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Grant Siebert’s shy smile turned to a broad grin. Grant, a 14-year-old eighth-grader, was explaining to about 30 educators from around the country how Maplewood Middle School has a tradition of using students’ insights, creativity and energy. An eighth-grader had helped him write a book about himself when he was in first grade. Now, as an eighth-grader, he’s doing the same with a first-grader. Grant spoke at a National Youth Learning Council conference on April 26 in Minneapolis, where educators learned more about why this kind of “service-learning” is so valuable, powerful and timely.

Twenty-year public school teacher Anna Edlund of the Eastern Carver County School District reports that families strongly support these efforts because, “they see how these projects simultaneously help youngsters improve their academic skills, and learn that it’s gratifying to help others.”

Tom Holman, board chair of the Search Institute, told me that their research shows one of the three most positive indicators (predictors) of future success among young people is their belief that “what they do makes a difference” (searchinstitute.org). He also recommends the Multiplying Good organization, which can be found at minnesota.multiplyinggood.org.

Grant’s teacher showed him and his classmates, how to interview a first-grader. “You ask simple questions like, ‘What’s your favorite color and food, what games do you like?’ Gradually you have enough for a book about the first-grader. Then, after we write down their answers, we draw pictures. Finally, we read the book to the first-graders and give it to them.”

Grant remembers the book an eighth-grader helped him write, seven years ago. “One of the main characters was my dog.” Grant recalls that “eighth-graders were very nice to us.”

And now? “We get to carry on the kindness they showed us.”

Grant spoke in a workshop led by Edlund. She and her colleague Heather Tran (via abettersociety.org) help hundreds of the district’s fourth- and fifth-graders do about 25 service-learning projects a year, with 23 community partners.

Projects include:

• Producing a “welcome to the school” video in English, Spanish and Somali for new students;

• Learning about people serving in the military, gathering materials for “care packages” and “thank you” letters;

• Gathering food and other supplies for pets that some families were struggling to feed and care for;

• Making hats for prematurely born babies;

• Helping improve local water quality; and

• Writing to and with senior citizens, in a project called “Marvelous Memories.”

Edlund emphasized that students had options about which project they participated in. More information at [email protected]

University of Minnesota professor Andrew Furco also spoke at the NYLC conference. (www.nylc.org). He’s documented the huge value of well-designed, well-implemented service-learning programs such as those mentioned above, to produce, among other things, K-12 “improved academic performance, better attendance and grades, and increased motivation for learning.” A one-page summary of his research is at tinyurl.com/4s3kb3y5.

There’s not much public focus on building on young people’s insights, creativity, and compassion.

Joe Nathan

Minnesota Department of Education Commissioner Heather Mueller told me that she had spent a year after graduating with the “Up with People” program, and that service-learning can be “very valuable.”

But much of the current discussion about what students need emphasizes more counselors, social workers and psychologists. Those people can be helpful. But there’s not much public focus on building on young people’s insights, creativity, and compassion. Furco explained, “It’s easier for adults to talk about problems youngsters have, rather than change the way we work with them.”

Wokie Weah worked at NYLC for many years and then founded Youthprise, a statewide organization that helps youth carry out projects that make a difference. For example, high school students successfully convinced Minnesota officials that they should receive federal unemployment assistance if they were laid off because of the pandemic (youthprise.org).

She and I agree that as she put it, “Young people deserve state leadership that recognizes and gives students the opportunity to shine.”

Then we’ll have many more young people like Grant.

Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school educator and PTA parent, directs the Center for School Change. 

This post originally appeared in the APG of East Central Minnesota newspapers.

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