Martin Luther King Jr. once said “Life’s most persistent and most urgent question is “What are you doing for others?”
The seventh grade students at Henry C. Lea Elementary are taking this quote to heart and partnering with Need In Deed to learn about social issues in our community and see what we can do to help.
“This Need In Deed project will help inform us about what’s going on in our community,” said Kiara, a seventh grade student at Henry C. Lea Elementary.
Need In Deed’s Impact Across Philadelphia
Need in Deed is a nonprofit organization in Philadelphia whose goal is to “use the classroom to prepare young people for civic responsibility and service to others, enabling them to become capable, contributing members to society.”
According to the Need In Deed website, “In the 2017-2018 academic year, 150 Need in Deed teachers are bringing this remarkable experience to 3,900 students in 63 public schools across the city with the help of up to 70 community partners.” As part of Need In Deed, students learn about social issues in their community that impact their family, schools, where they live, and themselves.
“I think students should be a part of the conversation about their communities, and why not use the academic skills students are already learning in school and apply them to the real world?” said Kyra Atterbury, Need In Deed Program Director. “Students are capable of understanding very complex things if we give them the opportunity to rise to the occasion. They can and should be an integral part of solutions and conversations regarding the communities in which they live and go to school.”
“I feel excited that I am apart of the Need In Deed project” said Marquelle, another seventh grade Lea student explains. “I am inspired that we are working with people in order to help make our community a better place.”
From the start of the year, our class was interested in choosing a service-learning topic. We could see first-hand the assets and issues in our community and wanted to improve our community. To learn about what other students have done in the past, our class first took a look at the Need in Deed website. Based on this online search, our class learned about the brilliant Need in Deed students across Philadelphia with amazing projects. The students from previous years were very creative and came up with really interesting service learning projects.
For example, last year, a group of 3rd graders chose to study stress as their social issue after much debate and conversation.
“In the process of learning about stress, they read articles and books about stress and had community partner visits from a neuroscientist who came into their classroom to talk about what stress does to the brain, and a yoga instructor who gave them some tips about how to calm down when they are feeling stressed,” Atterbury shared. “They wrote a book called The ABC's of Stress where students each took a letter of the alphabet and associated it with a way to relieve stress. They shared it with their school community and spread their knowledge to others.”
Across Philadelphia, an 8th science grade class selected gun violence as their social issue. “In class they were learning about forensics and DNA and the students were quite fascinated,” explained Atterbury. “They read a lot about DNA evidence and had a visit from a lawyer who helped a man in Louisiana be released from jail because DNA proved that he did not commit the crime he had been convicted of. They came upon the Pennsylvania Innocence Project which is a group of lawyers that help people they believe were wrongfully convicted get representation. The student’s service project was having a dress down day at school to pay for the DNA test for a person the Innocence Project believed in. Both of these projects had real impacts on students' communities and the students learned a lot in the process.”
After learning about other students’ past service-learning projects, we began our Need in Deed project by going on a community walk around our West Philadelphia community to observe the parts we love about our neighborhood and the parts we want to help improve.
“For young people to become responsible and engaged citizens they must first learn what social issues are,” explains Atterbury.
Before our community walk, we split into small groups and each student had a specific role. Some students were the photographers and those students took pictures of the houses, parks, churches, and businesses we observed during our walk. Other students were the journalists and would take notes about what they saw in their research notebooks.
“It’s important to see our community first hand because it’s who we are,” explains Ashlynn, a seventh grade Lea student. “This is our everyday life and it’s important to see what is going on right under our noses.”
“My favorite part of the community walk was seeing the Black Lives Matter sign on someone’s porch,” seventh grade Lea student Maurice said. “Seeing the sign made me feel good because there has been a lot of hatred recently.” Not only were students like Maurice encouraged by what he saw on our community walk, but my classmates also understood the value of a community walk.
“During our community walk, we observed the little things in order to know what’s around us so that we can be open minded. We need to see the issues so that we can see what changes we need to help make,” said Ashlynn.
