Gift-Giving: Discounts for Educators

In the spirit of gift-giving for the holiday season, Norton is offering a discount on some popular titles for educators.  Please enjoy!

We will be taking a vacation for the holidays, but K-12Talk will be back with new posts from your fellow educators in January.  With best wishes for a restorative and joyful break,

Carol Collins

Education Editor, Norton Professional Books

Gift-Giving: Features of K-16 Service Learning

Five stages or steps for engaging students in a service-learning project have been identified by the RMC Research Corporation (2009)*. Here we look at each stage and include an example from Whittier College in Whittier, CA, which engaged in a service-learning project that involved multilingual students and addressed a community need.  

Investigation: The first phase of a service-learning project involves engaging students in exploring a community need they might address as they engage in an academic learning experience. This initial phase should include a range of activities to spark students’ interest in addressing the problem and develop consensus in the ways that it will be addressed. These might include a classroom brainstorming discussion (e.g., where students engage in pairs, small groups, and/or as a whole class); engaging in research about the problem and solutions that have occurred (such as reading newspaper accounts); and collaboratively developing an observation protocol for students to see the need firsthand. These might also occur as part of a specific course of study that is designed to provide a structured, systematized program of service-learning study as well as a less formal program. Both can be highly successful. Let’s look at the nationally recognized service-learning efforts at Whittier College.

  • Example: Whittier College Professors Ivannia Soto and Natale Zappia teamed up to create service-learning assignments for students enrolled in their courses, “Issues in Urban Education” and “Early American Environmental History.” One of their important goals was to bring the coursework alive by engaging students in firsthand experiences with culturally and linguistically diverse secondary students to broaden the college students’ understandings of our increasingly diverse schools and communities. Working in partnership with a local high school, they developed a campus-community partnership that produces measurable impact in engaging students in meaningful service-learning activities and have been honored for their efforts by the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), a distinction that was given to only 110 colleges and universities across the nation.

Planning and preparation: The second stage involves collaboratively engaging students in determining a specific service-learning project, its goals, and the knowledge and practical information that students need to engage in it. For example, some activities students might engage in include observing or interviewing others, using particular tools or instruments, and meeting with people who have expertise in areas with which the student might not be familiar. As such, students must be supported in the preparation of these projects by helping them to determine and acquire (1) the background information they need about the service-learning recipients and (2) the training they need in how to engage in these activities confidently to address the community need.

  • Example: Twenty-two Whittier College students built and maintained a garden with high school students at La Serna High School in Whittier, California. Whittier College students worked directly with two groups of students at La Serna: English language learners (ELL) participating in a specially designed academic instruction in English (SDAIE) biology class and Advanced Placement (AP) Environmental Science students. La Serna High School is one of six high schools in the Whittier Union High School District (WUHSD) and is the designated school for ELL students at beginning language proficiency levels in the district.

Implementation: The next stage involves launching the service-learning experience. While we might think that teachers take a passive role during this time, a key feature of this stage is the active role that teachers have to positively support students to engage in the service-learning activity and build strong connections between the hands-on experience and what they are learning in class.  

  • Example: Whittier College students participating in “Learning in the Garden” spent a semester observing, reflecting, and analyzing the success of this project with local high school English learners, and in turn, were empowered to become responsible for and engaged in their own learning, while also giving back to their own communities.

Reflection: It is essential for students to build connections between what they are experiencing in the service-learning project and what they are learning in class. Engaging students in continuous reflection allows them to understand their own learning and be empowered to learn and be able to identify the skills they are learning and exploring. There are many forms for this key activity, including engaging students in journal writing; writing essays; partner, small-group, and whole-class discussions; responding to writing prompts; providing presentations to specific audiences, and a culminating paper or presentation on the service-learning experience.

  • Example: After completing the “Learning in the Garden” service-learning project, students reflected on their experiences through personal essays.  One student, for example, wrote about the effects of environmental racism he observed while completing the project.

Demonstration/celebration: The final stage of a service-learning project involves engaging students in celebrating their accomplishments, acknowledging their efforts, and supporting them in seeing the learning that has occurred. It can also include a celebration that includes community partners and publicly recognizes everyone’s efforts to address a need and partner together. Lastly and as importantly, it provides a time for celebrating students’ commitment and dedication to their service to others.

  • Example: Whittier College sought to create an integrative service-learning project that tapped into the strengths and assets of all of its participants and allowed for multiple opportunities for reflection and celebration of its efforts. This included semester long acknowledgements of their efforts, as well as encouragement to engage in continuous reflection of the steps that might be taken to strengthen its multiple successes.  At the end of the semester, La Serna High School students visited the college to receive a tour by the college students in the course, as well as to harvest and enjoy vegetables from both gardens (La Serna High School and Whittier College).

When we focus on the positive capacities and expertise that exist within our communities and employ these five stages, we can create service-learning projects that are mutually beneficial to everyone, build on the academic and social-emotional strengths of our students, and promote the ideals of a democratic society.

*RMC Research Corporation. (2009). K-12 Service-Learning Project Planning Toolkit. Scotts Valley, CA: National Service-Learning Clearinghouse.

