If there’s one thing Jim Pilkington wants to impart to Middle School students about service learning, it’s the idea that service is a reciprocal relationship. He often tells his young charges, “Service isn’t for yourself, but ultimately it is.”
Pilkington has spent four years as Middle School service coordinator, and though there is no service requirement for Middle School students, he has watched—actually fostered—the program’s growth from involvement in the Darryl J. Ford Day of Service to year-round participation by many.
“One of the original goals I had,” he said, “was to make service more visible and to make students more aware about it in Middle School.” So Pilkington, who teaches language arts and social studies, opened up, and talks up, multiple service opportunities throughout the year. And students spread the word, too, enjoying in particular the social aspect of participating with their friends.
On Middle School intramural days, Sekia Phillips, an eighth grader, almost always chooses visiting Widener Memorial School, PC’s longtime service partner. Widener educates students with physical disabilities, and Penn Charter students visit during physical education classes to play basketball, hula hoops, bowling and more. “I like doing service and giving back to the community,” Sekia said. “Sometimes I go with my friends, too.”
Last year, Sekia took part in a unique service opportunity. A group of PC seventh and eighth graders publicized the screening of an award-winning documentary, Lion Ark, at the Bryn Mawr Film Institute and met the filmmakers. The film chronicles the rescue of 25 lions from illegal traveling circuses across Bolivia. Students made posters and flyers for the event and supported Animal Defenders International by collecting contact information from the audience. Gigi Glendinning, an animal rights activist and PC guest speaker, had sparked students’ interest in this cause.
“It was the animal rights part that got me hooked in,” Sekia said. “It was a really fun experience.”
PC’s relationship with Widener is a key example of Pilkington’s goals of reciprocity and empathy building. “It’s interesting to watch the cultivation of relationships over time for both the Widener students and our own. After overcoming some initial nervousness if they have never been there before, our students quickly learn that Widener students crave the physical movement and social connections that they do,” Pilkington said. “Invariably, our students develop a comfort level with how they can best help and bond with those they are working with, and their perspective on their service shifts.” And, if at first PC students focus on the act of helping another, soon, Pilkington said, they think: “I’m going over there to have PE class with someone that I know and I’m friends with.” Caleb Anagnos, a sixth grader, likes building those connections. “When I go to Widener, I love to see kids remember me and make progress with their speech or body control or anything else,” he said. “The fifth time I went to Widener, I was talking to a kid I had played with before, and his speech had improved incredibly. That is the first example of my now-favorite part of going to Widener.”
“A common stereotype,” he said, “is that people with physical disabilities are mentally handicapped. … When I go to Widener I get to see kids who are really quite smart but in most cases are judged only by what’s on the outside.”
Other frequent sites and service partners for Middle School are Historic RittenhouseTown in Fairmount Park; Philabundance; Our Closet, which provides clothing to communities in “pop-up” shops; and Aid for Friends. This year, students had the opportunity to support the Philly AIDS Walk; the Light the Night Walk for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society; and a new library at Rhodes Elementary School in Allegheny West. More than 85 Middle School students participated in January’s MLK Jr. Day of Service, one of the largest numbers in recent years.
Middle School also supports the school-wide Thanksgiving food drive for Widener families and the holiday gift drive for families from Taylor School and Northwest Philadelphia Interfaith Hospitality Network. On select Saturdays, Pilkington takes a group of students to SHARE, on Hunting Park Avenue, where students package food for distribution to food cupboards throughout the region.
April’s Big Climb Philly, the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s inaugural stair climb to the top of the Comcast tower, for ages 12 and older, was a big draw in Middle School this year. Duncan Glew, a PC freshman who has been receiving treatment at Children’s Hospital, established the event, designed to raise research funds to fight cancer; Duncan’s brother, Finn, is a seventh grader, and has led Middle School efforts. More than 40 students signed up to climb, and many participated in dress-down days and other fundraisers to publicize and raise money for it.
Pilkington’s cup runneth over. “There is student interest for sure, and plenty of it,” he said, “yet finding the time with packed student and teacher schedules remains a struggle.” He looks forward to more conversations about this as the school gets even deeper into implementing the new Strategic Vision. Service learning is a key strategy of that vision, related both to PC’s goal to deepen our identity as a Quaker school and to educate students outside the traditional classroom. The recent decision to switch from a trimester to semester calendar will provide flexibility that accommodates exciting learning opportunities, including service learning.
Pilkington sees service learning as filling different needs for different kids. “Service allows all of our students to use their talents to engage in various ways,” he said. “Some students want that feeling of doing something for the less fortunate. For some, it’s about connecting with those they serve or serve with. Some really enjoy organizing and publicizing projects. Overall, service provides an opportunity to fulfill community needs but also for students to feel confident about who they are and what they can do.”
Integrating service into the curriculum has been one of Pilkington’s goals: bringing in speakers like Gigi Glendinning was a prime example of this work.
Her presentation with eighth graders coincided with their reading of Eliot Schrefer’s Endangered, a book about the endangered bonobo in the Congo, and engaged students in public advocacy in the grade in which they study the same in Civics.
The Center for Public Purpose, another outcome of the Strategic Vision, will continue to build on this positive momentum with Middle School service next year. Some of the primary questions to explore next year: How do we bridge the gap between our vision for expanded service learning and finding the time and space for implementation? How do we fold issues of food insecurity, poverty and inequality in education into the classroom? How can we measure the impact of our service for both our community partners and our own students?
Jim Pilkington will continue his passionate involvement in Middle School service, to be sure, and as sixth grade coordinator, he will focus more on integrating service learning within the grade. That’s good news for Middle School students.
“He’s funny,” Sekia Phillips said. “He’s just a really fun and interesting teacher to be around. He’s got this air about him, that you can trust him.”