Meredith Baldi ’01 experienced the power of service learning at George School through the lens as a student before leading her first service trip as a faculty member. She is building upon the strong legacy of service learning at George School, integrating service with coursework as a core component of the Signature Academic Program.
“My first experience with service learning at George School was as a student, when I participated in the Arizona service trip with Barb Kibler,” Meredith recalled. “We went out to Navajo Nation and worked at Taanta Primary School, which was also the first service trip that I led as a George School faculty member. It was nice to run the Arizona trip because one of the challenges of a travel program is that you start a relationship that builds for two or three weeks that usually ends when the trip is over. In this case, even through there was an eleven-year hiatus between when I went as a student and returned as a faculty member, I saw my host mom and some of the teachers again. That continuous, deepening relationship was rewarding for me. As a student, I remember so much of what I learned about Navajo history and culture, but my eyes were different as a seasoned history teacher when I returned.”
Through implementing the Signature Academic Program, George School has changed the structure of service learning to integrate trips and projects with coursework. “When we talk about service learning at George School, it is intended to be an educational experience. Service learning is much more than community service. It is not a transaction of donating your time without compensation, but about diving deep into understanding structural issues in our world and thinking about how you might improve those issues and what the limits are, learning more about who you are, what you can contribute, and what you need to work on. I think the experiential learning is so much stronger when students have an academic foundation before they start the work, time that is structured at the end to process their experiences, and for an adult to assess the learning to ensure that it is impactful,” Meredith explained.
George School now has a selection of service courses, some of which have a travel component, some of which do not. “In order to be a service learning course, there must be an experiential component. We have a few different models. The first is an immersive model, like the Greece trip we did this year, which entails three academic courses–a media production course, a politics course on the history and politics of the refugee crisis, and a storytelling course that explored mythology and the history of storytelling. We did those courses for two weeks, traveled to Greece for two weeks, and had a week for assessment and reflection. There are also courses like those going to Costa Rica and Vietnam that will include coursework of history or language in May followed by a trip in June.”
“We also have a course taught by Courtney [Bejgrowicz], Exploration of Memoir, which takes place at George School with a connection to the local community,” Meredith continued. “Students are learning about memoir, and going to Friends Home and Village once a week, working with the residents there as an act of social inclusion, but also conducting oral history projects for the purposes of preserving memory.”
At George School, we are looking to build our offerings for service courses so that students can participate in service learning that is related to their academic passions and interests with a range of locations. “Students love trips, but not everyone wants to or is able to travel all the way across the world. We want students to be connected to our local community. It is as rewarding for students to engage with the residents of Newtown as those in Tanzania.”
This past October, Meredith took a group of students to Athens, Greece. “It was really interesting to see the students’ development over the course of the trip and see their passion for the refugee crisis expand as they engaged with the refugee community. Their ability to meet people affected by the Syrian civil war made them care about the impact of global conflict on the refugee crisis. Seeing the lack of governmental support sparked an interest in the limits of policy and motivated them to speak out more about unjust policies because they met the people being impacted. I have heard from other teachers since this course took place in October that certain students keep bringing up the injustices of the Dublin Agreement or talking about the impact this has on refugee children in particular. It is rewarding for me to see students, who may or may not have cared about these topics beforehand, have a shift in their mindset and motivation because of what they experienced in Greece.”
While in Greece, the group’s primary work was with an organization called Love Without Borders for refugees in need. It is an arts-based, non-profit where the students facilitated workshops at a community center. “We brought the art supplies, and created art. The experience was more recreation than formal art therapy. Most of the kids in the refugee camps do not have school or structure to their day with recreation, so this experience provides them with an outlet for fun and play for kids to be kids. It serves as a forum for expression and there were some challenging themes, especially the pictures with boats and people in the water. Our students were able to see that even through a happy, play-based exercise, that these kids were processing some difficult events.”
“The organization also works with adult artists,” Meredith said. “We were able to hear talks from three artists—from Iran, Cameroon, and Sierra Leone—who spoke about their experiences as a refugee in Greece and what art means to them and how it was a lifeline through this process. Love Without Borders has an accommodation program as well, so we helped renovate one of their buildings and had a picnic with the refugees who live there. They taught us how to cook falafel and other Syrian food and share each of our cultures with one another. It was so fun to see our students playing with the kids on the playground and chatting with the adults, all while enjoying delicious food.”
There are many ways to get involved with service learning at George School. “So many George School Friends are actively engaged in this work and living the mission in their daily lives. They are partnering with organizations and populations who would benefit from George School classes and students. If there are George School alumni or parents who want to work with a class or an individual student pursuing an independent service project, I would encourage them to reach out and connect with me. We are always looking to expand our network of possible collaborations to help develop and diversify our offerings.”
Financial support of the service learning program is crucial in helping expand access to service trips to create opportunities for students to learn and grow through experience. If you are interested in supporting service learning at George School, please contact the Advancement Office.