What we Learn When we do Service

Chicago Friends School has a strong commitment to service, and it’s one of the things I love about the school. Our most recent service trip was to plant grasses at a new playground in Lincoln Park with the Lincoln Park Conservancy.

Service beyond the school walls is great for the kids. To begin with, it grants them a sense of ownership in their community. We like going to visit the local beaches; we’ve also helped clean them up. On Broadway, we walk past stores and restaurants with signs in their windows made by the children. Our students can drive through various neighborhoods and see the little libraries they helped make. Chicago Friends School students feel more deeply connected to their city because they’ve helped to shape it. Recently, as we planted grasses for the playground, I listened to the kids talking about what a nice playground this was going to be, and how much fun it would be to bring their families there and point out the work they had done.

The work itself is another benefit. In the planting project, we were scheduled to plant from 10:00 to noon, which is a long time for kids to stick to any single task. But a service project is practical: there is a defined goal, and it’s easy to see whether that goal has been accomplished or not. Is there still a big bare patch in the bed you’re planting? Filling it in is just a job that clearly still needs to be done. Too often, I think, we are taught that work is something that people resent and avoid. But if the job is meaningful, most people enjoy working. The satisfaction of a job well done, and the pleasure of physical work, are gifts that service gives our students. I heard the students say how hard it was to keep going-and then point out that while it was hard, it wasn’t actually that bad. They told each other how proud they were going to be to step back and look at the playground when they were done.

And finally, service builds community not only between the school and the city, but within the school. Working side by side gives you a chance to talk. One planting crew was made up of two fourth grade girls and a new sixth grade boy, and they hadn’t gotten a chance to get to know each other yet. They started out a little awkward and shy, but that got easier once they worked out an assembly line rhythm: you open up the roots of each grass bundle, you dig the holes, and I’ll plant. Gradually, over an hour and a half, the conversation became free-flowing and genuine. How many brothers and sisters do you have? Do you live together with everyone in your family? Which parts of the playground do you wish you could play on right now? The progression through those phases took time, and the work made it possible.

This field trip also tied in with our theme this year, Seeds and Roots. It’s really good for the kids to get hands-on experience with what they’ll be learning about. But that felt like the least important reason for the trip, in the end.

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Renata McAdams

is our grade 3-4 classroom teacher. She has taught in a variety of public, charter, and independent schools, including a combined 3-5 classroom in Ann Arbor, Mich., for two years. Rentata graduated from Vassar College and received her M.S.Ed. from the University of Pennsylvania. She grew up in Oberlin, Ohio, and moved to Chicago from Philadelphia with her husband (then-fiancé) in August 2014.

In her free time, Renata enjoys singing, acting, dancing, and reading.