By: DONNA R. SANDERSON
Our successful service-learning project was born naturally and organically from a course I was teaching at West Chester University (WCU) in the Department of Early and Middle Grades. One evening back in October 2012, I was explaining to a class of early grades education majors that if you find yourself lacking ample teaching materials and you are low on funds, with a bit of creativity, you can easily recycle every day materials to help teach youngsters basic math and literacy skills. I then demonstrated how you can take ordinary caps from milk, ice tea, and water bottles and write a letter, a number, or a number symbol on top of the cap to create inexpensive learning manipulatives for youngsters. What evolved from that evening has become a thriving service-learning project between me, over fifty WCU early grades students and twenty-three high school special needs students and their teacher who now create CAP KITS for elementary students both locally and internationally.
The tentacles of this community-service project reach far and wide and have many components. In this story I will explain what we created, which we call CAP KITS, and those who created them, whom I refer to as the CAPS CREW. As the story get deeper and more interesting I will explain the places the CAP KITS have reached, and the additional community partners who have joined us in strengthening this project as it grows larger and more encompassing. In the end, I share the positive impact the CAP KITS project has had on the special education students who assist in making the kits.
From that one class period when I demonstrated learning with bottle caps an exciting and innovative idea was ignited. The very next semester, university students and I began making CAP KITS for young students in the learning community both locally and afar. These hands-on learning materials are perfect for young learners as they literally play with the pieces and manipulate them as they spell words and play number games. The use of manipulatives is highly recommended and supported by both learning theory and educational research when it comes to young children and processing new information. Manipulatives can be important tools in helping students to think and reason in more meaningful ways (Stein & Bovalino, 2001). It is also widely known that children learn best when they are encouraged to explore, interact, create, and play (Thompkins, 1991). Research confirms what most early childhood professionals already know — children learn the most when they are actively participating in the learning process (Katz, 1994). CAP KITS offer a variety of learning opportunities through play and hands-on exploration and can easily support the common core learning standards. Along with the bottle caps we place a copy of our caps website in the bag which teachers and parents can access for free. This website shows hundreds of literacy and math learning games that children can play with the caps. The ideas on this website assist teachers and parents in creating organized learning games for students that are developmentally appropriate and fun to play.
Reaching the Community
One of the most inspiring pieces of this collaborative community project was the formation of the CAPS CREW. In the first few weeks of envisioning our project I partnered with one particular student who was my “right-hand helper.” Together we formulated our goals for the project which were to (1) to create and bring recycled, developmentally appropriate educational materials that support the Pennsylvania state standards to young students in the local area to further their learning and (2) to offer training to local parents and teachers on how to effectively create and use the materials with the children in the classrooms and at home. In order to successfully meet both goals we were going to need help. Hence, the CAP CREW was born.
Aside from creating the CAP KITS the CAP CREW has been instrumental in meeting our second project goal. The CAP CREW has learned how to use the kits effectively and have gone out into the community helping me bring our learning materials to teachers during thirty-five faculty development meetings and/or staff workshops. Likewise, we have given over two dozen Parent Workshops out in the community. Parent Workshops take place in the evening at different elementary schools with the young children and their parents. The CAP CREW and I set up six or eight stations in the cafeteria where youngsters rotate through the stations and play different hands-on learning games with the caps. One or two university students run the stations and demonstrate the games to the youngsters and their parents. It is fun for the children, interactive for all and an excellent way to get our CAP KITS into the community. As each family departs from the workshop they are given a free CAP KIT so they can keep the math and literacy learning going at home. Not only is this project beneficial to the teacher, the parents and the young elementary age students the CAP CREW members are learning invaluable lessons through this community service partnership.
Research has suggested that service learning can improve students’ academic outcomes, increase content knowledge, and improve school attendance (Muscott & O’Brien, 1999; Terry, 2003). THE CAP CREW members have been, from the projects inception, highly motivated students who wanted this extra opportunity to work with youngsters and their parents, teachers and each other throughout this project. They have realized their connectedness to a much larger community outside of the physical university boundaries and they have embraced it. The teaching method of service learning provides a benefit to both the university student (related to their academic field of study) and to the community partner (the teachers, students and parents). The use of service learning as a teaching method has the potential to provide many benefits to student learning (Furco & Root, 2010).
