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Service Projects for Elementary Learners

This is Global Education in Action

By Ellen Deem

“Let us greet each other with a smile, for a smile is the beginning of love.”

–Mother Teresa

Why service learning? The first opportunity my students had to do a service project came because of Volunteers for Chat to the Future responded to a tweet I sent out looking for Mystery Skype opportunities. Chat to the Future was started by Adam McKim, a high school teacher in Canada. This was the first seed planted for service learning in my classroom.

Through Chat to the Future we were able to help orphan children in Uganda with their school fees by doing extra chores and sharing our birthday money. We had the opportunity to Skype with those children multiple times. Seeing my students laughing and connecting with children on the other side of the world profoundly changed me. I wrote this the afternoon of our first Skype session.

Today I had a small taste of what Mother Teresa was talking about. Seeing the smiles of the CHAT House children, hearing their answers to our questions and seeing their joy in action was life-changing for me. I am reminded of why I became a teacher. I want every child to have the same hope my parents gave me by telling me the story of the Gospel. Jesus has walked with me every step of my life, and I want all children to have that Gift. Hope that only Christ can give.

I know as my first graders get to know these children better, they will see how Jesus’ Love for all of us connects us. They will see that His love for us is the only thing that matters. February 6, 2015

Our service projects have made my first graders more mindful of other people’s needs which has directly impacted our classroom community for good. My first graders are learning that their actions affect others. We are no longer limited by the four walls of our classroom. Planting these seeds of compassion has become as important as our time spent reading, writing and solving math problems.

This year, Chat to the Future did not need our assistance. My former first graders were writing me notes about wanting to continue to help their friends in Africa. I knew I needed to find another outlet for us to serve.

This year’s service project also came to my attention because of We are helping The Kula Project. As they state on their website, “The Kula Project invests in the dreams and businesses of coffee farmers in East Africa.” Investing in dreams is what teachers do every day. Helping this organization was a perfect fit for my first graders’ hearts.

The passion and commitment of the organization’s founders is evident in every Kula Project social media post. I was thrilled when we were able to partner with them. Skyping was not logistically possible, so we exchanged video questions and answers. We recently received the children’s video replies to our questions. When my students were watching these videos, they were mesmerized by what they were seeing. When my students bring in their donations they are very excited to put them in the Africa bucket. They are donating in honor of their classmates who have been kind to them.

While I was encouraging my students to build a culture of service in my classroom, some of my colleagues were thinking on a bigger scale. They are living examples of what Margaret Mead was talking about when she said, “Never doubt that a small group of concerned citizens can change the world: indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

Last Spring, three teachers at St. Matthew Catholic School got together to write a grant for social justice. The idea for their grant came when one of our former fourth grade teachers, Patricia Wendover, finished the Just Faith course at St. Matthew Catholic Church. Patricia said that course made her want to put her faith into action. She wanted to come up with an idea that would encourage students to work towards helping those in need and act as the hands and feet of Jesus. Patricia’s idea became a MACS Education grant that she wrote with kindergarten teachers, Pat Frantz and Mary Strauss. Betsy DesNoyer joined the team when Patricia left to teach at another school and do more volunteer work. When the MACS Education Foundation awarded them the funds for their Social Justice Grant, the seeds for Poverty Action Week were planted.

All classroom teachers received books to share with their classes to teach about Catholic social teachings. St. Matthew’s value recognition program was revised to emphasize these Catholic social teachings, and each month two students who modeled the featured social teaching were recognized in Mass. Poverty Action Week was the culmination of our school year’s efforts to make our students more aware of the importance of recognizing Jesus in every person.

Poverty Action Week started with a visit from Bishop Peter Jugis on Monday, March 27, 2017. St. Matthew students gathered to hear an inspiring message from Bishop Jugis about the importance of Catholic social teaching. Student Council escorted Bishop Jugis to various classrooms so he could meet with students and hear what they have been doing to help others in need. The Bishop had a firsthand glimpse of each grade’s individual contribution to St. Matthew’s school wide efforts.

On Friday, March 31, 2017, all St. Matthew students had the opportunity to hear a guest speaker talk about the importance of helping the poor and sharing their blessings. The entire day was dedicated to poverty awareness. Each grade toured the school to see what other students were doing to help people in need. Friday culminated with a prayer service led by retired Bishop William Curlin. Bishop Curlin inspired all those present with his personal experiences helping the poorest of the poor. He shared stories of when he had visited Mother Teresa in India. He said he remembered Mother Teresa saying to him that the best gift we can give others is to share the love of Jesus. He reminded all of us to ask Jesus to live in us each day.

As I talked with the teachers involved with supervising this project, I thought it neat that they all said it was someone else’s idea. As I spoke with each teacher I was reminded of another quote by Mother Teresa:

“I am like a little pencil in God’s hand… He does the writing. The pencil has nothing to do with it.”

None of this would have happened if one teacher hadn’t shared her idea with a few other teachers. What ideas have you been pondering as of late?

As I reflect on Poverty Action Week and my first graders friends in Africa, I’m encouraged that St. Matthew students will be inspired to continue to share with others. I’m hoping this project leads to opportunities to collaborate with other schools on service projects.

I cannot wait to see what stories their pencils will tell.

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Further Reading
  1. WLWT Cincinnati – Helping others becomes part of S.T.E.M. curriculum in Franklin
  2. KMOV – Local student’s school project raises thousands of dollars for BackStoppers
  3. News at Princeton  – Princeton Prize honors high school students for promoting understanding, respect
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