Bringing About The World That Should Be: Planning the Future of Service at Saint Ann’s
by Tobias Berggruen ‘18
Part I: Introduction
2016 was a successful year for community service at Saint Ann’s—a year in which we were able to lay the framework necessary to increase awareness of the wide variety of service opportunities available to our students. It is my belief that all the ingredients necessary—passionate students, committed teachers, a technological presence, and established relationships with organizations—are already rooted firmly within our community. To ensure our program blossoms, expands, and thrives, to further solidify all that we have thus far accomplished, guiding hands, gently steering the multifaceted organism that is community service, are required. These guiding hands need not be restrictive—they should not impede upon the student-driven inclinations of our curriculum and community; rather, they should aim to provide guidance and opportunity, availing our peers of all we have to offer, and providing them with the tools necessary to successfully pursue their interests in service.
Central to accomplishing our goals is the establishment of a marketplace—a true smorgasbord—of ideas and information, one that is pervasive and open, ever-changing yet united around a common set of themes, themes that will continue to develop as our program does. The key here is to successfully present to our community the rich resources and opportunities—cultivated over more than a decade—that we have to offer. The results of the survey we conducted in conjunction with the launch of our website/blog make readily apparent that Saint Ann’s students yearn to participate in community service, but remain uncertain of available opportunities. In a technological world—a vast majority of our student and faculty utilize smartphones and technology during the school-day—the blog will do well to address many of these concerns. And yet there is still much to do. Over the following pages are my recommendations for how we can further fulfill our program’s objectives, recommendations that are rooted in our mission statement, the results of our surveys, interactions with students and teachers, and all that we strive for at Saint Ann’s.
Part II: Reflection—2016
Over the course of 2016, we were able to accomplish a great deal. In addition to our taking advantage of opportunities to volunteer with organizations Diane has fostered relationships with, we hosted various drives, welcomed occasional speakers, and spent a number of months planning our blog. The decision to establish a blog stemmed from our recognition of the fact that high schoolers lack the time requisite to participate in our community service seminar or to meet with Diane in order to incorporate service into their schedule. The blog was created in order to provide a centralized, accessible platform for students to learn of upcoming opportunities, about the organizations we’ve partnered with, “informing and engaging members of our community of our endeavors.”
Created in collaboration with Eli Forsythe, lead academic technologist, we were able to design a streamlined, user-friendly, and approachable blog. Its features include an overview of our objectives and administration, myriad photographs and student-produced articles about service, as well as a list of organizations and opportunities students are invited to assist and participate in. Crucially, it offers, through a few clicks of a button, the chance for students to inform us that they wish to participate in service—making the process of beginning to get involved easier than ever before.
Concomitant with the launch of our blog, we designed eye-grabbing, colorful, photo-filled posters carrying essential information—including a QR-code link to the blog—about what we do. As students navigate our hallways and stairwells, they are now greeted by dozens of these posters, which adorn practically every floor of the Bosworth Building. Over the years, posters have been key components to the success of projects at Saint Ann’s, serving as constant, often witty, reminders of upcoming plays, concerts, events, and opportunities to submit work (consider LitMag, for example). The same has proven true in our case—students have made use of the QR-codes and links provided on our posters to explore the blog and its contents.
We also issued a survey in order to better ascertain students’ thoughts about how we might go about improving our program, and the results were informative. A vast majority of those who responded—80%—reported an eagerness to get involved, while 60% felt that uninformed about what we do. Additionally, 80% felt that if they were better informed about our programming, they’d be more likely to get involved. Two students also recommended that we email in detail the high school when opportunities arise. (The results of the survey are addressed more analytically in sections below.)
Penultimately, we solidified our program by increasing community service-administration relations, with Chloe Smith actively collaborating and assisting with projects, including the blog. I think that a significant component of our future work—building on the incredible program Diane has created—rests on greater curricular integration and administrative collaboration. On this subject we’ve already made significant strides, and aim to make even more over the coming years.
