Learning through community service in Trinidad and Tobago

Betty McDonald

Not all learning has to be done in a formal classroom, and not all activities to promote inclusion have to be led by teachers. Here, Betty explains how secondary school students took up the challenge of providing a service for their community by helping children at a kindergarten. Their activities helped some kindergarten children to increase their participation in class, while the students developed useful skills and confidence.

A class of 36 secondary school students, aged around 14 years, participated in a project which encouraged their involvement in the community. Following discussion, the class decided to focus on assisting a nearby kindergarten. The project, which I co-ordinated, was part of a social outreach programme supported by a local bank in the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago in the Caribbean. The project is an example of 'service-learning', which integrates community service activities into schoolbased instruction and reflection. It enriches the learning experience for students, teaches them civic responsibility, and helps to strengthen communities.

Planning
In small groups, we discussed the kinds of activities that were suitable for kindergarten children. Over several weeks, we planned the activities using checklists developed by the students. Activities ranged from kindergarten orientation, playing games, storytelling, gift giving, and bidding farewell. We performed role-plays to help the students understand the purpose and expectations of each activity.

Action
The school and kindergarten are near to each other, so the students could simply walk to the kindergarten. We chose times when both the students and kindergarten children were likely to need a break from mainstream classroom work.

The students played new games with the kindergarten children like marbles, hide-and-seek and hopscotch. The students listened to the younger children tell stories, empathised with them and took a keen interest in their needs.

We gave the kindergarten stationery, stickers, colouring books and games donated by the students. The kindergarten children loved the personal attention, and many said they wanted to be just like the students when they grew up.

Results
Although inclusion was not the project's main objective, the community service activities helped to promote inclusion. Several shy students, who would not normally volunteer suggestions or participate, engaged with the kindergarten children. In turn, kindergarten children who were usually shy opened up to the students. We found that the students helped to improve the kindergarten children's ability to believe in themselves. The students also helped improve the children's self esteem, assertive communication, patience, creativity and confidence. The exchanges were so rich that the students requested an extension of the project.

"This is so neat…having children actually listen to us and care about what we have to share is amazing…"
"I feel moved to see innocent eyes glued to me, engaging in everything I had to say and sharing their stories…" (Secondary school students)

"Goody...nice… I like this…"
"Yippi Yeah! This is cool…"
"…I like me better now..."
(Kindergarten children)

The students received awards from a local nongovernmental organisation and marks for the quality of their service which contributed to their final term grade. They were judged on: creativity, management, innovation, teamwork, dependability, humour, responsibility, discipline, multi-tasking ability and neatness. Fortunately, Trinidad and Tobago's flexible curriculum allows teachers the freedom to carry out activities like this.

Many students realised that the inclusive spirit fuelled by the activities allowed them to have a voice, understand better the challenges other people face, and feel a part of their community. The way forward is exciting, with more educators in Trinidad and Tobago recognising the importance of community service in the curriculum.

Dr. Betty McDonald manages the Professional Development Unit at the University of Trinidad and Tobago.
Contact:
O'Meara Campus,
Lots 74-98,
O'Meara Industrial Park,
Arima,
Trinidad and Tobago
Email:


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