As the popularity of our project escalated we brought on more helpers and began partnering with schools and businesses out in the community. One of the businesses that we began partnering with was Wawa, Inc., a chain of convenience stores located mainly on the east coast. After tiring of smelling sour milk, having my head in my washing machine constantly, and washing and drying thousands of caps I finally went to their corporate headquarters which is located quite close to our campus and explained the project to the dairy manager. He could not have been more supportive of our project and to date we have received 70,000 clean caps to be turned into CAP KITS. But our community partnerships do not stop there.
About a year into the CAP KITS project I had the wonderful opportunity to reconnect with my long-time friend, Michele, who is currently teaching high school at a special needs school not too far from campus. After hearing of the CAP KITS project she enthusiastically asked if her students could help us make the CAP KITS. We needed the help as our project was gaining popularity and it was quickly becoming a situation of supply versus demand. We decided to partner and began meeting to develop a partnership framework.
At the initial planning meeting I explained the project and brought the first round of supplies to her school. Together we outlined our goals and plan for the year and discussed the basics, such as communication style, establishing a schedule to bring needed supplies to her school (Sharpie markers, bags, and labels) and picking up completed CAP KITS. At this time her school started saving their own bottle caps campus-wide in an effort to help out the CAP KIT project.
So that Michele’s students fully understood the rationale behind the CAP KITS project I returned with a WCU student, and we formally presented the project to the school, showing examples of the pre-made kits and videos of the CAP KITS in use. We needed the students to understand their specific role in the project and that their involvement was crucial to its overall success. We believed that formulating a basic understanding of the overall project was essential for the high school students to understand the project and begin to generate enthusiasm for it. We believed that, “this commitment to service learning, giving back to the community and being a part of something much larger than oneself is the cornerstone of the project. WCU students as well as the high school students are all learning how to be creative, innovative, selfless, and how to work together as a team.”
Near the end of the school year in June, I returned to the school for a celebration party to honor the students who worked on the project all year long. In all they had created 137 CAP KITS and were thrown a party with treats and music by their teachers. I appreciated being invited and brought a few treats of my own to share in their merriment. I believed celebrating with them helped to strengthen our partnership, and I took part in dancing with the students that afternoon and thanking them for a job well done. Yet perhaps the most eye-opening part of this community collaboration for me happened when I sat down with Michele just a week after the celebration to recap the year.
Benefits for All
As Michele and I began planning for the 15–16 school year I couldn’t help but start the conversation out with a question, which was “What’s in it for your students?” On my end at the university I knew that we loved the help her students provided and certainly needed the extra CAP KITS they created. I knew her students understood that they were part of a bigger team creating kits and that the university students were also making kits and then bringing them to children who needed them. But what else did they get out of this collaborative community experience?
Michele then went on to explain that her students each had Individualized Educational Programs or IEP’s. Many, if not all of her students, had “soft work skills” as goals on their IEP’s that teachers were trying to help them meet. I asked her to define “soft work skills” and she gave examples such as: communicating with co-workers, inferential skills, problem solving, following multiple step directions, initiating tasks, speech and language skills, advocating, etc. Michele then explained how collaborating with classmates to make CAP KITS supported so many of the different soft work skills her students were working towards on their individualized educational programs. Not having a special education background I was enlightened to this fact and so happy that our community partners were receiving so many benefits from being active participants in the CAP KIT Project.
Even though it is still early and we are now on our second year of collaborating we have been working towards a sustainable community partnership. We have established a strong foundation of trust and respect, we’ve demonstrated our flexibility, and we continue to work towards our shared vision. Through on-line and face-to-face communication we have continued to partner well together and tackle the increased work load that this project brings to the high school students and their teacher, and the college students and me. But, the importance of a community partner with vision and willingness to perform the extra work each semester cannot be over emphasized. The high schoolers have set a goal of creating 150 CAP KITS this year for us to bring to youngsters in our larger community. I am highly optimistic that they will reach this goal.
