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Changing the narrative for students

2016 National Teacher of the Year Jahana Hayes discusses service learning and empowerment.

5 min read



Jahana Hayes, the 2016 National Teacher of the Year, works as a high school social studies teacher in Waterbury, Conn., the town where she was raised, and a town that has long faced economic struggles that take a toll on its schools and its students.

Hayes, during her Saturday General Session at ASCD Empower17, pointed out that the focus on this narrative can have a negative effect on students. The first in her family to attend college, Hayes shared that she was determined to return to her district to teach students about their value and importance.

Hayes turned the focus of the session to service learning and shared with the audience how service learning has led to positive outcomes for her students. “What I learned very early on as a teacher is that the secret to education is not in the classroom, but it’s in society,” she said.

While she described spending the early part of her teaching career focusing on content knowledge, Hayes noted that she soon began to ask herself whether students could take the information they were learning and use it to benefit others. “I decided that I had to make sure that not only did my students have the information, but they had worthy objectives upon which to concentrate.”

Hayes first began incorporating service learning by working with students after school and forming the HOPE Club, with HOPE standing for Helping Out People Everywhere. Today, her students participate in a long list of activities from local neighborhood improvement efforts to charity walks, as well as a number of out-of-state projects.

Service learning can be distinguished from community service in that the projects are connected to what students are learning in the classroom, Hayes explained. Case in point is a trip currently in progress in New Orleans, where Hayes’s students are working as part of a Habitat for Humanity build.

The students first studied in class the devastating effects that broken levees had on the geography and economy of the New Orleans area. Now, as the region has experienced recent population growth, they are on the ground armed with knowledge and understanding of the region’s struggles and helping to rebuild the community.


Projects such as this one tie into the curriculum and incorporate skills in many content areas that students are learning in the classroom, Hayes explained. But for many students, the lessons also can be transformative. Service learning helps build relationships and helps students feel connected to each other; their school; and their local, national, and international communities, Hayes shared. “For the first time in their lives my kids are givers; they’re not receivers. And there is something so empowering and valuable about being the giver.”

These stronger connections in turn translate into improvements in attendance and grades as well, she said.

Five steps to service learning

Hayes pointed out that educators at any grade level can incorporate service-learning projects at their schools. She described a five-step process for implementing service learning that begins with investigation. Each school year, she tasks students with investigating and bringing project ideas to her, and she finds that they are most invested and engaged when they are addressing problems that are meaningful to them.

During the preparation and planning phase, educators can often incorporate many essential skills that are part of the curriculum. The action phase gets under way with “boots on the ground,” and it’s often then that student leaders emerge, she explained. The last two phases — reflection and demonstration — are when students are given the opportunity to reflect on and demonstrate what they have learned from the projects.

And Hayes explained that for many students, the lessons acquired through service learning are memorable and long-lasting. She noted that many of her former students now in college or the workforce return to participate in or carry on with annual service efforts in the community.

“I have seen that by putting my kids out into the community and giving them ownership of where they live and changing the narrative about what they offer in this community, I have seen my kids become different people,” she shares.

Student buy-in

To help get students on board with service-learning projects, Hayes suggested that teachers simply ask them to participate. She also reminded educators that they can serve as role models to students when it comes to volunteerism and encouraged them to always make time for students to discuss their service work and the lessons they have learned.

Katharine Haber is an education editor for SmartBrief, writing and editing content about a variety of topics in education.


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