Paula Williams: Service Learning develops character

Feb. 21, 2013 @ 08:50 PM

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said that “intelligence plus character is the goal of true education.” When you think about character development, where would you say it should begin?
I agree if your thought is that developing a child’s character should begin at home.  From an early age, children should be taught respect, responsibility, empathy, caring and compassion for others.  They should also be taught that intentional words and acts of kindness are essential for getting along with others.
Strength of character and good citizenship skills, however, are not always taught at home before a child enters school.  In fact, survival is on the minds of some parents, while others are more concerned about teaching children what not to do instead of how to make right choices.
In our Guilford County schools, we recognize that the best teachers, the most engaging classrooms, and even the most advanced technology are not enough to prepare students for life beyond the classroom — for the responsibility of citizenship.  That is why Superintendent Maurice Green began a countywide emphasis two years ago called Service Learning.  Every student in Guilford County, from kindergarten to seniors in high school, is now participating in a project each year that links academic learning with community service and civic responsibility.  Every grade level at my school plans together to write lesson plans and carry out an annual service learning project with their students.
Our most recently completed project was organized by our fourth-grade teachers and students.  They invited our entire school to participate in a “Teens for Jeans” drive in cooperation with Aeropostale.  This year, our fourth-graders collected 828 pairs of new or gently-used jeans!  These were dropped off at the Aeropostale store at Oak Hollow Mall where they will be cleaned and distributed to various homeless shelters in our community.  Students learned about the function of homeless shelters and the need for clothing by the less fortunate in our community.  They also did quite a bit of math in counting and comparing numbers between each of the fourth-grade classes.
Why is service learning important?  It connects positive and meaningful action in the community with academic learning.  Everyone wins when the “why you are helping your neighbor or improving your community” becomes important.  Superintendent Green puts it this way in the Service Learning Handbook you can find on the GCS website:  “It is not enough for our students to only be smart.  As the leaders of tomorrow, they must also be ethically grounded.”
That is a task for all of us, High Point.  We must all — teachers, parents, ministers, Sunday school teachers, coaches, grandparents, neighbors — be about the business of fostering the development of character in our children.  We must work together to teach students about making right choices in school, in their neighborhoods, and in life.  What task could be greater?  Support the service learning projects at your local schools.

Paula Gulledge Williams lives in High Point and teaches at Pilot Elementary School in Greensboro. Her columns appear on this page every other Thursday. Representations of fact and opinions are solely those of the author.