As the school year comes to a close, many students across the country are tallying up the hours they’ve spent on community service projects. Others are making lists of places where they can “get hours” over the summer. Some students choose to volunteer. For others, it’s a way to meet graduation requirements or add to their college resume. No matter the reason, though, if students want community service to be more than just a check-list exercise, they all need to do something important: They need to reflect on the hours they’ve spent raking leaves at the senior center or reading to local second-graders.
“There’s data that indicates that with community service, it matters less if the community service is mandatory or voluntary than if it’s meaningful or not,” says Harvard Graduate School of Education senior lecturer Rick Weissbourd, director of the Making Caring Common project. “And service is far more likely to be meaningful if students have the ability to reflect on it and deepen their understanding of themselves and other people, as well as the larger world.”
Getting students to reflect is also a way to work against what Weissbourd calls the “community service Olympics” — the race some students (and their parents) feel they have to run in order to be more competitive when it comes time to apply for college. This includes trying to complete more hours than other kids or doing extraordinary tasks, like helping to build schools in developing nations.
“Parents have to really counter those forces pretty proactively and aggressively,” Weissbourd says, and one way they can do this is to ask their kids questions about what they learned volunteering. This helps kids reflect — about the work and about themselves — and find meaning. It also signals what parents’ value, he says. “They’re signaling that community service isn’t just about resume building, but in our family, it’s important to be helpful in the world. In our family it’s important to be self-aware. It’s important that you understand yourself better. In our family, it’s important to understand if our community is fair and just.”
Weissbourd offers a list of questions parents can ask the next time the family is eating together, going for a walk, or driving to an activity — questions that can get their teens thinking more about the community service hours they fulfilled this past year, and how that might affect where they chose to volunteer in the future. The questions include:
- Do you feel like you were helpful? Why or why not? And how do you know if you were helpful — did you receive feedback?
- Have you learned anything about yourself doing this service?
- Have you made any relationships that are important to you as a result of this service, either with the people you’re providing help or the people you’re working with?
- Have you developed any skills that are important to you, and has it illuminated or motivated you to develop skills you don’t feel you already have?
- Have you learned something about people who are different from you as a result of this experience?
- Are you motivated to do more service, and if so, do you want to do the same kind? Why or why not?
- What have you learned about how our community works? What have you learned about how our society works, if anything? Are there things that have troubled or encouraged you?
If we don’t make sure that volunteering is meaningful for students, Weissbourd says, community service will feel like a waste of time. “And worse than that, it can actually backfire,” he says. “Kids can feel like they weren’t helpful, and it makes them less interested in doing community service again. They can also be put in a situation that’s daunting. For example, if they’re put into a school that isn’t functioning well, they may become discouraged that they can have an impact on education or schools. You don’t want to just throw kids into community service. You want to do the careful, up front work of making sure they’ll have a meaningful experience and be helpful.”