From Charity to Service: Shifting ASF’s Culture and Expectations of Service Learning

By E. Adam Smith, Service Learning Program Coordinator

Over the 2018-19 school year, a new initiative began at The American School Foundation. The Service Learning Program was established to give ASF students opportunities to enhance their classroom learning by interacting and providing service in the local community. Born out of the desire of ASF parents to ensure their students are gaining different perspectives of how people live in Mexico and the world, the Service Learning Program is working with a variety of local organizations and schools to establish partnerships and connections to make a positive impact in the neighborhood. The ultimate goal of the Service Learning Program is to promote the second part of ASF’s mission which is to, “live purposefully and to become responsible, contributing citizens of the world”.

Cathryn Kaye defines service learning as “A research-based teaching method where guided or classroom learning is applied through action that addresses an authentic community need in a process that allows for youth initiative and provides structured time for reflection on the service experience and demonstration of acquired skills and knowledge.”

The Service Learning Program works to ensure that all ASF students are exposed to service through each of their classrooms. Service learning has been shown to provide a variety of benefits to students including long-term retention of material, increased civic knowledge, and better civic related skills including how to design and implement service projects. In addition, researchers indicate that service learning improves student outcomes in the classroom, instills in students a sense of social justice and increases students’ appreciation of diversity. Several pilot programs started this year with the expectation of growth over the next several years with regards to service learning. ASF is looking to shift our ideas of service from charity to action, and the Service Learning Program is at the forefront of this effort.

Changing the culture of an organization takes time, effort and determination. This year, ASF’s Service Learning Program laid the framework and foundation for transforming our community’s ideas of service and action. The school has reached out to various organizations with influence in the school’s immediate neighborhood. Discussions with the ABC Hospital, CENTRO, Centro de Desarrollo de la Comunidad, Comedor Santa María and other organizations are moving towards establishing reciprocal partnerships. Working with these organizations will give ASF students the opportunity to interact with and address the needs of the surrounding community.

The ASF Service Learning Program started a pilot program called United to Learn connecting ASF with local SEP schools. The goal of this program is for both schools to mutually learn from each other. The partnership and permanent coexistence will promote a rich learning experience among students and teachers from different academic and social contexts, by encouraging the participants to share their experiences and values. This first year, a partnership was established with the Escuela Primaria Asociación de Ferreteros de México. Two ASF grade 5 classes partnered with Ferreteros’ grade 3 class. During visits, ASF students sat one-on-one with students working on reading comprehension. At first, students were timid, but with each subsequent visit, you could see a relationship developing. Immediately after every visit, ASF students were excited and asked when they would be able to go back to work with their partners. Through this process, ASF students are learning of other students lives and internalizing what they are teaching and learning in the classroom. Not only do students have fun on these trips, they are also learning how to deliver material, and then reflect on their activities. One grade 5 student said, “I really enjoy my trips to Ferreteros. Our partners are really nice and it is fun to work with them and see them reading. I hope we get to go more in the future.” In the same vein, another grade 5 class also visited the Escuela Manuel Doblado with similar positive results. Two Middle School classes will also be working with two schools in Álvaro Obregón in the coming weeks. The Service Learning program is looking to expand this pilot program for the 2019-20 school year with the ultimate goal of partnering every Lower School class with a group from a local SEP school.

The working plan during a visit to Escuela Primaria Asociación de Ferreteros de México

For a couple of years now, Angel Prince, has established a reciprocal partnership with La Gaviota, a school that caters to students with mental and physical disabilities. Every month, one ASF grade 3 class visits La Gaviota to work one-on-one with their students making lasting connections. On Valentine’s day, ASF hosted all La Gaviota students in the Lower School’s Multipurpose Room for a day of collaboration and storytelling. When asked to reflect on their experiences with students from La Gaviota, an ASF grade 3 student wrote, “Have fun and help people because it is an act of kindness and it does not matter if they are different.” This program with La Gaviota is allowing ASF students to work with different community of people.