This post was adapted from Debbie Zacarian and Ivannia Soto’s forthcoming book, Responsive Schooling for Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students (W. W. Norton, July 2020).

Debbie Zacarian consults at the federal, state, university, and district levels on educating diverse populations. She is based in Amherst, Massachusetts.

Ivannia Soto, a professor at Whittier College, directs its Institute for Culturally and Linguistically Responsive Teaching. She resides in Whittier, California.

Gift-Giving: Students Tackling Real-World Problems

When I think of the holidays, my mind wanders to gift giving. Red ribbon. Bows. Metallic wrapping paper. However, the greatest gifts are not those you hold, but those that are felt in the heart. You and I have the opportunity to give a powerful gift to the students we teach. Purpose. To give them a sense of feeling needed and a chance to give back to the world. All people long for purpose. Purpose motivates us and pushes us to go further and do more. People spend their lives searching for it. Just as my students were searching for it, in the lessons I taught. 

“Why should I learn this?” “When am I ever going to use it?” “How is this information important for my life?” Students would ask these questions year after year in my classroom. They longed to see how our content connected to the world. 

One day I received an email from the assistant superintendent saying that the proposed school budget was in danger of being rejected and he needed someone to advocate for student funding and security improvements. My eyes fell on the empty desks in front of me. What if I gave this local problem to my students? Using persuasive language to encourage others to adopt a budget falls squarely within my academic curriculum. By tackling this challenge, students might use content to impact the world around them. The students created a public service announcement and spoke at the county budget hearing. Months later, the budget passed, and for the first time in years, it was almost fully funded.  

The budget project was the beginning of the Community Problems Bank. Helping students address community challenges by using our content merges the best aspects of service learning, project-based learning, and growth mindset. Because every problem in life requires different tools to solve, the process is useful for all disciplines.


First, I determine which real-world challenges are suitable for a bank. I collect problems for the bank by scanning the local news and reaching out to local government agencies, nonprofits, and other local businesses. 

I reach out in person and give the community organization background information on my class and time frames for our projects. I ask only one question: What problems do you see in the local community or in your specific organization? Some organizations immediately share problems, a few politely refuse, and a few ask to meet my students. Whether they add to the bank or not, every person has asked to be listed as a resource for students. 

Once there are a few dozen problems, I introduce students to the list. Students are free to give input or add problems they feel are missing. 


To begin creating a Community Problems Bank, I enter all of the problems into the first column of a spreadsheet. Putting newer problems at the top allows students to quickly see new additions. You can curate a list that fits your grade level and students. 

The next three columns are labeled “Standards/Initiatives,” “Explore,” and “Coaching/Resources to Help.” The Standards/Initiatives column is a space to add in the specific class content or school initiatives that will benefit the learner while solving the problem. In the Explore column, I add the names of students working on each project, as well as a link to their project planning sheet. As work progresses, students and I add important information, questions, resources, and failures in the Coaching/Resources to Help column. 

To pair problems with standards, determine which curricular knowledge or skills your students may need to tackle each challenge.


You can use the problems bank to teach a concept to the entire class, or you might allow students to form groups and select their own standard-aligned problems to try to solve during or after a unit of study. 

No matter what method you choose, give students structure when they tackle big problems. A project planning sheet will guide students through the design thinking process to generate solutions. 

Once weekly, I hold three-to-four-minute project check-ins during which students share updates, and I give coaching, guidance, and feedback. Check-ins are a great time to do mini lessons and look for indications of content mastery or needs. 

My students also reflect weekly on their progress toward solving or “moving” the problem, as well as the associated standards. These reflections provide formative insight and allow me to create whole-group lesson plans as well as individual action plans to help students master content.

Taking on real-world problems comes with the risk of failure. There is no answer key to the problems in the bank, so students have to learn and be coached through failure. A group of students in my class wanted to address Alzheimer’s disease. The standard paired with the problem was developing interview skills. They talked to family members, researched the disease, and learned about effects from a local care home. They had mastered the standards associated with interviewing for my content, but they were unable to come up with a solution for the disease. 

I coached them and pushed them to look for a new solution. It took them a few days, but they decided to stop focusing on the disease and to find a way to help the families of people with Alzheimer’s. They recorded the memories of Alzheimer’s patients at a local facility and gave the recorded memories to the patients’ families. The students were upset because they hadn’t solved the big issue, but they didn’t let failure stop them from reframing the problem and finding a solution. Along the way, they learned perseverance, determination, and compassion for others. 

Over the years, my students have failed and succeeded in solving community problems. No matter whether they succeed or fail, each class walks away with a new respect for learning. They see their learning has a purpose. “This class has taught me that the more we learn, the more prepared we are to tackle the problems around us,” a former student said. “We may not solve all the problems today, but one day with more knowledge and skills we might.” 

Cathleen Beachboard has served for over a decade as an instructional coach, professional developer, and teacher. Cathleen currently serves as an 8th grade English teacher and department chair for her school in Fauquier County, Va. Her book, 10 Keys to Student Empowerment, features tools to unlock student potential and develop courage in learners to face challenges head on.