Last—and perhaps most significantly—students showed a great deal of initiatives and resourcefulness, organizing charities, events, and other work. In the last analysis, we strive to provide our community with the tools and resources necessary to pursue service as they see it—and our students have done just that, going beyond philanthropy to do much. Examples include the work of Kaia Berman-Peters, who had the idea of organizing a walk to benefit the organization water.org. She orchestrated every facet of the project: choosing an organization, planning an itinerary, collecting donations, advertising, and ultimately, the highly successful walk itself. Fiona McFerrin-Clancy launched a charity of her own, Brooklyn Delivers, which serves as a food pantry, providing underprivileged families on the Lower East Side of Manhattan with badly need food and resources. In conjunction with Saint Ann’s, Brooklyn Delivers hosted a food drive at school during the month of November.
Part III: Building the Future—What Surveys, Conversations, and our Mission Statement Tell Us
The Community Service program reflects our community’s belief that education is a rich, subtle exploration and questioning of the world, not a means to an end. The program provides optional opportunities for students—and all members of the Saint Ann’s community—to encounter and examine the needs and complexities, both local and global, of our ever-changing world and to respond creatively with their intellectuals, time, talents, and skills.
Our mission statement makes clear a number of things, all in accordance with the founding principles of Saint Ann’s as an institution. The first is that we view education—and community service therein—as a lifelong, organic process, rather than a series of formulae or terms to be memorized, a journey unique to each individual, a process of deep, critical thinking. This conception of education as an ongoing process of self- and world-discovery pervades our approach to service, and has since our program’s inception. We constantly—and unabashedly—seek higher and further, recognizing that the need for service is unending, our potential boundless, confined only by the limits of our passion and commitment. In accordance with Stanley Bosworth’s vision for a school of individuals—never types—Diane and our administration deliberately decided to keep community service optional for an institution predicated on academic/curricular freedom. A student’s desire to perform service should arise out of genuine interest and passion, rather than by requirement, or for the purposes of a college application.
Also made clear is that community service is open to all members of our community—whether they be students, faculty members, or parents. Quite certain is the fact that education serves children first and foremost (accordingly, a majority of our service efforts involve students), yet the adults in our community, with their unique talents and insights, are encouraged to partake in our endeavors. Unfortunately, with the exception of the adults that administer community service at Saint Ann’s (Diane, Chloe), very few faculty members participate in community service within our school. (A notable exception has been when Spanish teacher Laura Sainz de la Pena has joined us in volunteering.) It is of course understandable that our faculty—with numerous commitments, classes to teach, families—often doesn’t have the time requisite to be involved in our program, but at present, there exist few conversations between us and our faculty. We should try to engage with faculty members to see if/how they might participate—particularly in terms of class curriculum and projects.
Conversations have also been incredibly helpful, going beyond the utilitarian, cookie-cutter aspects of surveys and anonymous questionnaires. Students informed me that they would be more likely to participate in community service if projects involved whole groups of friends and peers, and that they would like more concrete, set-in-stone opportunities. Faculty member Rob Goldberg also suggested that we focus on issues that Saint Ann’s students are familiar with and those that extend to their communities—it makes the prospect of service less daunting, more tangible, and easier.
Part IV: Going forward—Recommendations
- Continued Online Presence
In today’s world, information is spread through technology. Our students read the news, listen to music, learn, complete assignments, and interact with one another online. Though technology, if not used in a sensitive manner, can detract from the beauty of learning—it offers a wealth of opportunity, especially when it comes to disseminating information to a great many people. (A case in point is the consideration that not all Saint Ann’s students attend assembly, but virtually all read the assembly email.) 2016 marked our entry into the world of technology, with the highly successful launch of our blog. So far, the blog has included:
- a statement of our purpose and objectives
- a comprehensive list of and information on organizations we’ve worked with
- student-written articles recounting experiences doing community service
- a plethora of photographs that are a testament to our many projects and events
- interactive surveys
- quick, streamlined questionnaires that allow students—in the same of minutes—to express to us an interest in participating in community service
- opportunities to sign up for email updates
It becomes apparent that our blog already contains a wealth of information and resources. That being said, there always remains room for improvement. If we truly want the blog to be the platform for all things Saint Ann’s Community Service, it is imperative that we involve more students in its maintenance and upkeep. Student-written article, are, I think, of paramount import: they demonstrate to other students the benefits of doing service. Additionally, I hope that we can showcase student artwork, music—even poetry—on the blog, allowing us to really engage, question, and contemplate all that service means.
