Cross-Grade Student Collaboration in Service Learning
Service learning provides unique opportunities for authentic collaboration. At Contra Costa Jewish Day School, our school wide service learning program empowers each grade to work for a full year with a Jewish value. Our third grade theme is “Honoring People with Special Needs.” A crucial component of this unit involves monthly playdates in which our students partner with students with special needs at a local school.
An opportunity for student collaboration arose during our search for experts in the community who could speak to our third graders about being good play buddies for children with special needs before our first visit to our partnering school. We realized that we had student experts next door, in the fourth grade, who had completed this unit the previous year and were eager to reflect on their experiences with an authentic audience. They were excited to lead younger students in developing a meaningful relationship with a student with special needs.
We put aside class time for the fourth graders to meet one-on-one with the third graders to share their successes and advice. For instance, one fourth grader warned a third grader that his buddy might cry, as he could be overwhelmed when meeting new people, but that he would get more comfortable over time. Another fourth grader advised us that when we met our buddies we should walk into the classroom quietly, because loud voices can overwhelm people with sensitivity to sound. A third student advised that we should try to say things in a positive way, such as “let's go over here” to redirect our buddy’s attention, instead of saying “no.”
After these meetings, our third graders were noticeably less nervous about their first encounter with their buddies than our previous classes had been after receiving guidance only from adult experts. Additionally, the fourth graders made themselves available to check in with the third graders at recess throughout the year to offer suggestions and insights into connecting with their buddies. The third graders also received valuable input from the older class about an event they organized for their buddies at the end of the school year. The fourth graders offered advice based on their experience and made suggestions for rethinking specific details.
We believe that student collaboration enhanced our service learning project and our school community in the following ways:
● empowering student leaders to make valuable contributions by passing on their own experiences.
● creating a comfortable environment in which younger students are able to learn from a near peer and ask questions that they may not feel comfortable asking an adult.
● supporting kids’ natural desire to share work that they’re proud of.
● strengthening cross grade level friendships and community through shared experience.
● engaging students’ shared emotional connection to this unit, making it personal and memorable on an individual and community level.
In Pirkei Avot 2.2, we are taught that study should accompany work and that the work that we do, as a community, should be “for the sake of Heaven.” Working together towards a higher goal fuels and unifies our school community while providing an effective vehicle for transformative collaboration. Time and again, students, parents and teachers remember their participation in this program as the most meaningful part of their school year experience.