Five Hours of Community Service in Forty-Five Minutes: Thoughts on Moral Education

School Community Service Ideas

Volunteer Five Hours of Community Service in Forty Five Minutes: Thoughts on Moral EducationPicture the scene: It’s Final Exams Week in a local high school. Students are scampering down the hallway, rushing from their lockers to their classrooms. Amid the bustling, nervously looking at his watch, one student complains to another: “Great. I have forty-five minutes to perform my five hours of community service.” The panicked student is referring to the hours of volunteering that the school has included in its high school curriculum. Each student is obligated to fulfill these five hours of volunteer service any way he sees fit, at any time, before the end of the semester. In fact, students are only admitted to their final exams after submitting their community service form, which lists the time and location of their community service. Apparently one student has neglected to serve his community for five hours that semester. This is a true story I recently heard, one that touches upon some fundamental questions about how we educate our students in the moral and civic realms.

Is education simply the transmission of data from one human to another? Reading a book, one might argue, would be a much more efficient – and cheaper – method of informational sharing. Watching a movie can be more engaging in certain situations. But these are tools of our craft, not its essence. I think most of us would agree that education encompasses much more than simple knowledge transfer. As teachers, our duty is to nurture the development of a student’s whole persona, not just her mind. We work at cultivating young men and women who are more curious about the world around them, but also more concerned with the people around them. Different teachers will rank moral education higher or lower in their own hierarchy of goals, but for most of us, it is an important piece of what we do. Much ink has been spilled about the parameters and efficacy of moral education, from Jean Piaget to Lawrence Kohlberg. But I was reminded of the subject upon learning of this conversation among students, and of the student’s neglect to fulfill his hours of school community service.

Teaching morality and generosity of spirit is a tricky business. As this anecdote illustrates, it isn’t easy to transform a student from one who is self-centered and apathetic to one who is benevolent and conscious of his responsibility towards her community. There is, however, one important principle that school administrators should keep in mind: if a subject or value is important, then make time for it in school.

Educators who are interested in cultivating kindness in their students need to address this goal like any other in the curriculum, in so far as time is concerned. If we want students to internalize values of compassion and of giving back to the community, then we need to schedule it during school hours. Mandating that students take from their own free time in order to volunteer (is there a greater oxymoron that “mandating volunteering”?) is an unrealistic plan. Is it really surprising that a significant number of students would show up at the end of the semester not having fulfilled this requirement? And how many students who did fill in the form actually performed five hours of genuine community service (without stretching the definitions of “community service” or “five hours”)?

If we want to teach these values, then let’s teach them – during school hours, when we teach everything else. It’s a wonderful opportunity for teachers to serve as role models for their students. There are so many school community service ideas from which to choose. Organize day trips to local nursing homes, send volunteers to homeless shelters, or assign students to visit the sick at hospitals. Give children the chance to actually live and learn the meaning of community service. If we don’t, then we risk producing too many students who not only don’t volunteer their time, but who also figure out dubious ways to say that they have. We can do better.

22 Responses to Five Hours of Community Service in Forty-Five Minutes: Thoughts on Moral Education

  1. Mohamed Haja says:

    really nice article.

  2. Salihu Baba Musa says:

    Very good idea, and inspiring too.

  3. Values are incredibly important to teach, and opportunities come up every day if we’re willing to take advantage of them. Interpersonal issues, discipline problems, motivational issues, or class discussions (especially in areas such as literature and history)…..These are all opportunities to promote values & morals. I’m not saying we shouldn’t put them in the curriculum but I’m just saying that opportunities will constantly arise & we just need to be intentional about speaking truth into the hearts of students – and showing how it is relevant to them by applying it into their everyday issues.

    • Noam says:

      Excellent point, Linda. You don’t necessarily need to leave school grounds in order to teach values. I completely agree that if teachers keep values in mind, all sorts of opportunities for discussion will present themselves. That being said, I do believe there is also great benefit to be had in leaving the confines of the campus in order to reach out to the greater community. What has been your experience with student volunteering programs that take place outside of school?

  4. Noam,

    Thank you for taking the time to write this article. It’s amazing how many people resist teaching moral values within school programs. Yet, when our kids get on with their life after school is all done, what do employers and other people seek most? They seek young adults who will work with them with integrity, honesty, respect and showing for work etc… Young adults who have good moral values, decent academics and work ethics. Why would you not want to integrate that in their lives?

    • Noam says:

      Jean-Yves, you are so right! It is ironic that in the name of academic excellence and the need to “get ahead” some people dismiss moral education as a luxury that we don’t have time for. In fact, as you astutely point out, the very traits that moral education would cultivate are the ones that many employers seek in prospective employees. This, of course, is all true without even addressing the inherent value in raising the next generation to be moral, kind, and community-conscious. Let’s hope more people begin to see the value of such programming!

  5. Yes :) 7 hours of their day are spent in school, what better time to instill positive values! The Achievables is a character education program that is entering Broward County Schools. Come check out our 6 Super Heroes that are instilling Respect, Honesty, Kindness, Healthy Habits, and Anti-Bullying in a fun and effective manor. ;) Bring The Achievables to your school! Find us on Google+, Facebook and Youtube. 

