Motivating and Engaging Our Students Through Service


Nicole is the Service-Learning and CAS coordinator at the American School of the Hague in the Netherlands. She is an alumnus of CWI’s Summer Institute on Service-Learning.

Since the week I spent at CWI’s Summer Institute in the picturesque and ever so inspiring setting of Vermont, I have reflected much more about place as the context and service-learning as the approach to (further) develop sustainable communities. The Institute was ideal in order to get a dose of ‘nature therapy’ and work collaboratively with a mix of professionals across the education community spectrum. We were all able to effectively mesh our service-learning frame of reference with each other in order to help create a ‘bigger picture’.

During the institute, I also experienced the importance of working professionally with ‘study group’ networks. Each member was given the opportunity to air a challenge that he/she faced and receive constructive feedback from the other members. What I found, (which I did not initially expect but which now seems obvious to me), was that it was just as beneficial to receive the feedback as it was to offer it to each member of the group. I made the connection that feeling that your input is valued is somewhat similar to how students feel while working collaboratively with others on service-learning initiatives. Suggesting ideas to explore, offering comments or possible solutions, sharing personal experiences, or asking more questions to gain a better perspective helps us get or stay invested. This team approach keeps us focused, invigorated, intrinsically motivated and energized, just as our students feel when they are involved in meaningful and worthwhile service-learning experiences.

I feel that I got a more solid understanding of the Best Practices in the site level guide portion of the CWI Workbook (Connecting Service-Learning to the Curriculum). I find that the best practices are a comprehensive way to better plan and ensure the necessary support in order to be able to eventually imbed service-learning across the curriculum.

When I first arrived at the Institute, I was leaning towards further developing a service-learning initiative and therefore was intending to develop an instructional plan. I soon realized that I needed to rework my site level plan as it needed much more serious attention.

I took some time to reflect on my perceived weakness. I used to think that spending so much time on PR-related activities was self-serving, and not always the best use of my time. I felt that I should be focusing more time on (further) developing service-learning initiatives instead of on PR-related activities. I now see the PR piece as an integral part of the service-learning initiatives and I plan to be more creative in getting students to help with this process. Using student reflection (with permission) on a more consistent basis will alleviate some of this added pressure. Weaving a PR end-product of some sort into the phases of selected service-learning initiatives and inviting the media on a more steady basis will also help alleviate the time constraints of creating and producing PR pieces. This promotion could also serve as one of my personal track records as promoting myself is not my forte and has been my downfall at times. I plan to work more closely with the office of external relations at my school.

My week at CWI’s Institute was personally fulfilling as I was able to nurture my love for the environment, further ponder the quality of life for living creatures, and connect with educators who are striving to facilitate authentic service-learning opportunities for their students within their communities. I was lucky enough to also develop some friendships, which made the week that much more enjoyable. I took away a lot of incredible ideas and shared wisdom from other institute participants. I especially liked and noted these gems:

“Take the bucket away and don’t enable your students!” As Steve Colangelli referenced his ducks at his pond during his presentation. He made the connection that service-learning facilitators do not always need to step in and assist their students; they must be willing to give their students the room they need to try, make mistakes, and try again.

“As much as you can and every year more.” Emily reminds us to keep balance in our lives. As enthusiastic as we can be at times, we must remember to keep ourselves in check and only take on what we really can manage well.

‘Three Cups of Coffee theory’: After the first cup, you are acquaintances; after the second cup, you are friends; after the third cup, you are family. Ed Wallace shared this ‘theory’ during one of our study group sessions. We did get to know each member better after each meeting and were sincerely invested to work as best as we could in the best interest of our teammate.

“Creativity is messy, take risks, learn from mistakes.” Marc Chabot voiced what we all needed to hear! Service-learning facilitators must be willing to set the example and be principled, open-minded and reflective risk-takers.

“A new way to do what you are already doing” Emily Hoyler sells service-learning as an approach. Hopefully, in the very near future, educators will view and embed service-learning as a method (in a similar way as cooperative learning was widely embraced in the 1990s).

I am convinced that students cannot indefinitely continue to be motivated by method(s) of rewards, grades, points, credits, and/or collecting hours. I believe that students are sincerely seeking real-life experiential challenges in authentic learning environments, which are stimulating and collaborative in nature, where they can demonstrate the application of their skill set. The experience-based model of service-learning not only affirms student’s interests, but it also discovers talents, builds confidence and competence and results in students being invested in their learning. When students strive to be active participants in their education; they are energized and intrinsically motivated by authentic and meaningful hard work. Connections made with peers and other members of the community offer opportunities for students to (further) develop skills in leadership, communication, citizenship, organization and/or creativity.

‘Place as the context and service learning as the strategy’ help students experience change, demonstrate skills and improve reciprocal partnerships within sustainable communities. I believe that students learn ‘by doing’ where their skills are then transferred to other areas of their lives. In turn, this approach to learning not only improves student performance, but it also improves how teachers teach.

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Community Works Institute (CWI) provides resources, professional development, and collaboration opportunities for educators. Our focus is on place based education, service learning, and sustainability.
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