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Technology and Volunteerism: An Unlikely Pair

Hear from David-Aaron Roth '10, Upper School English Teacher and Service Learning Coordinator, about Woodward's new app for students, Helper Helper, and the ways in which this tech tool is helping to better connect our students with meaningful service learning experiences. Enjoy!

The idea of a “service hour requirement” dates back to Woodward’s military days as Georgia Military Academy. At that time, these hours, currently known as service hours, were then considered “contract hours,”—a formal method for GMA students to continue building the excellence in character we cherish so deeply from our school’s legacy and in the culture of the Academy today.

Over time, such hours shifted to be more outward facing within our local and global communities, where service hour requirements could be fulfilled either in our Woodward community through volunteering at athletic and arts events or with the many organizations our students partner with daily outside our school. We recognize that when students have the ability and desire to find experiences that truly interest them personally, that practice has the power to create lifelong givers and doers, which is our ultimate goal.

Unfortunately today, these hours are perceived as a burden on the student experience, inhibiting them from having the time and opportunity to explore what they personally deem valuable. When looking back on my own experience as a student, I believe I missed incredible opportunities for personal growth because of my closed-mindedness. I missed the opportunities to create a deeper respect for difference, to be more empathetic towards others, and to come together with individuals from different walks of life.

Last year, the Service Learning coordinators and sponsors were approached about going “digital” with our service hour system. At first, this idea seemed logical, as our school continues to seek intentional ways to increase our student’s technology footprint for future success in a society filled with tech. However, the reality of what this undertaking would mean for Woodward became evident; our school was about to take a leap into a daunting culture shift. 

The last few years as a faculty member have been challenging and exciting for a number of reasons, but one aspect of my return to campus was seeing our service hour requirement from a new perspective. I saw how our students manipulate a system that doesn’t get to the core of our goal with Service Learning—getting over oneself and stepping outside of one's comfort zone. Do I blame them? Absolutely not. Students are so busy, and when given the opportunity to free up space on their list of “to-do’s,” I understand how the quickest solution can be viewed as the best solution. If I could erase a board for a teacher for 2-5 of the required 20 hours from only performing 30 seconds of work, I would do it, too. Who wouldn’t? We had a choice to make: either let go of these hours, as their worth was attached to the contract days of old, or redevelop and redefine the intrinsic value these hours give to our students. And in full transparency, the latter option was the only real option to consider. With the opportunities for service hours organized in a fixed system of approvals and guidelines, it was going to challenge our community to reassess the value of service hours and their ability to create authentic, hands-on experiences that incite conversations and new understandings.

After months of investigation, we partnered with Helper Helper, an app dedicated to service hour tracking that has worked with the NCAA, colleges and universities, and many Greek life organizations. They understood our goals for this cultural shift, and throughout the year they have continued to help shape and monitor the app to better aid in our school’s growth toward being a community of thoughtful leaders.

With only one term to go, I’ve had time to assess some of the benefits, drawbacks, and other interesting revelations that have come with this shift. First, I would like to start by saying that it has been wonderful to watch our students engage more conscientiously with service and volunteerism this year. Certain opportunities, such as Main Street Academy Tutoring, has increased its volunteerism from the 2017-2018 school year to approximately 300% each visit. Incredible! Second, I believe that this new app implementation has forced our school to face the realities that opportunities for engagement must increase as well. Our student and faculty leaders in Service Learning have stepped up to the plate to provide volunteer opportunities throughout the year before school, during school hours, after school, and on weekends. And for the interesting yet obvious revelation: we have much more work to do, but we are on the right track. As our Service Learning program continues to grow with two summer courses, a pre-K-12 curriculum alignment in the making, an Academy-wide Committee on Service Learning to assess our school’s mission and vision for service, a newly instituted graduation Distinction in Service Learning, and the continued commitment we have to engage more thoughtfully with our local and global community partners, the work is far from done.

So why did we go digital? We partnered with Helper Helper because we saw the opportunity to streamline the volunteer experiences our school provides into one central location that all students could access regularly. Would we do it again? No question. Culture shifts have an adjustment period, but the end result will be worth it. Our students are having experiences that are more meaningful and impactful to the many communities in which we serve. It is vital that our students look beyond themselves in the hopes of seeing the ability they have to go into the world making positive impacts in whatever community they choose to live and serve.


David-Aaron Roth '10, Upper School English Teacher and Service Learning Coordinator

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