Service-Learning: An Experiential Journey

Seniors at The Brooklyn International High School have the opportunity of being on the “Be the Change” instructional team which includes service learning as part of its program. This article about “Be the Change” was written by Margaret Price, Americorps volunteer, Laura Berson, social studies teacher and Shahzia Pirani-Mellstrom, humanitites teacher.

“Some people in my community they don’t even know how to vote, and where they can get the papers for voting and that’s what makes me want to do actions to make a difference…because by voting it make their voices heard and their feeling share with other people that they share their daily life with,” Ahmed.

Ahmed’s reflection came after service-learning projects were incorporated into his 12th-grade English, Government, Art, Science and Math classes at Brooklyn International High School two years ago, when students created bilingual newspapers to inform their immigrant communities about living and working in New York City. Ahmed’s Government and English teachers, Laura Berson and Shahzia Pirani-Mellstrom, conducted surveys of students before and after their service projects to determine the impact the projects had. They found that 68% of students felt they could make a difference in their communities after completing service projects, up from 39% before their projects began. This overwhelming response led the two teachers, along with Kia DeCou and Jason Fleischauer, to design a pilot program, for 12th-grade students, that builds service-learning into the team’s academic curriculum.

During the 2009-2010 school year, students from Team Be The Change visit one of two community partners each week – The Action Center to End World Hunger and The New York Tolerance Center – to learn about issues of poverty and discrimination. The service-learning class aims to increase student awareness and participation in community issues, with the goal that students will feel empowered to take action when other issues arise in their communities. Using experiential learning techniques, the program includes student-led project-based activities, visits to community partners, and invited speakers. Each of these increases student buy-in and engagement with the project, meaning that learning is concrete, grounded, and meaningful to the learner. In other words, the service gives purpose to the learning, validating that concepts explored in the academic classroom are applicable to life. Mohamed, a student at BIHS, articulated this in a reflection essay, “After we gather the survey back from the people…suddenly we realize that they are not many people who know about our topic. Therefore my group member and I plan to take action and be part of the change…we made a decision to teach people…From now on we feel very confident and attracted to our topic.”

Mowla Masudor and Mohammed Sow (l-r) learn about natural disaster at the Liberty Science Center in New Jersey.

In the fall semester, student groups designed service projects for a variety of communities, including students in their own school, students at Lafayette International High School, teachers at Brooklyn International, and patients at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. The projects raised awareness about issues as diverse as HIV/AIDS transmission and U.S. media portrayal of the Israel/Palestine conflict; the students also raised funds for advocacy groups and direct social service organizations. In this process, students learn not only the content they need to fulfill the service, but they also learn life skills. Hadiatou wrote, “I change a lot since we start doing the service learning class…I never thought about making a difference in this world, but after this class, I have a good idea about making a difference…So as I learn this I can have responsibilities in my community, to help them know what is happening around the world.”


A group of students, including Rohana Akther, Jennifer Olivo, and Yulya Amonova (front, l-r), sit with Sarah Bever at the Action Center.

Building upon the students’ desire to continue working in their communities, students have started a new project with a new community partner. Learning has just begun about the ways government policies affect hunger in Guatemala and how prejudiced attitudes can lead to violent acts. Additional time for planning and reflection is built into the school day so students can meet in groups, research their topic, plan their projects, and take action. The team also created a social network where students can reflect on the week’s learning and share photographs and videos of their work. They also use the network to connect the topics they learn that week with their own knowledge from other classes, experiences, and the world. For example, Damian, in response to a quote about freedom, on the Be the Change Ning website wrote, “I am agree with the quotes From the Tolerance Center: ‘Freedom is not a gift from heaven…we must fight for it everyday.’ by Simon Wiesenthal. For example people in America vote for people they think are going to represent them and thats the way they keep their freedom. People fight for their country to have freedom, for example in world war 2 Poland fight with German and they have freedom and Poland is free now. People fight every where for freedom and sometimes they killing each other, because that is the only way they can get freedom. i think people should fight for freedom without killing each others.”


Hennessy Campos, Anna Korkuz, Li Ji Lin, and Dina Begum (l-r) present their project, which raised awareness of domestic violence.

Youth choice and celebration – both keys to ensuring student engagement are essential in service-learning; BIHS’s program seeks to address this by allowing students to choose their groups, topics and design their own service projects. Katherine revealed, “When I came to the United States, I started to be more interesting about how and why the weather is changing.” Katherine then chose to focus her project on climate change and she learned, “…if we don’t start making a change in our life…our earth will disappear.” As seen through Katherine’s quote, service-learning not only supports academic learning, it reflects student interest and therefore gives the students a sense of purpose for their education.


Woolbens Pierre and Raja Uzair (l-r) present on bullying issues. Group members not pictured are Jacob Velasquez and Ever Morales.

The unit culminates with a celebration of student work, held at the end of each semester in conjunction with the community partners. This serves as a time to reflect on their projects as well as their overall goals for their academic learning, their communities and themselves. As Orubba wrote in BIHS Hot News, the school newspaper, “Those of you who listens to speeches that President Obama had said, you would know that he made a call to everyone and asked for their service, similar to the services we are doing now at BIHS. This shows that we are part of something bigger than just a simple class, bigger than just a school in NY; we are part of a movement that will soon involve the whole nation.”

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