Global To Local

Bringing Home the Lessons of Service Learning

Mary first got involved with Roots & Shoots in 2018, but her passion for teaching through service began years ago. In fact, it was service-learning that inspired her to become a teacher.

Her first career was as an attorney. “I knew I wanted to be a lawyer in fourth grade,” she says. She was the first person in her family to go to college; she went on to law school, to clerk on the federal Court of Appeals, and to practice law.

An experience chaperoning her daughter’s third-grade class changed everything.On a field trip to the local zoo, the students were treated like researchers and scientists, she says. “They each, like Jane Goodall, became an expert through observation on one animal.” Today, Mary is an educator and Roots & Shoots group leader in Marshall, Michigan.

For me, the lesson is, these kids become self-starters. That’s the part that excites me as a teacher. That’s the part that excites me as a human.

Mary Douglas Roots & Shoots Educator and Group Leader
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At the zoo, they did a service project, making animal enrichment activities and treats for baboons out of paper towel tubes and ice cream cones, and they were asked to hypothesize what would happen when the baboons discovered the surprises. The excitement, joy, curiosity, and engagement Mary witnessed in the students was incredible.

“I thought, I’ve never had anyone teach me like that,” she says. “If somebody would have looked at me when I was a little kid and said, ‘Hey, look at you, you have potential. You are a curious human being, and you want to make a difference, and you want to be part of our planet.’ If somebody would have harnessed that, what could I have done!”

Suddenly Mary knew she wanted to be a teacher, to cultivate that same curiosity, passion, and connection in her own students. “As I’m sitting there, I’m thinking, I have to teach. I no longer want to be chief of staff for a congressman, which is what my job was. I no longer want to be an attorney at a big firm. I want to be an elementary school teacher.”

One year later, after completing an expedited program and moving with her family to Marshall, she started teaching at Gordon Elementary.

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Not long after, she and her students formed a team called Gordan Goes Global. “Our goal was to teach our kids that they could make a difference in the world. That you didn’t have to wait to become a world changer. That you could do that in kindergarten or second grade, and it was more of a mindset than an age,” she says.

The group focused on global education; for their first big project, they raised money to help build libraries in other countries.

It was when Mary learned that Dr. Jane Goodall would be speaking in Chicago last spring that she and her students discovered Roots & Shoots. They were INSPIRED to form a group that would focus on helping people, animals, and the environment and would address local issues, as well as global ones. She recalls thinking, “This is just like Gordon Goes Global, but way better. I love the idea of making change locally.”

Their book project is a favorite example: Mary and the students OBSERVED young people looking disengaged and bored as they waited with their parents in hospital waiting rooms and laundromats. Together, the Marshall Roots & Shoots group took ACTION, collecting books and distributing them by bike to locations where they knew young people would be in need of a good read.

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When the group does a big project, “My kids get a black and white composition notebook, and my 10-year old kids fill a hundred pages of notes and drawings,” she says. “And they are reflecting all of the time. It’s a metacognitive experience. They are thinking about what they are thinking about.”

One of Mary’s keys to success with her students includes regular reflection through journaling, an important element of CELEBRATING SUCCESS and MEASURING IMPACT, the last step in the Roots & Shoots 4-Step Formula.

Embarking on a service-learning journey with students can seem overwhelming at first. But once you develop a culture of youth leadership and student-owned projects, it becomes natural, Mary says. “It’s the idea of slowing down, releasing responsibility to the kids, letting them observe and discover at their own pace.”

The impact on the students can be profound. “As they’re working side-by-side, they are getting to know each other in a different way. They get an opportunity to step out of their assigned roles and their assigned competencies and to acquire some new ones and to look at themselves in a different light,” she says. Success isn’t contingent on being academically or athletically gifted, on being able to sing or paint. “All you have to do is be willing to be compassionate and helpful.”

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