One of our favorite things about Service Learning is that its benefits are multifaceted and take on distinctive qualities depending on the geographical location and existing community infrastructure. We feel that a key to successful Service Learning lies in being adaptable and able to tap into local resources to create a project that truly reflects the identity and needs of the people and place being served. This is an area where the American School of Brasilia excels. Despite living in a place hit extremely hard by the pandemic, students used their determination, creativity, and knowledge of the local people to lift up the community and make a real impact.
To better understand their process, we spoke with Bianca Bree. Ms. Bree has been the CAS and Upper School Service Coordinator at the American School of Brasilia for eight years. She has always felt there is a certain beauty in the IB program that involves watching students flourish in a particular CAS strand and discover a new passion. She has remained driven by the goal of allowing young people to see they have the power to make a difference in others’ lives.
We talked to her about the power of watching her students’ eyes light up when they come up with a new idea, how she has supported them as they realize the difficulties that so many Brazilians face, and how their determination to serve and help have inspired her in her role as a coordinator.
You must be a very integral part of your school community after having been with them for almost ten years! What makes The American School of Brasilia’s approach to CAS and Service Learning unique?
Although we have a small student population, the number of high school students engaged in service projects is amazing. They learn about or research a specific need in the community, and they collaborate with other students to propose solutions and/or projects. I admire our students for their tenacity and desire to truly make a difference in the lives of others.
They learn responsibility, leadership and organizational skills, patience, adaptability, and perseverance by working with our students, school administration, external institutions, and leading students their own age. We have an impressive group of students who have continually strengthened and successfully led a number of service projects.
The fact that your students have such strong leadership skills must have felt incredibly important over the last year. How has your teaching format changed during the pandemic, and how did you support students in their CAS and Service Learning efforts?
The pandemic hit Brazil incredibly hard, and it brought tremendous changes to CAS, especially in regards to the Service strand. Our students still have not been able to visit and engage face-to-face with the institutions or people they have served in the past. Therefore, service had to transform itself to a certain extent. It became much more focused on fundraising for those institutions as a means to assist them. Our students fundraised for a shelter for people with disabilities, a refugee shelter, homeless people around Brasilia, a public daycare with 70 children, a women’s refuge for domestic violence, and approximately 300 families in the favelas (slums) around Brasilia.
Students also became heavily involved in helping the environment since they could socially distance themselves and wear masks. They learned and informed our community about the birds in Brasilia—recycling plastic caps that will be used to purchase cat and dog food for a shelter, cleaning up their neighborhoods and the area around the lake, recycling milk cartons that will be used to insulate homes for people in the slums, and teaching the community about proper recycling methods. Students also took to translating historical documents online, writing letters to children and the elderly during the pandemic, teaching our lower school students online, and assisting people with visual impairments online.
The school and I supported the students by researching innovative means to serve during the pandemic, speaking to other professionals, collaborating with institutions, and providing our students with a tremendous amount of patience and encouragement.
It seems that after the last year and a half, we all have a stronger appreciation for support systems and the role they play. Has the pandemic altered your understanding of what CAS and Service Learning have to offer students?
Although frustrating at first, students and educators alike adapted to the new reality presented to us when the pandemic struck. Students became more aware of the suffering of others, the essential need for healthcare, and the urgency with which specific projects needed to be carried out to provide basic sustenance to many Brazilian families. Therefore, CAS and Service Learning have expanded in the sense that our students can make tremendous contributions and differences even from a distance and working online.
What do you think are the most challenging and the most rewarding aspects of Service Learning?
Watching our students realize they have the power to change the lives of others and seeing the smiles of happiness and relief on the faces of those they assist are the greatest rewards. Our students planned and ran several significant projects this year even though faced with the pandemic. The Bulls Community Service group ran a project in which they collected hair donations for people who have lost theirs due to cancer or other pathologies. They were able to collect 24 hair donations from our community.
The group of students who run the project EduArtes also made a huge difference in the lives of underprivileged student-athletes by teaching them English online. Although faced with the challenges of the pandemic, our student teachers rose to the occasion and had the largest group ever of students learning in the project this past year. Since online teaching allowed more student-athletes to join the program, they had 24 dedicated students they taught.
The National Honor Society led a drive for the refugee shelter in Brasilia. The donations filled two large trucks with clothing, household items, bicycles, toys, books, school material, and personal hygiene items to assist the families in need, mainly arriving from Venezuela.
Another memorable experience was the combination of music and service in the EABAmp Live project. Our students performed music for an online fundraising event at school in which they raised R$15,063.17 in monetary donations and 1254.2 kilograms of food, for a total of 4 tons 963 kilograms of non-perishable food that assisted 300 Brazilian families living in the slums as well as approximately 100 families at the refugee shelter in Brasilia.
That is fantastic! They were indeed prepared to meet the current moment. Going forward, do you think the pandemic has offered any opportunities when it comes to Service Learning, CAS, and education more broadly?
I definitely believe the pandemic has opened up new opportunities for online learning. Our program for teaching English to underprivileged students has grown exponentially, for example. Online teaching has allowed us to reach more students who need this opportunity because they do not need to travel 45 minutes each way to our campus. They also have direct access to all the teaching material as transportation was no longer an issue. Therefore, the pandemic most definitely brought challenges to CAS and the service strand.
However, it also allowed all students, our high schoolers and the underprivileged group of students, to flourish at such a vital time when people needed positivity and reasons to be proud of their accomplishments. I believe this project translates to online education in a much broader sense as we have reached more students and make a more significant impact for those who have access to a device and solid internet connection.