Eleventh Grade “Service Learning Day” occurred several weeks ago, fulfilling the juniors’ service-learning requirements. However, this day presented a stark shift from previous Service Learning Days. While past Days required personal participation in volunteer work, this year had no such obligation. The day’s emphasis dramatically shifted from a focus on learning through service to a focus on learning about service—barely even interacting with service at all.
For decades, the school has valued service-learning: learning about the world by giving back to our communities. The practical centerpiece of this emphasis on service-learning was the service requirement. It brought in the students who don’t often participate in service with the school and gave them an opportunity—and an incentive—to become involved in volunteer work.
Becoming involved in service is important for many reasons: not only does volunteer work help local communities, but it also benefits students. Students who participate in service-learning learn both about the communities they are helping and the issues they are trying to alleviate, as well as lessons such as the value of personal sacrifice and working with others. The purpose of a service- learning requirement is to allow students who don’t regularly participate in volunteer work to benefit from these experiences. That’s why it is vitally important that the service-learning requirement be both effective and service-oriented.
For the Class of 2021, this year’s shift in the requirement was clear. In our freshman year, we participated in a day of volunteer work. Some of us planted trees; others worked at a community center. I visited a retirement home to help the elderly. In our sophomore year, we did not have a Service Learning Day but were required to participate in personal volunteer projects.
However, this year, there was no requirement to participate in service in or out of school. Our “Service Learning Day” mostly consisted of student- or faculty-run workshops that rarely involved volunteer work.
Most workshops featured learning about other people’s service. Workshops like these included “Magicians Without Borders,” where students learned about an international nonprofit for magicians; the “Environment and Conservation Panel,” where environmental activists spoke about their work; and the “Higher Education Institutions’ Panel,” where representatives from different colleges boasted about how much service their institutions encouraged. All of these were interesting in their own right, but none of them included students actually participating in service themselves.
Other workshops had no clear connection to service. One was a seminar on the upcoming 2020 Ccensus, and another extremely popular one was “Bronx Professional Artist-Graphic Hat Design,” which simply featured students decorating pre-manufactured baseball caps with their own names. These workshops may have been interesting or fun, but they were not connected to service in any meaningful way.
Few workshops featured actual service by participants, which is what Service Learning Day should be about. “Sunshine Mail,” in which students wrote letters to hospitalized kids, was such an example. However, the vast majority of workshops did not include student volunteer work, and most juniors, including myself, went through their “Service Learning Day” without actually participating in any service.
The irony was strongest in a workshop called “HM Archives,” where we looked through records of past student service work and the history of the service-learning requirement. In the first year of the service-learning requirement, students were required to participate in 20 hours of service per year. Somehow, over the past couple of decades, that number has decreased to zero.
The service-learning requirement is an integral part of the school’s experience and mission. The recent reform effectively erased any obligation for juniors to participate in service, and next year we should reverse it to ensure that the entire community has the opportunity to participate in service-learning.