Perhaps it also would be constructive to notify our contacts and partners at the organizations we volunteer at of our blog, so that they can see what we’re up to, and what we want to do. Additionally, organizations can then inform us of exactly what kind of work is required, as well as when and where they need volunteers (this especially makes sense, given that Saint Ann’s students want concrete information readily available to them), and it can be posted to the blog.
Additionally, multiple students, in response to our survey, spoke of the convenience of emails—information about community service delivered right onto a phone, or computer, or tablet. While students may invariably forget about our blog, emails require almost no effort. As of right now, those who have signed up for blog updates receive regular emails from us, but hundreds of our high school students still do not. Given the circumstances, I’d like to propose the establishment of a monthly community service newsletter, transmitted via email— a facet of our program that would encourage students to participate, while complimenting the blog nicely. The idea would be to send out succinct (even perhaps bullet-point) lists of upcoming opportunities and events in any given month, all linked to the blog, if students want to find out more. If properly done, the newsletter would be informative, brief, unobtrusive, and highly effective.
B. Curricular Collaboration
While Saint Ann’s teachers are given a great deal of freedom to impart their knowledge and expertise to students, and while community service remains optional—there are a number of instances in which service opportunities—of differing types—would enrich the classroom experience. The fact of the matter remains that as long as community service is excluded from our academic curriculum, it will be perceived—mistakenly—as being of secondary, or even tertiary importance. Just as critical—often mandatory—discussions of issues such as identity, race, socio-economic background, and sexual orientation have been incorporated into the classroom, whether it be in the form of impromptu conversation, a diverse syllabus, or allocated events (like GUST), community service deserves the same. The benefits of community service go without saying: greater exposure to those from a multiplicity of backgrounds and circumstances, and a greater sense of worldliness and critical thought are just two of many.
Furthermore, there exist a number of classes where community service seems as if it would only augment the learning process. In keeping with the ethos of our school, no teacher should be forced to incorporate service into his or her curriculum, but it seems likely that many would welcome the opportunity. Perhaps we can schedule meetings with department chairs, and send-out faculty-wide emails in order to gauge which teachers are interested in service. Some examples of possible curricular service include:
- Rob’s school and society course visiting and working with children at underprivileged schools
- Puppetry classes putting on puppet shows for children at various organizations
- Music courses composing, performing, and teaching music at other schools or events
- Sports classes teaching the importance of recreational arts to kids
- science classes, particularly those which cover issues such as climate change, taking trips and volunteering at organizations such as the Gowanus Canal Conservancy
- Language classes helping immigrants from various countries, whose English might be limited
- Theater classes teaching drama/putting on performances
Additionally, in the manner of GUST, we should consider orchestrating a school-wide “Day of Service.” Like GUST, the day should be student led and facilitated, with opportunities to conduct off-site fieldwork, and the option to participate in various symposia and discussions at school. I think that a day of service would signify a real breakthrough for community service at Saint Ann’s; not only will it increase awareness of everything we’ve accomplished, but will also provide a chance for students to get a taste of community service.
On the subject of teacher participation in community service, I’d like to acknowledge the adult classes that Saint Ann’s faculty members teach each spring. These classes reflect the heterogeneity and richness of our faculty’s interests and passions, yet they serve primarily Saint Ann’s parents, a vast majority of whom are affluent and well-educated. While these classes certainly are meaningful, perhaps select faculty members would consider teaching adults and children from underprivileged backgrounds, at Saint Ann’s or another location.