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Find a living thing: UWCSEA's K–12 Service programme gradually ramps up the level of challenge encountered by our students

Frankie Meehan, ESOL/EAL Teacher and Head of High School Service, Dover Campus

UWCSEA's K–12 Service learning programme gradually ramps up the level of challenge encountered by our students.

“If you want to learn how to deal with life,” says the American poet Thomas Lynch, “find a living thing and deal with that. Find a baby or an old person who needs their diapers changed or their teeth flossed or a meal cooked. That’ll teach you more about life than sitting under a tree contemplating the great beyond.”1 Wise words, I believe, and they are relevant to a challenge we face as a College: how to turn noble ideals into real, sustained action and learning.

Our Guiding Statements ask us to ‘be compassionate and morally responsible,’ ‘embrace challenge,’ ‘help other people’ and ‘take an interest in … people of all cultures and backgrounds.’ We all nod approvingly when we read these words, but how can we bring them to life?

Our K–12 Service programme is designed to ramp up gradually the level of challenge encountered by students. Thus, for example, K2 children spend weeks preparing to host nursing home visitors for a Lunar New Year classroom party; Junior School students play and learn alongside children with intellectual and/or physical disabilities; Middle School students commit to half a year playing games with domestic helpers who have been victims of employer abuse; and High School students spend as long as a full school year doing learning activities with children from low income families, or conversing and playing with the elderly, or offering companionship to AIDS patients, or coaching disabled kids in swimming, tennis or horseriding.

Ideally, students take on increasing responsibility as they rise through the grades—creating materials, planning and leading activities, problem solving, reflecting on successes and failures. It is important that service should become a habit—ideally, something that students will choose to do long after UWCSEA—but at the same time it should not become an unthinking chore or part of a ‘tick list.’ A recent report by the Harvard Graduate School of Education2 asks admissions officers to ignore ‘brag sheets’ of shallow, short-term service projects and instead look for evidence that applicants “immersed themselves in an experience and the emotional and ethical awareness and skills generated by that experience.” Harvard, like UWCSEA, wants depth of commitment and learning.

Recently, a High School service group that works with children in care was beginning to feel overwhelmed by a series of logistical problems. It would have been easy to give up or turn cynical. Instead, the group turned their challenge into an opportunity. They arranged a meeting with the director of the home and that then resulted in a changed approach to the weekly visits. The students now take a far more active, assertive role in planning and implementing sessions; the activities are more varied; and the whole experience is more meaningful for both the young residents and our students.

That is just one example of how our abstract idealism can be forged, through difficult immersion, into practical compassion and sustained learning. Let us never forget the ideals—they are touchstones to guide us—but they will be worth nothing if we don’t find a ‘living thing’ and get on with the messy business of helping.

1 Hegarty, Shane. “The Dead Don’t Care and I Don’t Either.” The Irish Times. 5 April 2010.

2 Harvard Graduate School of Education. “Turning the Tide: Inspiring Concern for Others and the Common Good through College Admission.” 2016.