At my New Hampshire high school, we have a community service tradition that all of our seniors participate in called the Senior Day of Caring. During this one day in early fall, our seniors sign up in groups or as individuals to engage in any number of community service activities that have been identified in our community.

Some of our seniors return to their elementary schools to help out in classrooms for the day. Others head to the public library to help them with a big project. Some go to the local senior citizen center to help residents with light cleaning, painting, moving or other similar projects. Others help community members with light housework or yard work.

This tradition, which has persisted in my school community for the better part of two decades, often leaves our students' hearts filled with love and a hunger to do more, at least that is what we hope.

Last month, four of my female students took it upon themselves to plan what became a school-sponsored humanitarian trip to El Sauce, Nicaragua. There, they spent their spring break helping build brick homes for deserving families while learning more about Nicaraguan culture. It is called the 4 Walls Project.

They returned home inspired to look for other ways they could impact change in our world. I have no doubt they have been bitten by the service bug, and it is there to stay with them as they enter the next stage of life after high school.

The girls went to an extreme to engage in community service and had a very positive experience, but I want my students and teachers to know that you don't have to go to extremes to make community service rewarding. The best community service happens when students are able to put to use skills they will need to be career-ready later in life.

A group of elementary school students may find high value in developing and implementing a new schoolwide recycling or composting program, for example. A group of high school students may be able to find new and creative ways to get community members to donate to a food pantry to help local families in need.

Sometimes, it is the act of developing community service — not the actual performing of that service that brings about the best lessons for students.

A recent Getting Smart article by Kyle Wagner drives home this point on the purpose and focus for community service in the schools: Community service as promotion of "future-ready" skills identified by the World Economic Forum's The Future of Jobs Report such as problem solving, creating thinking, managing uncertainty and collaborating with others.

Wagner goes on to outline five ways to develop future ready skills through community service projects:

  1. Problem solving: Students, particularly younger ones, should start with small problems that exist in their school for which they can find manageable solutions and see as meaningful projects to tackle. Look to topics like school lunch, recess, beautification and student behavior for ideas.
  2. Critical thinking: An important part of the creation process is asking questions. Provide students with the tools to brainstorm and generate questions such as large paper, markers and a task to generate at least five questions to explore as they start their work.
  3. Creativity: During the design thinking process, children can often get stuck in a rut where they can't get their ideas off the ground. To help students develop and refine their ideas, facilitate brainstorming sessions to help them identify as many potential solutions to their problem and then narrow down their choice.
  4. People management: Groups are more effective when they produce results, and doing that happens best when a student leader is able to manage the group's work and processes, and ensure that each member has clearly defined tasks. This could be a great job for the oldest or most mature student in each group.
  5. Coordinating with others: Students often learn best by doing, and they develop important interpersonal and collaboration tools when they work in groups with clearly defined roles that allow each of them to work toward their strengths.

Armed with these ideas, what can you do as a school leader to promote meaningful community service activities in your schools?