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Our SOME portrait project: how and why we do service learning

Gabby and Nina are 5th grade co-teachers at Sheridan School in Washington, DC. They are constantly trying to push themselves, their students, and conversations about education to be as socially just as possible. As part of a recent service learning project, the Sheridan School’s 5th grade visited SOME. Service learning is a teaching and learning strategy that integrates meaningful community service with instruction and reflection to enrich the learning experience, teach civic responsibility, and strengthen communities 

Service Learning

In 5th grade we do a service learning experience that aims to honor what is developmentally appropriate for 5th graders and prioritize maintaining the utmost dignity of the others.

Service Learning is such a complicated realm, as we work to ensure that we don’t “otherize” or create complicated (and potentially problematic) narratives about what ‘help’ is and who helps whom.

Our SOME (So Others Might Eat) project is one of our favorite service learning experiences, because we think it does work towards our ideals of what service learning should look like: meaningful to all, authentic, and a learning experience!

The Process!

Our project starts when the 5th grade goes to study portraiture at the National Portrait Gallery–learning about how portraits are about more than just a face, but the stories behind those faces. Those stories are the key aspects that get incorporated into the art you see!

We then prepare questions and talk about how to ask politely about other people’s lives, how to work through nerves and awkwardness, speak loudly and enunciate, etc. and we also learn about SOME and they work they have done and are doing in DC.

Then the 5th grade goes to SOME‘s Kuehner House (which provides affordable housing, activities, and other support to low-income seniors in the community). During our visit, each student gets partnered up with a participant and interviews them. We spend about an hour together, sharing stories, taking notes and taking pictures of one another.

Portraits of SOME seniors by 5th grade students at the Sheridan School. Photo courtesy of Teach Pluralism.

Portraits of SOME seniors by 5th grade students at the Sheridan School. Photo courtesy of Teach Pluralism.

5th then goes back to Sheridan and begins to work on creating portraits that capture aspects of their new friends’ personality and stories. These portraits take us a long time because we work really hard to make them as special as we can!

Excitedly (and with a different type of nerves this time!) we head back to SOME to revisit the senior participants and deliver our artwork to them. This project brings joy, dignity and stories to both parties, and thus it is a service learning experience we continue every year. Take a look at some of the portraits our students have done–we are biased, but we think they should be in the National Portrait Gallery, too!

This year, we were thanked with a performance by two of the seniors: beautiful singing accompanied by keyboard playing.

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