Put service back in service learning

Katya Tolunsky

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The school’s mission of service learning (Slearn) is defined on the school website as “a pedagogy and movement which combines community service and action with education, often through curricular connections.” In my five years as a student at the school, I have had many meaningful and rewarding experiences with Service Learning; however, this year I did not feel that the Sophomore’s Service Learning Day, held last Thursday, lived up to the school’s mission statement.
The intention of this year’s workshop-filled day was to inspire students to become more involved in the Bronx community. Students missed a day of classes to engage in a variety of different workshops. Many of these workshops involved guest speakers from nonprofit organizations and entrepreneurial founders seeking to share and advance their business agendas. Although different and at times seeming random, the workshops were all connected through their geography. All of the organizations aim to benefit various communities in the Bronx. Some were engaging, some were boring, while others felt irrelevant. All, however, had the feel of an information session.
I have often heard our school referred to as “a little bubble on top of the hill,” implying that it is isolated from the rest of the Bronx community by the socioeconomic privilege of its student body. It is easy to forget that we are located in the poorest of New York state’s 62 counties. This message was made clear throughout the day. However, the message would have resonated more with me if we had actually left the isolated bubble of our campus. Having stayed within the confines of the “bubble,” the day lacked actual action that could have been meaningful to both the Bronx community and our students.
Over the years, the school has gradually decreased the level of service participation required in order to graduate. When my brother graduated in 2018, he was mandated to have at least 24 hours of community service. It didn’t matter whether this was achieved through joining the Slearn team or through your own means outside of school. This in and of itself is not a lot to ask from a group of generally privileged students who often have little exposure to the privations of others.
By my freshman year, the 24-hour requirement had been removed. Instead, the entire grade was divided up into different groups and sent into a variety of different settings in the Bronx to perform service. Some cleaned up trash in Van Cortlandt Park, others gave out food at the New York Common Pantry, while others engaged with students at local schools. Brief as it was, I found this experience to be rewarding, meaningful, and overall productive. Furthermore, I felt that I was truly contributing to the Bronx community. Instead of hearing about all the areas of the Bronx that need our support, I was able to see firsthand and participate in providing aid.
This year’s Service Learning Day underwent even further cuts. It was reduced to simply talking about the issues and the ways to help. Although I understand the importance of the “learning” aspect of service learning, I do believe the emphasis should be placed more on service. But the sophomore’s day was all talk and no action. I can’t help but feel disappointed that we are let off with lip service instead of actual service.
I am not opposed to a day of workshops in itself. I believe that educating students about the different ways they can get involved is valuable. But it should not be a substitute for the day of actual service. Learning is a most welcome addition to the service, which should always remain at the center of the Slearn curriculum.
I am not certain what the perfect requirement should be. Maybe the school should bring back a mandated number of hours, or perhaps it would be better to have a day or two of dedicated community service. Whatever it is, I hope that in the future the requirement mandates actual action itself. I look forward to seeing what the Slearn curriculum brings us next year.