I first met Daniel in the fall, when I visited his 3rd-grade class at Elsa England Elementary School in Round Rock, Texas. With their teacher, Rachael Brunson, the class had just started a Semester of Service, a program built into their everyday lessons, during which they would learn about, and take action against, childhood hunger. From the start, Daniel stood back in a way that I’ve seen so many students.
This video was taken in March, five months into the Semester of Service. I asked Daniel if he wanted to talk to me about what he’d been learning. He was cautious, as if he were trying to give a “right” answer. I told him to ignore the camera, and just talk with me. He relaxed, and a few minutes in, something “clicked.” This is what you see in this two-minute clip.
This video is about Daniel and his compassion and his conviction—he’s a great kid. But so much led up to this moment, so this video is also about Ms. Brunson, and all the teachers like her, who are teaching their students lessons they will carry for life. Teachers who use service-learning intentionally and patiently build the practice into the curriculum and into their classroom culture. Every day, their students look up out of their textbooks to examine their world and reflect on how to connect their learning with things going on beyond the classroom walls. Over the course of a semester, entire classrooms have the same moment of passionate realization that Daniel did here.
We know from the research that high-quality service-learning programs—those of duration and intensity—lead to improved academic engagement. But as I spoke to Daniel, I realized that his heart, his compassion, and his conviction aren’t qualities easily measured by a test. His empathy and worldview are exceptionally well developed, and he’s already more engaged in his community than many adults. The lessons he’s learned through carefully investigating childhood hunger will stay with him, and his depth of understanding will grow as he does. When Daniel says he’s going to open a food bank, it’s easy to believe that he will. I truly believe that fewer people will be hungry because of Daniel.
Through service-learning, students can discover what they really care about, and we’re building stronger students and stronger communities in the process. They learn that they have the power to take action and to make a difference. With the right teacher committed to the right life lessons, every student can be like Daniel.
Scott Ganske is the Director of Education at YSA (Youth Service America). In this role, he oversees three national K-12 service-learning programs that emphasize academic achievement, 21st Century skills, and STEM education. He also facilitates workshops at local, state, and national conferences.