Welcome to Community Service
The 9th grade class in Community Service involves students in direct service, service learning and civic engagement. We will begin by exploring the ethical imperative of service and the deep grounding of service in the democratic idealism that lay behind the founding of this school. “Service,” wrote Marian Wright Edelman “is the rent we pay to be living. It is the very purpose of life and not something you do in your spare time.” Service experiences provide opportunities for authentic learning and democratic endeavor that are unique, and they provide and nurture skills and experiences that will build a foundation for a lifetime of service and civic engagement.
The class will work individually and as a group. The entire class will engage in a number of service projects with New York City, national and international public and not-for-profit service agencies. These include small grassroots organizations, established New York programs like the Hudson Guild, the Bowery Mission and the Citizens Committee for Children and international aid agencies like Mercycorps. In addition each student will choose from a number of areas in which to pursue individual service projects including education and literacy, seniors, homelessness, foster care, environmental work, community development, after-school programs and many more. Activities will range from direct service to advocacy and the emphasis will be on sustained commitment and reflection. A journal of experiences is a requirement of the course. There will be regular trips during school and on weekends.
Community Service and the Mission of LREI
Last year the High School faculty engaged in a year-long review of our community service program. Two principles received renewed emphasis as we sought to realign the program with our school’s mission. These were the ideas of “sustained commitment” and “critical reflection,” both critically important elements of meaningful community service. As a result, a number of new initiatives in the High School program have begun to take shape. One, and perhaps the most important, has been a new course for ninth graders. I say most important because we all agreed that the earlier we introduce students to the norms, perspectives, values and experiences that lead to our stated goal of producing life-long, active and effective citizens, the better.
The 9th grade course, therefore, introduces our newest students to community service at the very beginning of their experience here. It encourages students to reflect on their experiences with people that may be new for them, in places, and amidst cultural, social and economic conditions and circumstances that challenge their comfort levels and expand their “universe of obligations.” Such service-oriented experiential education has been central to our school’s program since the beginning, enriching our curricular emphasis on social studies and the emphasis in our school’s culture on diversity and social justice. Taken together, these elements of our program serve as the basis for the democratic education that was Elisabeth Irwin’s goal. When she established the high school division in 1941, she envisioned a school that sent its students out into the world as junior citizens. But she knew that an education in citizenship began with the concrete experience of serving others. She believed that there was no more powerful, and ultimately transformative, way, to learn about the individuals’ interdependence with the world around them, and about the range of human needs that exist in that world. But she also knew that such lessons are increasingly difficult to learn in the complex, urban and increasingly global world in which her students lived. Helping students understand their roles in today’s global community has only become exponentially more complicated.
We begin the 9th grade course, therefore, by exploring our roles in that community by examining Marian Wright Edelman’s famous definition of service as the “rent we pay for being alive.” We ask, and discuss together our answers to, a series of powerful questions Edelman’s remarks raise. Why serve the community? How is service different from charity? How can, and how have, service experiences changed you and your outlook on life? What have you learned from your service experiences? What human needs can you identify? Do you think Marian Wright Edelman is correct in saying we all are compelled by the very fact of being alive to serve others, and that we should make such service a central element of our own lives?
Next we turn to finding out about the social and economic contexts of the human needs we have encountered through our service activities. Opportunities for such “service learning” are virtually endless, especially in the highly specialized and professionalized world in which our children are growing up. In the weeks that follow we encounter – here in the classroom and out in the field – any number of these areas – foster care, geriatrics, early childhood, special education and environmental stewardship, to name just a very few. They meet the “faces of service,” the people usually unsung heroes of the life of our community, whose work might encompass a local neighborhood or extend to encompass neighborhoods around the world. We explore the realm of volunteer service in New York City and visit organizations – some venerable and quite large; others grass-roots and quite small – that form an indispensable arm of civic life in a democracy. Students share their own personal encounters with this world and keep journals about their community service experiences.
Finally, students consider the connection between such service experiences and the overarching concept of citizenship in a democracy. We consider the principle that citizenship requires us to find our voice, to do research to back up our arguments and fortify our values with facts. Such “advocacy,” entering the public discourse, is the third stage of our community service program. We seek ways as a class to make our voices heard through the most appropriate media, and to direct our voices to those who have it in their hands to institutionalize change. The personal transformation that comes from service experiences leads to the development of a kind of tool-kit of civic skills necessary for civic engagement and effective participation in a democracy. It provides a basis, as students mature intellectually, for more conceptual comprehension of their roles as neighbors and citizens in the world-wide community that they will increasingly inhabit for the rest of their lives. It introduces them to subject areas and prepares them for later more advanced education and training in the professional levels of expertise needed to deal with complex phenomena in the modern world.
Building on this foundation together as a class, each individual will gradually begin to focus in on an area of serving others and addressing pressing social needs. Some may be interested in serving in the cause of environmental stewardship, others in working with young children or with senior citizens. For some the need that attracts their hearts and minds may be working in underserved neighborhoods mired in poverty, or with the homeless. Others might narrow their focus on a specific area of social services such as the foster care system or health and hospitals. Some may become involved around the corner from where they live; while others may be working through international NGOs on problems abroad among populations in a developing country. Whatever the particular problem that attracts their attention the pedagogical approach remains the same: direct volunteer service, learning about the context of the needs that attract their interest, and doing something about it through research, advocacy and, ultimately, civic engagement. Through such experiences, it is our intention that students will develop the foundational values, the understanding and the skills of democratic citizenship, that will motivate and empower them to lead lives enriched and made meaningful by life-long learning and life-long citizenship. This was Elisabeth Irwin’s goal and it remains our goal as a school today.
September 1, 2009
Nicholas O’Han, School Historian, Director of Urban Studies and High School Community Service