Adding to the positive momentum was the fact that the Cap Kits project had recently won the E. Riley Holman Award at West Chester University. This award recognizes “innovative teaching and highly creative projects” and comes with a monetary stipend to further the development of the project. After speaking with a friend who had inquired why I had bags upon bags of bottlecaps in my home and after explaining what my WCU students and I were doing with them, he very matter-of-factly suggested that a place he annually travels to in a remote area of Costa Rica could truly benefit from our homemade learning materials. He told me about a small town on the southernmost tip of the Nicoya Peninsula called, Mal Pais, and explained of their lack of school supplies, money and poor schooling conditions. Not one to be known as an adventurer, but as a true advocate of learning and teaching at heart, coupled with the desire of wanting to do something good for others, I decided to use the funds from the newly won award to bring Cap Kits to Costa Rican schools. So, in March, 2014, my friend and I embarked on a journey to Costa Rica that brought us into multiple primary schools sharing the Cap Kits with dozens of wonderful people who were eager to learn how to use and make them. What had happened during that “exploratory Costa Rican trip” was nothing short of remarkable for me. It was my first time out of the US and into Spanish speaking schools. In the beginning of the trip I was riddled with doubt and fear, but by the end I absolutely loved it.
While I was there the true educator in me came out and I had a pivotal “ah ha” moment. After a few great days in the schools and seeing how the Costa Rican teachers, principals and children took to the new learning materials I emailed our International Programs Office at WCU. All I knew was that I had to figure out how to get my pre-service education students down here to work in these schools, experience this wonderful culture and beautiful country and help bring more Cap Kits to these youngsters. I didn’t know exactly how to make that pipe dream happen, but I knew I was tenacious enough to figure it out.
Exactly one year later, during Spring Break of March 2015, my same friend who originally introduced me to this country, plus twelve WCU pre-service education majors all boarded a plane for a Costa Rican experience. What happened in that one week was a life-changing learning experience for all of us. None of us spoke Spanish fluently and everyone was nervous about the adventure we were about to embark on. Yet, we were filled with a genuine excitement and wanted so badly to make a good impression and more importantly, a positive difference. We had visions of helping their community and schools by bringing needed supplies, and teaching the teachers and children how to use the new learning materials we were introducing to them. Our mindset was that we were going to come into town and be the teachers and that they would be the students and learn from us. But only a small part of that ended up being true.
What happened in that one week has left a mark on all of us. The learning and growing that happened for us, the letting go of our preconceived thoughts and visions, and the pulling away from what we previously knew into an uncomfortable space of unknown and unfamiliarity set the students up to grow as humans as well as future educators. At times it wasn’t as easy as we thought it was going to be. Students were facing personal fears, struggling with feelings of incompetence in not knowing the language, and feeling unsure about themselves and their abilities to reach and teach foreign students. Coupled with the fact that for many in the group this was their first international experience and the longest and farthest they had ever been away from home, we truly had a lot going on at once.
Reflection as a Crucial Component
To help capture their thoughts associated with the trip the students’ wrote daily in their journals. It was structured so that at the end of each day we would pulled together as a group and our student trip leader would oversee a writing exercise to try to encapsulate the students thoughts and feeling about what they were experiencing during this trip both in the schools as teachers/learners and as human beings in a new and different country and culture. A prompt was usually given and the students would quietly responded in writing. An oral sharing session would follow, and I must say I felt these were rich and enlightening shared conversations. As mentioned, the tone and feel of the trip in the beginning when we were prepping and flying down was one where we had the idea that we were going to a less affluent land to help, we were bring supplies and we would be the teachers imparting knowledge. It was all about us; we had the mindset that we were rock stars. We may have been a bit full of ourselves, thinking we were performing a community-service act and swooping in, like a knight in shining amour to help a damsel in distress, which in this case was a less fortunate community. Little did we know that as soon as our plane touched down we would become the students and we would learn far more from them and this international experience than we could ever imagine.
After hearing about how difficult it is for schools in this remote area to access simple supplies, and how one school in particularly had to drive five hours in one direction, complete with a ferry ride, only to fill up their car to the brim with school supplies from Walmart, to then drive back another five hours did they start to realize how easy things are for us in our area of the US.