ASF’s program with La Gaviota is the school’s best example of authentic service learning. Students have been connecting what they learn in the classroom to teach their partners. Grade 3 students have taught about metamorphosis, and sustaining a green planet. ASF students applied for a grant through the Service Learning Program so they could provide their La Gaviota buddies with reusable shopping bags connecting to ASF’s ‘share the planet’ unit. One ASF student said, “this experience showed me lots of things, it has been one of my favorite things in grade 3.” In addition, students are learning the value of giving back to their community. When asked why students should be involved in service learning, one grade 3 student said, “It’s good for everyone and it can make the world a better place.” Though only two of ASF’s grade 3 classes have been able to participate this year, the Service Learning Program will continue to build on this relationship as well as use this excellent model to expand to other organizations.

ASF students visiting La Gaviota

In January, ASF applied for and received a license from TED to host the first annual TEDxYouth@ASF event in September 2019. The TEDx leadership team, consisting of eight Upper School students, has started the process of finding speakers, gathering sponsors, and organizing the day-long schedule. After a passionate discussion, the team landed on the theme “What if…” for the TEDxYouth@ASF event. Lead Organizer Emilia Hojel (grade 11) reflects on this initiative: “TEDxYouth@ASF has the potential to be revolutionary. I believe that this lies in the possibility of breaking down the barriers that are formed by the fear of failure. The barriers that stop individuals from expressing their ideas and pursuing their passions. I want to inspire and encourage our community members to implement the phrase ‘what if…’ in their everyday vocabulary. What if it works? What if it becomes the solution? What if I love it? ‘What if…’ means to take risks, to express, to take action, to believe in ideas.” Speech Coach, Arianne Ohara, adds, “TEDxYouth has presented us with a new opportunity to share the voices of others and be a part of something bigger. Through the creation and process of this event, students are able to become activists and leaders for the community that surrounds us.” Already the leadership team can envision how TEDxYouth@ASF will bring the ASF community together and give students a voice to express their unique and valued independent ideas. The Service Learning Program supports these student-led initiatives and will continue to explore avenues to give student voice to the issues that are important in today’s world.

In another effort to reach out to the local community, the Service Learning Program has been working with the variety of Upper School student clubs to improve delivery and commitment to service. The Gamma club is an excellent example of the great things ASF students are doing in the community. With over 40 active Gamma ASF volunteers, and around 100 participating Gamma students from the local community, this student-led club is the longest running on the ASF campus. ASF students offer classes in Spanish, Mathematics, English, Technology and Art. One Gamma student said, “I love learning everything in my English class because I get to learn things that my school doesn’t have. At Gamma, I get a lot of help with things I don’t understand.” Being part of student clubs gives ASF students a chance to improve their leadership skills and experience. One Gamma member said, “Gamma has allowed me to grow as a leader and take responsibility for organization and respect.” The Service Learning Program continues to work with and support ASF’s student-led club to ensure a positive impact in the local community continues and grows. These are just a few examples of the great things ASF faculty and students are doing in the school and local community with regards to service learning.

The Service Learning Program only started this school year, but has already made an impact on the school community. However, the school has a long way to go to shift a culture from charity to service. Beginning next school year, ASF is dedicated to providing professional development and time for teachers in all divisions to develop and deliver service learning units throughout their curriculum. Through the Service Learning Program Grant and organizational commitment, ASF will provide the proper resources to support teachers and students to pursue service opportunities that are tied to the curriculum.

There are many other initiatives in the works for the years to come. The vision of the Service Learning Program is to help mold ASF graduates who are empathetic and make positive contributions to society. ASF will have a Service Learning Program that is authentic, innovative, and inspiration for Mexico and the international school community. Shifting ASF’s idea of service from charity to action will take time, effort and resources. However, the school is dedicated to taking on this challenge and ensuring all students get the all-encompassing education they deserve from our variety of programs including service learning.

ASF’s Service Learning Program Mission

ASF’s Service Learning Program aims to foster empathy, encourage communal relationships, and instill in our students a sense of civic responsibility. We connect curriculum to authentic service opportunities through reciprocal partnerships. ASF’s Service Learning Program enhances student understanding of classroom experiences by addressing real community needs while encouraging globally minded thinkers who act locally.


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