Back-to-School Guide for Service-Learning

The first few weeks of school can be hectic. New everything: students, teachers, buildings, classes, smells even. Service-learning can feel like an add-on — but it shouldn’t. It should enhance the classroom experience for students and teachers, and we’ve got some ideas to make getting started as painless as possible.


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.

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?

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 you’re unable to take your class outdoors, use Google Maps (or go old school with hand-drawn maps!) to visualize your neighborhood and help brainstorm.

Set 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.

There it is — your guide to start your service-learning year in style. You can always find more project planning resources in The Generator — NYLC’s free project planning tool — at Welcome back to school!