“I learned that you cannot take things for granted. We have more than enough when it comes to material goods and resources at home. These children have not much to their name. They have the clothes on their backs and a toothbrush if they are lucky. Yet they were generally and truly happy. How can I not be happy with everything that I have? This school trip has truly humbled me.”
“Today I learned that it is important to appreciate what I have. Things that I complain about at home aren’t even taken into consideration here. I learned to not take things for granted because there is so much to be thankful for.”
“I learned that the students have such little supplies to work with and that all of them were at different academic levels, even within their grade. This is so different than the school system in America and makes me very thankful for the education that I was fortunate to experience.”
One of questions they responded to at the end of the trip when we were taking the ferry back to San Jose to catch our flight asked, “In what ways have you changed or do you hope to change as a result of this experience?” Here’s how some of them responded:
“As a result of this experience I believe I have become less judgmental. I am way more open to trying new things and I will forever reach for my goals. I have learned that I need to become more patient and understanding, which I know will help me tremendously and serve me well in my future teaching career.”
“I changed the way I will be thinking in the classroom. I used to try to only stick with lesson plans that I was comfortable teaching and always steered clear of being uncomfortable in the classroom and taking risks. I hope to now have the courage to step out of my comfort zone, and stretch myself so that my students can get more from me. If I try not to always reserve myself I will become a better and more effective teacher and my students will reap the benefits.”
“I am a Type A personality to my core. I think that this trip has forced me to be flexible and roll with change. Not everything is going to go perfectly and I have started to come to accept that is OK. I have learned that you need to work with what you have, think on your feet, switch things around when needed and rely on others to help you. This trip, in such a short amount of time, has started broadening my horizons that I could have on my own and for that I am grateful.”
Students were also asked what they will do differently as a result of this experience. Their responses speak to the future teacher inside them, but also the human being as well:
“One thing that I will do differently because of this experience is have more patience and kindness towards people from another culture who speak another language. During this trip I was treated with kindness when I had trouble with money or ordering. They smiled and let me know that it was ok. I want to do the same. I want my future ESL students to know it’s OK they don’t speak English and that a smile is universal and they will understand eventually if those that teach them are patient and understanding. That is my takeaway.”
“I will most definitely pay much more attention to the differentiation on my lesson plans. Differentiation is so much more than a part of a lesson plan. I paid attention to differentiation before this trip, but I will pay so much more attention to in now after this first-hand experience. I realize the need to truly adapt to meet the different learners abilities and I will follow through on doing this as best as I possibly can.”
“I have a stronger understanding of the importance of why a lesson should be accessible to everyone. This experience has been eye opening for me. I could never have figured that out by listening to lectures or watching power points on teaching.”
Overall, this project is an innovative educational strategy that involves educators and students at the university, high school, and elementary levels, and includes parents and community business partners in creating meaningful work within the community. I am true honored to be part of this project; I look forward to sustaining it into the foreseeable future and those of us involved in the project are reminded of Dr. Martin Luther King’s quote, “Life’s persistent and most urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’”
Furco, A., & Root, S. 2010. Research demonstrates the value of service learning. Phi Delta Kappan, 91(5): 16–20.
Katz, Lillian. (1994). What should young children be learning? Child Care Information Exchange, 100.
Muscott, H. S. & O’Brien, S.T. (1999). Teaching character education to students with behavioral and learning disabilities through service learning. Education & Treatment of Children, 22(3), 373–381.
Stein, M. K. & Bovalino, J. (2001). Manipulatives: One piece of the puzzle. Mathematics Teaching in Middle School, 6 (6).
Terry, A. W. (2003). Effects of service learning on young, gifted adolescents and their community. Gifted Children Quarterly, 47(4), 295–309.
Thompkins, M. (1991). Active learning: Making it happen in your program. In N.A.A. Brickman and L.S. Taylor (Eds), Supporting young learners, 5–13. Ypsilanti, MI: High/Scope Press.
Author’s Biography: Donna Sanderson, Ed.D. is an Associate Professor at West Chester University of Pennsylvania in the Department of Early and Middle Grade Education. She has spoken and published widely on a variety of early childhood topics and has many experiences as an elementary teacher. She has also spoken widely on the topic of community service and its benefits for university students.
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