Maria Montessori did not have the opportunity to publish a great deal about the adolescent, but she did posit some ideas about the adolescent learner. A key trait she described of the adolescent was their need to venture socially beyond the family to make connections with the world around them.
Now, in the world she lived in, she suggested the farm and the work that went with it as the best experience for the high school-aged children of the time. For us, located in the center of the 4th largest metropolis in the country, the farm may not be impossible, but it is, to be honest, impractical. Still, the idea of giving high school students an opportunity to make social connections in the world around them is no less important. When selecting a location for Post Oak’s High School, it was decided that the Museum District afforded unique opportunities. As coordinator of the high school internship program, I endeavor to take advantage of our location to send the students out into the world to explore their interests with our neighbors, such as the Asia Society or the Houston Museum of Natural Science. As last year drew to a close, High School Director Dr. Quillin challenged me, in my role as our Creativity, Activity, and Service (CAS) coordinator, to take this one step further.
CAS is a part of our 11th and 12th-grade program that asks the student to reflect on the experiences in their life outside of the classroom. It asks the student to reflect on those experiences of a creative, active, or service nature. At the high school, we have also included as part of the weekly schedule, a block of time on Thursdays dedicated to Community Work. The challenge Dr. Quillin assigned me was to identify ways to expand that “Community” outside of the high school into our neighborhood and the city.
Just before school began we were approached by a member of our community. Her question was whether we might have students who would be willing to help a group in the neighborhood with their efforts to improve Bell Park, a block away from our campus.
It was my opportunity to take the challenge Dr. Quillin assigned me and pass it on. The students I engaged, Baker and Gustavo, found themselves sitting at a conference table with multiple members of the local community, as well as staff from the Houston Parks Department. Their challenge was to provide the types of beautification the neighbors were looking for, working within guidelines set by the Parks department, while also taking into consideration the existing trees and landscaping, the irrigation system in place, and, of course, the costs associated should the group want to add new plants.
The project would take diplomacy. The politics of the city and the bureaucracy were evident from the very start. The project also required commitment. Their Thursday afternoons were now booked. It would take physical work, rakes, gloves, and yes, boots. I don't think Baker minds putting on his boots.
The neighbors’ feedback was immediate. It was no more than five minutes after their second meeting that I received the email from the representative from the Neighborhood Association.
“We are so grateful for your initiative and partnership in Bell Park. Baker’s and Gustavo’s leadership and involvement are especially appreciated. They are exceptional representatives of your school.”
Service projects afford the opportunity for the students to not just explore but engage in a positive way. When we talk about engaging in a positive way, we are not just talking about what the students are doing for others, but what others are then doing for the student. High school is a stressful time. As children become adults they quickly discover the freedom of maturity comes with responsibility and added expectations. Very often, the high school experience is described as disappointing one adult after another. Parents would like to see better grades, teachers want to see better work. Service opportunities and the unsolicited praise such as our neighbors’ for the efforts of Baker and Gustavo feed an ego too often abused, often by accident, by parents, families, and the society around them.
A second benefit of a service opportunity such as the one at Bell Park is the learning experience afforded by working with real people in the real world to solve real problems. It is one thing to want to rake up the leaves, it is another entirely to get permission to even do it, let alone bring together the resources and helping hands to take it on. Work in today’s world is an ever more collaborative process and service projects offer the opportunity to learn and practice the skills required to navigate the way we learn and work today.
More important to me is how the students find the work to be rewarding. For Gustavo, the service project has become a part of his weekly routine. “Every Thursday evening when I get back to school, I feel rewarded having done my service for the community.”
For Baker, “It is significant because I can see the change and the sense of community grow, working together to achieve something in the park.”
“So how can I get my son/daughter involved in service projects?”
The key to getting kids involved with service projects is to identify the things that are most important to them. Adolescents see far more of the world than most of us realize. In our community, many students are struck by the massive inequality between the homeless walking Montrose and the manicured lawns only blocks away. Students may have a friend or relative who has been challenged with divergent learning abilities or illiteracy. Many students in our schools today identify with LGBTQ students and the challenges they face. Choosing an issue of importance to a student is key to getting the student involved.
A second key factor to engaging a student in community service is the example we set. Seeing a parent, friend, or other relative dedicate a piece of their busy schedule to others demonstrates the importance of giving back. It is only logical that when approaching students ambitious to take on a service project, when asked their motivation, they will list a parent, relative, or sibling and the work that they have taken on to help others.
A third, and for me, most important part of motivating a child to give back to their community is the opportunity to spend time with them. My son's schedule leaves very little time for us to spend together. When he is not at school, practice, work, or out with friends, he is typically asleep. Our annual trip with Coastal Conservation Association to protect wildlife in the bayous south of Houston is a rare chance to spend the weekend with him.
Ever since taking on the challenge laid before me by Dr. Q to find ways for our kids to engage in the community, I find myself again and again impressed by their commitment and the hard work they put in. I encourage anyone looking to connect with their children to find ways to do it through volunteering or finding other opportunities to give back to their community.