Connecting Curriculum to Service Learning
Our teacher encourages us to work hard, learn as much as we can, and to be the best we can be so everything we do in class is connected to our Need in Deed project. For example, Maurice explained, “During our community walk we saw social issues in our community and while reading Solo we looked at the conflicts and social issues the characters faced in the book.”
After we read Solo by Kwame Alexander we actually got to meet Mr. Alexander during a field trip to the Parkway Central Library in Center City. During this field trip, we got to hear Kwame Alexander read excerpts of his books and hear him rap his poems!
“My favorite part [of the library field trip] was Kwame being engaged in the crowd. He had everyone wanting to participate in what he was doing, made us laugh, and we had fun learning about his work as an author,” said Jordan, a seventh grade Lea student, as he reflected on the field trip.
This year we also read March by Congressman John Lewis and Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson, the 2018 One Book, One Philadelphia author. We learned a lot from these books because we learned about the Civil Rights Movement and change makers throughout history. Doing these activities opened our eyes and made us more aware of the real strengths and challenges throughout history.
The good news is that we are not the only classroom in Philadelphia that is doing this kind of learning. Students in schools around Philadelphia are also working on service-learning projects and gaining knowledge about the world around them.
“As students grow they begin to understand how to work with others to create the change they want to see in their communities and in the world,” said Atterbury.
Lisa Hantman, a third grade teacher at McCall Elementary, has been a part of Need In Deed for over a decade and is currently working with her students on her 12th Need In Deed Project. She explains how she has seen her students grow over the years.
“There are many growths to be seen,” Ms. Hantman explains. “Their knowledge base grows enormously, as does their sense of how to learn, or find out about things, and their vocabulary becomes quite sophisticated. Their sympathy, empathy and compassion increase and they become very aware of that. They feel empowered as social agents of change.”
When Ms. Hantman’s former students visit her they share with her how meaningful their third grade Need In Deed project was to them.
“I have had many students return and tell me a number of things that make me believe it matters what they did,” shares Ms. Hantman. “One, they say it was a grand time in grade three, memorable. Some say it helped them choose their course of study. Many remember me, and the work we did. Mostly, they assure me that they are still active in whatever the topic was.”
Ms. Hantman and her students both understand the importance of this work.
“My students have, always, been so open and willing to learn. My classroom is filled with life energy and hope because of this work,” said Ms. Hantman. “From the start of my career, I felt that teaching is a political stance, a way of affecting change. We work with future citizens of a nation and impact that future through our work,” said Ms. Hantman.
Ms. Hantman also shared advice for teachers who want help students make a difference in their community.
“Let in their ideas and desires. Take time to listen to them,” Ms. Hantman says. “The work of Need In Deed allows what we must teach to come alive, be genuine, go deeper and be more meaningful. The bonds created are stronger. The learning is lifelong and useful. Our service learning work has made the last twelve years the most vibrant and exciting of my career.”
At Lea, our class has finished researching a variety of social issues. After our community walk, our class took a survey on what topics we wanted to research more about. Based on the survey results, we then split up into focus research groups including topics like gun violence, bullying, and racial profiling. Each group researched their topic and interviewed sources in order to write their newspaper articles. Our goal is to raise awareness about each issue. Now that our research phase is done, please enjoy reading our research articles below.
1. Gun Violence: Witnessed Everywhere, But Not Stopped
By: Darryl, Henry C. Lea Elementary Student Reporter
2. Bullying is a Serious Problem. Everyone Knows How to Stop It, Right?
By: Honesty, Henry C. Lea Elementary Student Reporter
3. Racial Profiling Should be
By: Aboudalahe, Henry C. Lea Elementary Student Reporter
“My favorite part of writing for the newspaper is having people be able to see my perspective on this important social issue,” says Aboudalahe, a seventh grade student reporter at Lea. “I think it’s good to try and raise an awareness about these issues. If people see how young we are and that we are trying to stand up for what’s right, then other people might be able to get involved too. I hope this article will go out and will inspire people to want to do more and help others.”
Please Note: The author used pseudonyms for most of the students interviewed for this article.