October 9, 2000
Learning by doing at Leota
by Bronwyn Wilson
Remember the eighth grade? Friends were important and so was your wonderfully loud music. You made a hundred trips to the orthodontist and talked on the phone a hundred hours. You may be surprised to learn, eighth grade hasn't changed.
Students today may listen to Korn instead of Cream or Kiss. And they may pierce a whole lot more body parts than you ever knew of. But other than that, they have the same concerns and hopes as you had.
However, there is one difference, and it's how they're learning and preparing for their future. They still read, study and listen as you did. But at Leota Junior High, they're also 'doing' by giving to the community and reaching out to others. Some help the homeless by working with the Chicken Soup Brigade. Others work with children and horses at Little Bit Therapeutic Riding Center or volunteer their services as a candy striper at Evergreen Hospital.
Jon Merrill and Molly Maloney, now ninth graders at Leota, are examples of students who were helping others last year. Jon and three friends gathered pledges and held a snowboard-a-thon on Crystal Mountain.
They raised over $1,100 for the Brain Injury Association of Washington. And Molly tutored a second-grade boy twice a week at Woodin Elementary. She helped him to improve his reading and writing skills.
Why are so many Leota students offering their time for others? It's all part of a service learning program which was integrated into all eighth grade Language Arts and Social Studies classes in the 1999-2000 school year. Students are provided hands-on, real-life experiences that lead to greater understanding of what they are learning.
Alicia Buck, seventh grade Humanities teacher and coordinator for the program, explained that 20 hours of some type of service learning is required of all eighth graders. The students are asked to choose an organization, individual or cause that is in need of help.
"We give them a list of ideas," Buck said. "But they actually have to seek out someone on the phone and explain coherently what they want to do."
In class, she said, students learn civic responsibility and skills in listening and how to work in a team.
The projects the students choose to undertake range from providing books and crayons to the kids of migrant workers to baby-sitting the children of a single mom who has cancer.
"You can't become a leader reading about it in a book," Buck said and emphasized that service learning not only promotes self-confidence and citizenship, but also develops leadership skills.
And the students receive the inner reward of knowing they were able to help.
"I liked knowing we raised all that money and we did it from scratch," Jon Merrill said recalling the snowboard-a-thon. Molly Maloney said she appreciated hearing from the mother of the boy she tutored that she was helping him.
Alicia Buck likens service learning to drivers ed. Driving skills aren't learned by studying a book.
Instead, the skills are acquired through the practice of driving a car. And, in the same way, the skills of being a responsible citizen are acquired through practice in the community.
Called STEP for Service Time Experience Portfolio, the program started a few years ago with a small focus group of honor students.
Washington had offered grants to schools willing to try something innovative, which prompted a team of Leota teachers to research and develop the service learning project. After a critical evaluation process and a pilot program, STEP was launched last year.
Commenting on the program, Buck said, "I guess the most important thing people learn is that it's not just volunteerism. It's making a difference in the community."
In deciding what to do for their projects, students brainstorm problems in the community they would like to see solved. As an example, they can choose to take a stand on an issue and become actively involved in a group.
This year, a group of eighth- grade Leota students decided to tutor at Wellington Elementary.
After submitting applications to Wellington, the eighth graders were given positions that matched their strengths.
Some were chosen to read to the younger students, others to assist in PE or to work with special needs students.
But this was only one choice for learning service. There are numerous other possibilities, including daycare, stream cleanup, Northshore Multi-Service Center, the City of Woodinville and many more.
But while eighth-grade students focus on giving to others, seventh-grade students spend reflective time focusing on themselves. Before helping others, seventh graders need to know who they are as people. They're asked to keep a journal or create a book about themselves.
And at Leota, students go beyond focusing inward and outward. Ninth graders focus ahead to their futures. They're required to shadow a career they have an interest in pursuing.
"It is our responsibility as educators to make this a part of their education," Buck said.
The service learning program teaches teamwork, diversity and interpersonal skills‹all of which are needed for future success. And, all of which are learned by first-hand experience, not from books.