August 2, 2007
Sulam Summer Service Corps puts Jewish learning into play
(Page 2 - Previous Page)"Just to be around kids and enjoy it doesn't mean you're serving them," said Hoffman, who teaches Jewish studies at Milken Community High School during the academic year. In addition to Jewish and secular texts and discussions, Hoffman has used games, journals and visiting experts to engage the teens in reflection and learning. One guest was Ze'ev Korn, director of school-based mentoring for Jewish Big Brothers Big Sisters, who talked with the teens about how to use a friendship "to help the other person develop and grow," Hoffman said.
While Liff-Grieff wants this summer's teens to also develop and grow, staff development is equally important to the project. The summer program is a "demonstration piece" of Sulam's overarching mission to change the "culture" of how service is viewed -- by many teachers and administrators -- from "the slam-dunk experience of accruing hours to one where it is more deeply considered in terms of its benefit and value," Liff-Grieff said.
In keeping with that goal, Sulam also sponsors a "council" three to four times a year, during which educators exchange ideas and hear from experts in the field. Additionally, this summer's leaders are developing and refining their own curricula, which Liff-Grieff plans to add to Sulam's Web site so that educators can replicate it in the future.
Hoffman agrees that training educators is crucial to the success of service learning, but he's not sure that a curriculum created for his group will be that relevant for other educators.
"The essential model of service learning -- service, study and reflection in a triangular relationship -- it works," Hoffman said. Part of why it is "more profound and has a deeper resonance for students," he said, is the dynamic nature of any experiential education, which he sees as "much less linear than classroom learning."
This dynamism, while exciting for everyone involved, also means that Hoffman and his assistant leader, Payam Kharazi, have already re-written their plans four times since the program began.
Which is a good thing, according to Hoffman.
"I think it's very beneficial to have to think about it from the ground up ... to create [a curriculum] and then revise and continue revising as you go along, in response to what actually happens each day," he said.
Hoffman said it's also good to involve teens in this process, since so much of what they do, including community service, is in a controlled environment.
"Having to be flexible is a life lesson most kids don't get to learn until much later -- that it's not all about you and your plan," Hoffman said .
But these indirect, intangible and sometimes unintended results are not always enough to convince educators, administrators and funders to invest in service learning projects. While research exists on secular service learning that shows improvement in academic and social engagement in school (among other gains), there is as yet no research on Jewish programs. One problem in trying to quantify outcomes of any service experience is identifying and evaluating the learning and reflection components of each program.
Anecdotally, however, educators do report qualitative results.
Wendy Ordower, a community service coordinator at Milken Community High School who has attended every Sulam council, said that students who participate in service learning projects gain a more profound sense of different populations and their needs.
"The main difference it makes is where I can take them the next time," Ordower said. One student, who was part of a Milken group working in relief distribution centers in Natchez, Miss., after Hurricane Katrina, has since volunteered at SOVA. There, "she went deeper and figured out the big picture," Ordower said. The student saw a need for and organized two drives for toiletries for SOVA, participated in a hunger action day in Sacramento and has since lobbied for hunger relief legislation.
While Hoffman said he can see a similar effect among the teens who truly engage in all aspects of the summer program, he also doesn't expect two weeks to "change them or make them a completely different person in their approach to service learning." The real point, he said, is "to inspire them to see what kind of an effect they can have if they go out there, try to help people, make a difference in their lives -- and to recognize the need to be reflective about [their] work."
Which perhaps isn't all that different from basic tenets of informal education or, for that matter, parenting 101: to help kids develop habits of doing and thinking, and hope some of it sticks.
And, Liff-Grieff added, eyeing the exuberant rumpus on the court at Robertson, "to have fun doing so."
Session 2 of Sulam Summer Service Corps will run Aug. 6-17. For more information, visit
National Service-Learning Partnership: http://www.service-learningpartnership.org
Spark: Partnership for Service: http://www.sparkpfs.org/entryPage.cfm
Avodah: The Jewish Service Corps: http://www.avodah.net
Koreh LA: http://www.korehla.org
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