    • Noam says:

      Thanks for sharing, Veronica. The Achievables looks like a great initiative. The values you mentioned are certainly ones that we should be focusing on. Good luck!

  6. Don Berg says:

    The school in which the student finds himself rushing around trying to figure out how to fulfill a requirement on his own without meaningful support is teaching values. And how the school system responds to the failure to provide documentation will also teach values. In fact, no matter what a teacher does with the student directly, no matter how compassionate and skillful their response and no matter what values they might bring to that teachable moment, the system’s values will override theirs. The system is by definition bigger, more powerful, and will exert a long lasting effect on the students than all the individuals that collectively co-create the system.

    The challenge is not teaching values, or not teaching values. The challenge is, first, to expose the values that are inherently taught by the system independent of individual actions to each other and, when possible, our students. Second, we have to work together on figuring out how to better align the system with the values that we share. It’s not always possible to make immediate changes, but when we can be honest about the automatic lessons that are being taught then we have a chance to counteract their effects.


    • Noam says:

      Don, I think you’re absolutely right. The overall environment we create can broadcast much more loudly what we truly believe than the words that come out of our mouths. Thanks for reminding us all to never forget the importance of the broader system.

  7. Gordon Wetmore says:

    Noam, I found your article very perceptive, and the comments by Linda Kardamis, Jean-Yves Marsolais and Don Berg added more perspectives to consider – daily opportunities to teach values at school, the morally grounded new workers employers actually want, and the values that the power in our systems inevitably transmit. Something that seems to be missing in the approach by the school that you describe is guidance. Just handing in a list of hours completed and jobs done without discussion and evaluation invites cheating and its acceptance. Your responders’ comments about modelling behaviour, involvement, and interaction between adult guides and student volunteers are on the money. Thank you for an illuminating article.

    • Noam says:

      Thanks for the insightful response and the kind words, Gordon. I agree: if it just becomes a formal requirement that needs to be checked off, then students will treat it as such. As for your reflections on my responders’ comments, I concur on that front too. I’m honored to receive the feedback of thoughtful educators.

  8. Barbara Blough says:

    In an ideal world, children would come to us already aware of their civic and social responsibilities. As it is, they are not. So, it falls to us as educators to fill in yet another gap that should have been instilled from birth. How is a democracy to survive? We can only do our best. That means treating this part of the curriculum like all other lessons: 1) plan for it, 2) teach it in several different ways at several different times with examples, 3) assess you’re instruction, 4) re-teach, and 5) have a final assessment (in this case the actual service). So, yes, make time to TEACH it, IN school.

    • Noam says:

      Hi Barbara, I couldn’t agree with you more: planning and assessing the instruction are crucial, as always. As I’m sure you well know, the hard part is: How do you teach it so that it is effective? I don’t claim to have the complete answer to that question, but I do contend that hands-on, experiential learning is particularly important when it comes to moral education. Good luck to us all!

  9. Barbara Blough says:

    Forgot to congratulate you on an excellent entry!

  10. Joyce says:

    Far too many people equate teaching values and instilling moral behaviors with religion – and as a result do damage to both. I was asked once how someone could know the difference in right and wrong if they did not attend church! (picture a flabbergasted face here!) It indeed remains tricky and difficult business to teach morality and generosity of spirit. Kudos to all who “get it.”

    • Noam says:

      Hi Joyce,
      You are right that, unfortunately, religion and morality do not always correlate. As you say, it certainly is a “tricky and difficult business.” I think it is always a work in progress.

  11. I do not think that we can TEACH values but we can be models in living values. In Germany we say “the same way you call into a forest you will get the answer!” That means if we are for example kind or cooperative we will be models for the students to behave in the same way.
    If we use the strategy of Cooperative Learning (and working) we can show students how useful it is to look at the partner’s strengths (and not at the weaknesses) and to look for partners who are complementary to their own strengths so that they can build a very strong couple or group.
    And we, the teachers, can be cooperative models too when we let the students recognize that we talk to one another in the staff room, that we plan together the projects which we offer to the students.
    We can show them that we are also cooperative in treating them when we do not command what they have to learn but ask: “What is your plan to learn in context with this main theme?”
    My experience is that if I hold a door open for a student I will get another kind offer from them. If I respect my students they will respect me. If I talk to them gently they will speak gently too – to me and their school fellows.
    If I am more a learning attendant than a teacher they will treat me as a learning partner who just has more experience and who can coach them. If we teachers work in this way the students have the chance to accomplish their own learning goals so that they can develop self-esteem and self-confidence by their own success.
    I think whatever we do during the lessons – and during the breaks – we are the orientation – i.e. the models – for the students of how to cope with life’s challenges as single persons, as partners in small groups, in the society and in the family.
    Only self-confident human beings can hold out and respect that others may have another mind or idea or religion. So modern teaching is both building up knowledge and skills AND giving the young personality the chance to develop and to get strong and gentle.
    We adults should always be aware that children and young adults are the mirror images of the society we build. They show us how we behave. If we don’t like that image we adults have to change the reality, not the reflection.

    • Noam says:

      Bravo, Sven-Olaf! Your passionate portrayal of the modeling we adults provide for children really resonated with me. You are right: if we are kind and respectful to children, they tend to reciprocate, because they learn from our example. Thanks for the important reminder.

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