4 Ways to Jumpstart Your Service-Learning Year

What’s your New Year’s Resolution? Maybe you want to be healthier, or cut down on screen time. Or maybe you want to focus on helping others have a great year. Resolutions are easier to keep with partners to hold you accountable, so it’s with this in mind we offer four ways to jumpstart a year of service-learning with your group or classroom.


Journaling is useful in the early stages of service-learning to gain insight into how much students know about given topics before a project gets rolling. Journaling also helps gather information about student skills and confidence, and can continue throughout the project as a means of student reflection.


2. Create a Big Idea.

Big Ideas are important and enduring concepts, principles, theories, and processes (Understanding by Design, 1998). In short, a Big Idea is a theme on which a service-learning project is based. (Think Global Warming, the Achievement and Opportunity Gap, or Poverty in the United States – but don’t limit yourself. This is a Big Idea after all.) When closing in on a Big Idea, test it against these questions:

  • Can your Big Idea be applied across grade levels?
  • Will your Big Idea matter to youth after the project ends?
  • Is your Big Idea useful outside of school?

3. Go on a WalkAbout.

A WalkAbout involves making a map of your school neighborhood, and is a great way for students to understand authentic community needs. During the WalkAbout, students should answer these questions:

  • Are there safe places for children to spend time after school?
  • Do they sense tensions among neighbors?
  • What problems or issues do they find in the neighborhood?

If January is too frigid a time to take your class outdoors, use Google Maps (or go old school with hand-drawn maps!) to visualize your neighborhood and help brainstorm.

4. Create SMART Goals.

SMART Goals help identify the most important aspects of a service-learning project (The Power of Smart Goals, 2005). SMART goals should be:

  • Specific: Lay out what you will do and how will you do it as clearly as possible.
  • Measurable: Decide how you will know if your project was a success.
  • Attainable: Be realistic about goals and make sure everyone is on the same page.
  • Relevant: Focus on authentic needs and stay true to your Big Idea.
  • Tangible: Make sure results are visible to community stakeholders.

So there you have it: four ways to hit the ground running in 2016. As always, more project planning resources can be found in The Generator – NYLC’s project planning tool – at gsn.nylc.org/plan. Happy Service-Learning!