MD advisories return to in-person service learning trips

Samantha Matays and Nikita Pande

Over the course of the past two weeks, several Middle Division (MD) advisories participated in Service Learning trips to Van Cortlandt Park where they focused on cleaning up park trails through removing garbage and invasive species, MD History teacher and Dean of Faculty and eighth grade advisor Eva Abbamonte said.

Before the pandemic, the school had a long-standing relationship with the Van Cortlandt Park Alliance, MD History teacher and Service Learning Coordinator Caitlin Hickerson wrote. Hickerson wants to re-establish the connection between the school and the park in the coming years, she wrote in an email interview. 

As the organizer of these trips, Hickerson worked with the Van Cortlandt Park Alliance to plan dates and activities for the advisories to participate in, Hickerson wrote. While designing the trips, Hickerson kept in mind this year’s Service Learning theme: “A Climate Healthy Future for All,” she wrote. Hickerson believes that the trips to Van Cortlandt Park embody that theme, she wrote. 

All of the trips center around cleaning up the school’s neighborhood, Hickerson wrote. The sixth graders focused on cleaning up trash on Broadway and Post Road, while the eighth graders removed invasive species and trash from the park, she wrote. After she created a plan for the trips, Hickerson spoke with the eighth grade advisors to give them details on the trips, she wrote.

Advisors played a key role in the trips, as they signed up their advisories, Abbamonte said. Advisors chose between taking their advisories on the trips in the morning or afternoon, Abbamonte said. 

While on the trip, representatives from the Van Cortlandt Park Alliance taught the advisory what the invasive species garlic mustard was, Abbamonte said. No students in the advisory had seen garlic mustard before, so they were first taught how to identify it, and then how to dispose of it, she said. Additionally, the advisory learned about ecology and the process of growing and preserving food, Abbamonte said.

After learning more about the plant, Abbamonte’s advisees removed the invasive species garlic mustard, Mara Silverstein (8) said. Van Cortlandt wanted to remove the species to protect the park’s biodiversity. If left alone, the invasive species would kill all the other species in that environment, Silverstein said.

It is important that students incorporate what they learned into the school community, Hickerson wrote. The goal was to emphasize one of the John Dorr Nature Laboratory’s core values, ‘Beauty and Order.’ ‘Beauty and Order’ is the shared commitment to care for communal spaces. Students emphasize these values on the trips, allowing them to share their knowledge with their community on campus, she wrote. The trip allowed Silverstein to collaborate with her advisory and give back to the community. Since the park is a communal space, it is important to keep it clean, Silverstein said.

In addition, the trip taught Abbamonte’s students to appreciate the significance of giving back to their community, Abbamonte said. Abbamonte’s advisory and her also discussed the importance of giving back to Van Cortlandt Park. “We all benefit from that park whether it’s through sports that take place there or looking out the window and seeing this beautiful park,” she said.

Abbamonte felt fortunate that she was able to go on a trip with her advisory, as COVID limited the advisory’s outside activity in past years, she said. Although the advisory may not have enjoyed picking up trash, they valued spending quality time together and bonding as a group, she said. “Sometimes things aren’t fun, but it was fun to be doing it together. I can tell you that there was a lot of laughing going on,” Abbamonte said.  

Eliana Son (8) appreciated the ability to talk to people she wasn’t close with, she said. Despite the trip only lasting for a few hours, she enjoyed the time spent together outside of a classroom environment, she said. 

Participating in service learning is an important part of educating someone on their community and the world around them, Hickerson wrote. “It can help a person find their voice, their passion, and their people,’” she said. Service Learning also allows students to use the knowledge they learned at school and apply it to the real world, Hickerson wrote. 

Son learned about how day-to-day activities affected nature, she said. “It was really interesting how they showed us that our actions actually do have an impact on the environment,” she said.

It is important that the Service Learning Program continues these trips, as having them in eighth grade is an essential way to develop the habit of doing acts of service early on in life, Abbamonte said. “The number one reason when you survey people as to why they don’t volunteer is because they feel they don’t know how,” she said. Teaching eighth graders, who are the next generation of volunteers, how to provide service is essential because they’re more likely to perform acts of service in the future, she said.

Son was inspired by the amount that the group was able to accomplish on the trip, she said. “With so many people pitching in, we could actually make a difference,” she said.