Thermometers to Thermostats: Service Learning

by Mary Ellen Daneels, Lead Teacher Mentor


My math colleagues teach mathematical principles and concepts and then students practice what they have learned and “do math.” Language Arts provides instruction on reading, writing, speaking and listening, and then students “do language arts.” In science, students engage in lab experiments to “do science”; applying disciplinary content they have learned in class through scientific inquiry. In civics, rich concepts such as liberty, equality, freedom, justice, and tolerance are explored and then…students take a Constitution Test? How do we allow students to “do civics” and practice the knowledge, skills and habits of effective civic engagement? How can we help students use inquiry to address the compelling questions that face society?

The new Illinois civics course requirement and social studies standards embrace the need for students to communicate conclusions and take informed action in a safe environment. One of the most proven practices to this end is the use of service learning. Service Learning gives students an authentic platform to practice literacy skills as they address real world issues through the use interdisciplinary content, aptitudes and evidence, developing partnerships with institutions in their community as they work for improvement and sustainability. Students go beyond being “thermometers” taking the temperature of their environment, learning how they can be the “thermostats” that can change the climate of their community. They become agents of change.

Many of our schools do a wonderful job helping students become involved in civil society through community service projects. Service learning, however, is informed action EXPLICILTY tied to the curriculum; it is a natural extension and application of the knowledge and skills being explored in the classroom. Best practice in service learning engages student voice in choosing, planning and implementing the endeavor with meaningful reflection throughout.

Service learning can take many forms including direct action, indirect action, research and advocacy. Students can communicate their conclusions and take informed action both inside and outside of the classroom.

There are a number of organizations and resources that will provide inspiration, structure and resources for successful service learning projects.
Do you have any resources to share to help facilitate service-learning in the civics classroom? Please send your suggestions to MDaneels@illinoiscivics.org. Together, we can prepare Illinois students for college, career and civic life.

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