As student and teacher sit together on a wooden bench overlooking the Costa Rican canopy cloud forest, their silent reverie is rewarded by a loud and strange “EEEEENK” call. The teacher immediately recognizes the song of the elusive three-wattled bellbird, and points above to the bird perched on an old tree snag.
The pair is fortunate to witness this prized avian inhabitant in all its odd glory, with a chestnut-colored body, white head, and three distinct, long black wattles dangling from its bill. The males use these wattles to put on a spirted display to prospective mates, and these unique creatures reside only in South Central America.
The fact that this bird was the subject of her class service project was not lost on this eighth grade student at Friends School in Mullica Hill. “Seeing an animal that’s so rare makes me want to see more, makes me want there to BE more” said Lydia Holbrook. “It makes me realize why they need to be protected.”
Middle School Social Studies Instructor Peter Manzelmann agrees, “This is the sixth year our eighth graders have visited Costa Rica,” he said. “This year 11 students and two faculty members visited the small Central American country.
Students participated in a service project to help restore habitat to the three-wattled bellbird and other vulnerable species native to the Monteverde Cloud Forest region. They learned how deforestation is causing a decline in these native populations and worked to prepare soil for the planting of native trees to create reforesting corridors. “Visiting the area they are working for and the animals they are helping makes connections that they can’t get in books,” he added.
Along with the reforestation project, eighth graders also visited the Monteverde Friends School and a local rural school in the northeast part of the country where they learned to make tortillas and helped work in the school gardens.
“Learning about other cultures and their ways of life reinforces the service work the students do,” said Manzelmann. “It provides an appreciation of the people and places they are working to help and protect.”
Experiencing alternate customs and new surroundings can also help cement Quaker values that often seem abstract to students before they make the connection with a real-life experience. “I noticed that when I talked to people in Costa Rica, they seemed so much happier. The air was fresher, and the environment cleaner,” observes eight grader Landon Sullivan. “So I learned that our ideas about comfort and luxury are not universal. I connected this with the Quaker value of simplicity, which is a value I never took seriously before.”
A long way from their classroom in New Jersey, eighth graders who attend the small Quaker school culminate their service careers with this week-long visit to Costa Rica, on a trip that combines service, comradery, and pure old-fashioned fun. But service isn’t just for older students, and the beneficiaries of the work does not limit itself to other countries.
Striving to help benefit both the immediate community and the greater world includes two of the basic testimonies of Quakerism—Community and Stewardship, and students at this independent PreK-8 school are introduced to those foundations at a very impressionable age.
“Teaching children at a young age that service to others can be part of your normal life in school and home is worthwhile. I think it helps build empathy and perspective for developing minds that the world is a bigger place than just me,” explained kindergarten teacher Megan Naphy.
In that vein, pre-k and kindergarten classes teamed up this year to create a “Mitten Tree.” Classes worked with middle school students, parents and members of the faculty to tie fleece scarves.
Hats, mittens and gloves were donated, assembled, and delivered to the Volunteers of America women’s and children’s shelter in Glassboro.
Naphy’s hope for the project being more than just a craft activity was confirmed by the students, who were quick to convey what they learned. “The scarves will help kids like me stay warm,” and “maybe they can now play in the snow,” were all notable pronouncements from these bright-eyed young learners.
Local service work continues in first and second grades, who for the third year have collected and donated to Your Place at the Table (YPATT), a local food bank housed at the Trinity Methodist Church in Mullica Hill. This year, the students raised over $800 by sponsoring a rummage sale and a lemonade/baked goods stand.
After raising the money, students walked to the local ShopRite supermarket and purchased food with the help of parents and teachers. Classroom connections involved reading labels, estimating costs, and making sure that items purchased contained proper nutritional value.
In April, third and fourth graders culminated their science and classroom discussions involving reducing, reusing, and recycling in a meeting with Harrison Township Mayor Lou Manzo. “The students asked questions about the costs and benefits of the township’s recycling program and learned how the costs have recently spiked as a result of tariffs and other world affairs,” said lower school science teacher Glenn Parker.
