The following guest post was co-authored by Clare Zlatic Blankemeyer, Program Director, Mayerson Foundation Service-Learning Program and Karen Hordinski, Outreach Coordinator/Student Organized Service for Cincinnati Hills Christian Academy (CHCA).
Cincinnati Hills Christian Academy engages students in service throughout each grade level, PK-12. This year we enriched our 7-8th grade program by setting aside three school days for service-learning activities. When we began thinking deeply about how to engage the students with the community, we wanted to do so from a place of mutual respect and admiration for the people they serve, rather than a place of pity.
Our theme for the three days was “Changing Our World,” and we integrated character strengths into the experience. We wanted students to be aware and to apply in their lives that all people have character strengths, regardless of their current situation.
On day one, a facilitator from the Mayerson Academy introduced students to their VIA Me! strengths reports, explained that all students have 24 strengths, and led a series of activities in which students more intimately learned about strengths in themselves and in each other. To their dismay, students followed this experience by sharing a traditional Haitian style lunch of beans & rice (they thought, for certain, they’d be eating pizza). Following lunch, we discussed what character strengths students saw within this small experience. I was shocked how quickly a common language was adopted by them: self-control, gratitude, perspective, hope, appreciation of beauty and excellence, judgment, fairness.
We followed this experience on day #1 by engaging in simulations led by the Restavek Freedom Foundation, educating and engaging the students of the plights of child slaves in Haiti.
Day #2 began by students writing their top character strengths on a piece of duct tape and placing it on their arms before going to Matthew 25 Ministries, where students sorted humanitarian aid donations. Students were aware of not only their own strengths for the day, but those of their peers; all of which were needed to successfully complete the day. The students were able to indirectly support over 80,000 people through their service that day
Day #3, students went to a variety of social service agencies to engage in direct service at senior homes, organizations serving those who were blind, neighbors in need, etc. They wore a name tag with both their first name and one of their top five strengths, which created great conversation with our community friends. When students came back to campus, they did a variety of reflection activities: one included an opportunity to share why their work mattered, and where they saw a character strength displayed in someone they served. Immediately, students were able to recall strengths in others in a way that we hoped: where the person they served wasn’t seen as weak, or defined by a label, but rather, well, strong.
At our closing celebration, students enjoyed refreshments and games, and also took time to write their character strength on their face (with marker!) and have a Polaroid photo taken of themselves to place on a world map. The map was entitled “Changing Our World with. . .” The map hangs in the 7-8th grade hallway and is a tangible reminder to students of the character strengths that they possess and saw in action most prominently throughout the three days. In three short days, they became aware, they explored, and they applied character strengths to themselves, and most importantly to us, to others.
Strength Reflection Wall & Chalk Wall: With a facilitator from the Mayerson Foundation, students reflected on the strengths they saw during their direct service experiences. They were asked to write a strength they saw in action (in one of the individuals they served) on the front side of a post-it, and then explain the situation/person on the other side. On the Chalk Wall, students wrote their biggest take-aways from the experience, creating a 7-foot tall reflection wall!