take something from the experience and internalize it. 

To truly engage and enlighten, projects need to be smart about how they connect youth to issues larger than us all.  As a service community, we must be proactive about elevating service to a higher purpose and providing youth with rigorous experiences while they volunteer.

These ideals can be quite overwhelming when you think of them in the abstract.  But taking a few cues from best practices in service-learning will help you take some concrete steps to make your service projects "smart":

  1. Connect to a genuine community need.  Have youth seek out information on the needs in their community, whether it is through interviews, guest speakers, or other information gathering techniques.
  2. Involve youth in developing a plan of action.  Brainstorm with youth and listen to their ideas - allow them to develop the steps they think they'll need to accomplish in the project.
  3. Let youth lead themselves.  Let youth lead their peers during the service project and find ways for everyone to serve as some type of leader based on their talents.
  4. Provide ample time for reflection before, during, and after the project.  Youth need explicit time set aside to think about their experiences throughout the entire project. 
  5. Celebrate what the youth have learned.  Celebrating isn't merely rewarding youth or telling them they've done a good job; it's letting them demonstrate what they know by sharing it with others and serving as an expert on your service topic. 
  6. Evaluate your efforts.  Don't forget to reflect in the end and let youth determine what went well, what could be changed, and what they want to do next time.

  GenerationOn has a number of materials to help you develop your smart service project.  You can learn more about the six stages of service-learning and hear directly from teachers and administrators using service-learning here.  And for a fantastic youth-based project development resource, check out our Do Your Own Thing Guide for Kids or Teens.