Lessons Learned: My First Full Year in Service Learning at Indian Spring Middle School

(A follow-up to https://actlocallywaco.org/2016/07/19/service-learning-at-indian-spring-helping-kids-learn-to-be-citizens/)

By Travis Cheatham

Last July I wrote a blog about what service learning looks like at Indian Spring Middle School (ISMS).  I explained the structure, the value, and the potential of the program.  Today I write about the rewards, challenges, and opportunities of this last year through a few stories.  (Names have been changed to protect student identities)


Ava is a good student in class but she’s the queen of eye rolling.  Throughout the year, I frequently had to coax Ava to get to her service learning group, which ironically she liked, but for some reason, she frequently dawdled in attending.  This, by the way, is a common theme among students and is really a fact of life for middle schoolers.

In March, our school planned an event with the VA Medical Center thanks to funds from The Meadows Foundation.   Our students decided to use the funds to donate plants, games, and activities for VA residents.  Ava was sure to help out with all of the last minute preparations and came to the event on a Saturday morning, no less.  The following Monday morning, I was poised at the school’s main entrance to greet students (as I usually do) and Ava came running up to tell me how great a time she had.  She then asked if there was any way that she could go back on her own to meet with residents.

The lesson: Are you sharing power with your child, mentee, or student?  They will relish it and will thrive.  I never see our students more fulfilled at school than when they are given a task to perform.  Our students have power, talent, and desire, but we have to activate it.  In this next year, I hope to have more opportunities to empower our students.


“Everyone knows service learning is boring; you’re wasting your time.”  This was a common greeting from Tim as I corralled students to get to their service learning groups.  I’d love to say that Tim was alone in this belief, but he wasn’t.  Last year, our goal was to place all 6th and 7th graders in a service learning group based on surveys of their interests.  By the time students met in their first service learning group many were confused about why they were there (even though I spent a week prepping the students).

Although middle schoolers’ decisions are inherently confusing (even to themselves), forcing students to go to something that they have no stake in is an act in vain.  With no grades or requirements, our program really depended on a good hook for students’ interest and sometimes the gradual development of interest.

The lesson: This next year students will attend a service learning fair and sign up for any groups they are interested in.  If they’re not interested there will be no arm twisting, but we will require students to at least take a look at their options.


“Hey Mike, I’m just calling to …let you know we need to cancel tomorrow due to ______

…remind you that I need you to turn in paperwork for last week’s outline

…apologize for the delay in setting up the field trip, could you do it on …”

The lesson: Although program flexibility is great, universal policies make for a well-oiled machine.  As I look at the future sustainability of the service learning program I need to refine a model that can be easily administered and replicated.

How can you help? 

Become a facilitator!  Facilitators meet with students 1-2 hours once a week throughout the school year to guide the students in developing service projects.  This year we hope to use your passions as a volunteer as the springboard for connecting students.  Training will start mid-August and the program should start mid-September.

One More Good Story

Every month throughout the school year I would hold a roundtable meeting for all of our service learning facilitators to talk about upcoming events, how things were going, and to provide ongoing training.  My favorite part: listening.

I’m under no delusion that I am a master of anything; do you want to know the good news for volunteers? You don’t have to be either!  In those discussions, even our facilitators who were not veterans of the program contributed in a way that generated new ideas for the whole group.  Those sessions produced innovative and self-critical observations which are essential for fostering real growth both individually and as a program.  I am incredibly thankful for the work of my awesome volunteers and cheerleaders of this program.

Not ready to jump in?  Give me a call or email and I’ll let you know about other ways to get connected at ISMS.  You can also visit our website at http://indianspring.wacoisd.org/cms/One.aspx?portalId=13246&pageId=424889

to learn more about our service learning program or http://www.prosperwaco.org/mentor-coalition/ to see other ways you can mentor students in Central Texas.

Travis Cheatham is the Service Learning Manager for Indian Spring Middle School. Before ISMS, Travis was the Executive Assistant at Mission Waco and helped lead a culinary class with the MPowerment job development program. Travis is also the Chef/Owner of Cuppa, Waco, TX a catering and food consulting business that was a regular at the farmers market in 2015. Travis is a ’06 Baylor grad who loves this community and loves to travel with his wife, Amy, whenever possible.

The Act Locally Waco blog publishes posts with a connection to these aspirations for Waco. If you are interested in writing for the Act Locally Waco Blog, please email [email protected] for more information.

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