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.

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