Service Learning: One Way to Foster Student Engagement

Student engagement may be fostered in many ways. At the Fond du Lac Ojibwe School (FDLOS) in Cloquet, Minnesota, the Connecting Through Service project, funded by the Corporation for National and Community Service, includes several approaches to engaging students, including:

  • Student Leadership,
  • Entrepreneurial Training,
  • Culturally-Focused Service Learning Projects, and
  • Check & Connect.

Many students at FDLOS are involved in one or more of these engagement pods. The Check & Connect project staff use these pods, including the culturally-focused service learning projects, as approaches to foster student engagement and reconnect at-risk youth with school and academics. FDLOS has developed a system of service learning that flows naturally from the students’ American Indian culture into their coursework and provides a multi-generational approach to engaging youth. The school continues to add new meaningful service learning projects yearly while repeating projects such as Sugar Bush (maple syrup harvesting) and Manoomin (wild rice harvesting).

One Project: Manoomin (Wild Rice) Camp

Photo of someone at wild rice campManoomin camp begins at the start of the school year. In art class, students make ricing knockers, which they use to knock the wild rice into the canoe. While making the knockers, they learn about the history of ricing, the way rice knockers have looked in the past, and various symbols relevant to the Ojibwe culture. In their Ojibwe language class, they learn the Ojibwe words that correspond to various steps in the ricing process. They use this information to create a narrative of the ricing process to present to community members and other students who visit the camp. Throughout the ricing process, students are required to research and learn about the importance of wild rice in the Ojibwe history and economy.

Each phase of the service learning projects provide a different type of student engagement. At the ricing camp, students volunteer for jobs including gatherer, drying/parcher, dancer, winnower, cleaner/storage, and guide. These jobs provide students with the opportunity to use their existing skills, develop new skills, and engage in the project in ways that interest them.

Planning Service Learning to Maximize Engagement

A partnership with the National Youth Leadership Council (NYLC) provides FDLOS teachers and staff with specific professional development to strengthen their service learning projects by creating a Service Learning Action Plan. FDLOS staff develop formalized service learning projects by identifying academic goals and objectives, civic and character education goals, and ways to meet genuine community needs.

Culturally-based service learning at FDLOS meets several of the NYLC’s standards for quality practice in service learning, namely: meaningful service, the link to curriculum, and diversity. Service learning projects are implemented each year within art, history, and Ojibwe language courses. As new projects are identified, curriculum links are identified and the desired outcomes embedded into projects in classrooms. FDLOS staff has added new projects such as a cultural art show, creating signs in Ojibwe for a nature trail, and working at the local food pantry. Students and elders work side-by-side on the projects, creating culturally-specific cross-generational connections. In addition, the elders participate with students in the ceremonial opening and closing of service learning activities and show students how to do the various steps of the project.

Service Learning and Check & Connect

In order to be successful in school, students must attend and engage in school and invest in their futures. Service learning is a one example of how Check & Connect mentors help students engage. For example, the Sugar Bush camp is within walking distance of the school and students move back and forth from the camp to the school throughout the school day. Students are encouraged to be present at school during the camp because they have assigned roles in scheduled activities at the camp. When students engage in the camp and related school curricula, they are excited to share what they learn with the greater community.

Through participation in these service learning projects, students invest in their future. This investment includes developing skills valuable for postsecondary education and future employment such as responsibility, punctuality, dependability, interpersonal skills, and cooperation. They also are seeing entrepreneurship in action and are provided with an opportunity to consider future entrepreneurial opportunities within the community.

As Check & Connect mentors continue to look for ways to engage students, service learning offers hands-on activities to engage youth. The “magic” of student investment in these activities is evident. The Community Works Institute, Inc., in their manual Connecting Service-Learning to the Curriculum – A Workbook for Teachers and Administrators, posit that the magic-investment results from students’ sense of purpose and accomplishment when they see that they have impacted a community need. At FDLOS, engagement is evident on the faces of student guides as they explain the process of ricing or harvesting maple sugar to the many schoolchildren who tour the camps. They are, as in generations past, passing down the rich Ojibwe history, culture, and tradition, while finding within their culture a way to engage in their education.

Additional resources on service learning and dropout prevention:


About the Author: Sharon Mule’ is the project coordinator for Connecting Through Service – a student retention project at the Fond du Lac Ojibwe School in Cloquet, Minnesota – at the Institute on Community Integration and a member of the Check & Connect team.

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The University of Minnesota is an equal opportunity educator and employer.

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