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Becoming Ethical: When Service Is More Than a Project

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This post was written by the Meadow Glen Middle School Faculty Crew in Lexington, South Carolina.

MGMS service.JPG

Meadow Glen Middle School (MGMS) opened in 2012 as the first EL Education school in South Carolina. From the beginning, we focused on positive relationships--between students, teachers, and leaders-- as the heart of our school culture. Toward that end, we established a Crew program, a place for students to meet regularly (three to five times a week) in small groups, to build meaningful relationships, to reflect on and monitor academic progress, and to focus on character development. Our initial vision of Crew recognized service and leadership as an important part of building character. But it took time, practice, and ultimately a natural disaster for our students to understand what the motto of Crew--We Are Crew, not passengers--really means.

First Steps: Crew as a Structure for Service and Leadership

With more than a thousand students in three grades, finding ways for every student to serve and to lead was a logistical challenge. Instead of lining up projects for them, we started with experiences of self-discovery and lessons in leadership. Through hands-on team-building initiatives, reflection, and discussion, students got to know the strengths and vulnerabilities of other members of their crew. They learned to trust each other, to fail together, and to try again.

Next, Crew leaders prepared students for situations in which they could play a leadership role--student-led conferences, organizing and emceeing school events, and service projects in the community nominated by students themselves. Some Crews reorganized specifically around students' service interests. The projects we took on in the first years, jointly led by Crew leaders and students, taught us a lot about organizing people, gathering resources, and working with clear purpose and coordination. We also learned how to interview experts, form partnerships in the community, and to rehearse presentations designed to persuade decision makers. A still more important shift in our students' understanding of service, and a shift in our school culture from service projects to an ethic of service, came as a result of a hard rain.

Learning from Hardship

In October 2015, students and teachers at our school experienced what we call in Crew an all-hands-on-deck moment. In the space of 24 hours, tropical storm Joaquin dumped more than 18 inches of rain on our community and on our school. The resulting flood closed school for several days while buses were rerouted around washed-out roads and dam repairs. Several families at MGMS lost most of their belongings, and homes had to be repaired, replaced, or condemned. Not only were students and teachers directly impacted by the disaster, they also felt the pressing and authentic need of the broader Lexington community. It was time to enlist our Crews in service work with servants' hearts.

Over the next several weeks, students helped remove damaged items from homes, participated in donation drives, worked in food shelters, organized donated goods, ripped up damaged floors and carpets, helped families move into new homes, and assisted in church efforts to get needed supplies to those in need.

One of the 8th grade Crews responded to the flooding by initiating a local road race to raise funds for victims. This time students designed the entire race, meeting with school and community administration to get approval and to learn the best way to complete the routes. Crew members reached out to local businesses for sponsorships and spoke to local authorities to ensure proper safety precautions were taken on the day of the race. Crews collaborated with each other, enlisting fellow students to design promotion posters and serve as timers for the race. The Crew that led the initiative truly became engaged in the process and in their leadership roles. Teachers noted that the process changed how they treated their academic coursework and their behavior in the classroom. Cade, an 8th grade student, called the experience transformational. "I listened more and cared more about schoolwork," he says, "because teachers were also invested in supporting us with the race."

The floods of 2015 called upon our students to demonstrate the spirit of Crew in the service of our own community. Students learned that their own work and generosity made a difference to neighbors and friends, and that giving also lightened their own spirit. Dealing with a disaster in our own neighborhood helped us refine lessons and logistics for supporting service learning; it also primed the pump for expanding our reach beyond Lexington, South Carolina.

Connecting to the Community Beyond

This year, just when we were settling into the routines of a new school year, news of "historic flooding" in Texas as a result of Hurricane Harvey quickly got our students' attention. They knew what it was like to wake up to water sloshing through the floor. Immediately, students began asking what they could do to help families in Texas, and Crew was a natural place to generate answers.

Crews led by student leaders sprang into action with a "Pack the Pallet" campaign, setting a modest goal to fill two pallets with supplies needed for victims. Crews handled the logistics--lists of what was needed, coordination with a local transportation company to move the donations to Texas, publicity to enlist the help of neighboring schools and community partners. Before long students from the elementary school next door were bringing supplies over that they had collected. Relief supplies poured into our school. In just three days, our school community packed 14 pallets to go to the Houston Food Bank!

Serving Others Makes School More Meaningful

In an EL Education school, we define character as part of achievement, and ethical behavior is something we celebrate as proudly as a winning football team or high test scores. We also hope that the service students do makes school more meaningful and schoolwork more purposeful. Following the Pack the Pallets campaign, students reflected in their Crews. Adyson, a 6th grade student, said she felt "proud that my school was able to pack the pallets for Texas. Seeing that we made a difference makes me want to do more service." Another 6th grade student, Emily, remarked, "Doing service for others changes you" because it connects you to a common goal that everyone is working toward. That sense of belonging to an effort bigger than one's self and of being accountable to a community outside one's self is the essence of being an ethical person.

Students also remarked that their efforts to serve connected them to a greater community and also nurtured their pride in and care for their own school community. Adyson explains the connection: "Service helps me be a better person and citizen [because it] brings me back to reality [and] makes me a better student in the classroom. You do something nice and it puts you in good place mentally for your classes. And, I think I treat others better and am more aware of others and bringing others into the conversation." 

Although Houston is many states away from South Carolina, an ethic of service and a spirit of Crew enabled MGMS students to turn strangers into family and to embrace the opportunity to lead and serve others. The lesson we learned along the way is that personal and community suffering creates opportunities as well as hardships. Every school, every community, will have a "hard rain" sooner or later. A carefully designed and rolled out structure like Crew, that allows students to serve in meaningful ways when times like that come, can strengthen your school's culture and turn your scholars into citizens.

Photo credit: Bill Coon

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