“Mayor Manzo was impressed with the planning and thinking the students had done, and the children gained a valuable perspective on the day-to-day challenges and rewards of working in local government.”
Fifth and sixth graders augmented the pursuit of gaining perspective on the challenges of recycling and plastics. In middle school social studies, students share and discuss articles about current events.
This year, many students contributed topics about pollution and waste, including the Great Garbage Patch of plastic in the Pacific Ocean and how it adversely affects sea life.
Students also learned about the problem of microplastics entering our food sources and how currently, 40 percent of all plastic is meant to be used once and discarded.
“They have a deep concern and want to do something about it on a personal level,” said Manzelmann.
Sixth grader Payton Altland is especially passionate about the problem and was easily able to convince her classmates to focus their service learning this year on a plastic bag recycling project.
“I brought an article to class earlier in the year about plastic bags and how they are affecting the environment in negative ways,” Altland explained. “We decided to do the plastic recycling project as a way for our school to do its part to help with the problem. I also personally gave out metal straws to everyone in my class so that they can stop using plastic straws.
“I feel like there are ways people can help make a difference to help the environment, and these are the ways I can help,” she added.
What may be most impressive is that the topic and the enthusiasm came directly from the students. “They got the idea by researching articles and current events,” confirms Manzelmann. “The students took that momentum and worked to make a difference.”
And make a difference, they did. Between January and April, students collected 192 pounds of single-use plastic bags for recycling. Efforts were encouraged by teaming up with the composite building material company Trex, which sponsors an annual nationwide Plastic Film Recycling Challenge encouraging schools to collect and recycle polyethylene plastic.
In seventh grade, students are provided with a “citizen science” opportunity, collaborating with the National Bluebird Society to encourage, observe and record bluebird life around campus. For the third year running, students independently maintain the Friends School “Bluebird Trail,” which includes five bluebird boxes, some of which house active nests.
This ongoing initiative has students observe boxes with binoculars, record findings, and even chase away non-native species that try to take over the boxes. “Bluebirds are indigenous to the area, unlike the invasive house sparrows that try to take over the boxes,” says seventh grader Tara Esposito. “We learn to tell the difference between the bluebird and sparrow nesting materials and remove the sparrow materials so the bluebirds will use the boxes.”
In addition to their service work in Costa Rica this year, eighth graders honed their efforts on elected officials at the local, state, and national levels to advocate for laws to reduce gun violence. Students chose this topic after reflecting on issues that affect them personally as well as their larger community.
This project connects directly to one of the main goals of the school’s civics curriculum, which is to challenge students to not only understand how citizens can engage in political activity but to engage in the activity themselves.
Civics teacher Brad Gibson provides more details. “Students learn about the process of lobbying by lobbying themselves. They learn about Second Amendment issues by researching them in preparation for their meetings, and they learn about the different responsibilities and processes of local, state, and federal governments by meeting with representatives at these different levels.”
Along with Harrison Township Mayor Lou Manzo, students met with State Representative Adam Taliaferro and U.S. Representative Jeff Van Drew to address their concerns at all levels. This project has required students to not only demonstrate respect and find common ground with classmates who hold different political beliefs but engage meaningfully with politicians who may not share the perspective of the class.
To close the loop, students have been following the status of numerous bills at the federal and state level that they advocated for to their representatives.
The various service projects performed by the students constitute what the school officially refers to as “service learning.” Head of School Matthew Bradley explains service learning as a strategy that integrates meaningful community service with instruction and reflection, while also teaching civic responsibility and working to strengthen communities.
Often considered a form of experimental education, service learning occurs through a “cycle of action and reflection” as soon as students seek to achieve real objectives for the community and a deeper understanding of their own skills. And while teachers, administrators and other adults guide students in this learning, it is ultimately the “youth voice” that chooses, plans, implements and evaluates their service learning experiences.
It is educational foundations such as these, the school believes, that help plant the seeds of independent learning and critical thinking that are so vital to today’s successful student.
By Colleen Woods-Esposito