By Jillian Boudreau, Director of Student Affairs/Guidance Counselor for the Academy of Notre Dame’s Lower School
In today’s society, a large focus for students is to be a “well rounded individual” when applying for college. When asked what “well-rounded” means, the majority of people would list someone with high academic achievement, numerous extracurricular activities (sports and clubs), and a commitment to community service. However, this list is very static and generic, unless there is a true passion behind it. Being passionate about something can take seed as a young child and be fostered throughout adolescence and adulthood, leading to a lifelong commitment and dedication to truly making a difference in the world. The question then becomes, how does someone find their passion at a young age? Although there is no foolproof way to determine this, the best guarantee, to find your passion, is to get out into the world, help others, and share your knowledge. This highlights the importance of community service and service-based learning in elementary education.
The Importance of Service Learning
In today’s classrooms, service learning is becoming a more prominent and valued form of education. Service learning is “when students work together on a project for their community, or the community at large.” Service learning brings an entire class or school together for a greater cause, all working for the common goal of helping others. Service learning not only benefits students but also teachers, and the community at large. Many students often get caught up with their friends, family, and academics, not realizing that the world around them differs from their own. By participating in these projects, students learn empathy for others which might lead them to find their personal passion/s. They also have an opportunity to learn about communities and cultures which are very different from their own. For teachers, service-based learning is a reminder that being an educator is about educating the whole person for life, not just the academic component which often tends to be their focus. Finally, the community benefits from the various projects the students participate in by personally connecting the school with local agencies, this often leads to long-lasting relationships.
Finding your Passion
St. Ignatius Loyola once said, “Go forth and set the world aflame.” These words of advice means to take what you learn as a student and spread it throughout the world as best you can. To do this, students must be guided, shown the importance of helping those in need, and how they can make an impact. This is where service-based learning is critical and can shape the hearts and minds of today’s youth. Students today are so busy with daily academics and activities that spending time volunteering or running a donation drive is something that often does not cross their minds. As parents and educators, it is our responsibility to show them the importance of stepping out of their comfort zones by making time to help others. Personally, I found my passion to work with children through encouragement from both my parents and teachers. From a young age, I volunteered for various organizations which lead me to the niche I most enjoy. At that time, I didn’t realize the lasting impact my efforts had on my life and those I was working with. As adults, we must remember the importance of service by making time for it in both our lives and the young children amongst us.
Service-Based Learning at the Academy
The mission at the Academy of Notre Dame is to educate students for life. The Academy is committed to community-building, diversity, global justice and service to those in need. This philosophy and dedication to service-based learning allows the ideas of compassion for others and finding one’s true passions to be nurtured and developed at a very early age.
Students begin participating in service learning in the pre-kindergarten program and continue through 8th grade. Although the youngest students may not grasp the concept fully at the time, the topic of helping others and how each project will help someone is discussed and reinforced as a class. Students continue on through the early elementary years, making cards for veterans and the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur and talking about what it means to receive a caring card from someone. They also participate in all school collections of canned goods, magazines for veterans, and candy for our troops. During these collection drives and in religion courses, students discuss how other children may not have the same things that these students do in their houses and how important it is to help those less fortunate. As students enter the upper elementary years, they begin to take a small leadership role in the community service projects, by buddying up with the younger grades. Each student in grades 4-6 is paired with a buddy in grades K-3 to work on service projects for different causes, such as World Mission Day and mission fundraisers throughout Africa and the Congo such as the Chic Project, the Pur Water Project, and the Sunflower Project.
As students enter grades 7 and 8, the Junior National Beta Club encourages students to “lead by serving others,” providing ample opportunity to lead and participate in community service projects. Even if students are not in the Beta Club, they are welcome to become coordinators of service projects and take leadership roles in existing projects as well. One of the largest projects the Middle School students have coordinated is the school-wide food collection and donation for the Greater Lowell Food Bank, in which over 1700 pounds of food was loaded into our school buses and delivered by students to the food bank. The students also collaborated with the Girl Scouts of America to participate in 68 Hours to End Hunger, by filling backpacks of food for children who are in need of food over their weekends and coordinate a school-wide spring service project within the community.
Through these school-wide projects, students learn about the world outside of the classroom and how even the smallest gesture can make a difference. As students matriculate throughout the Academy, they are able to experience a variety of projects with the hope that they graduate with a passion for service.