Facilitate Students to take the L.E.A.D. with Service Learning

by Sue Khalaieff, Democracy Schools Network Manager
The sixth session of the Civics Across the Curriculum webinar series was held on Thursday, March 4, 2021. This year’s theme builds on the theme from the originally scheduled Democracy Schools Network Spring 2020 convening, “Every Teacher is a Civics Teacher: Best Practices for Civic Learning and Organizational Supports.” View a recording of the session.

The program featured Dr. John Bierbaum, Normal West Community High School; Barbara Lindauer, Collinsville High School; and Gwynne Ryan, Maine West High School. It was facilitated by Mary Ellen Daneels, Civics Instructional Specialist, Illinois Civics Hub.

The presentation began with a very concise definition of Service Learning as “action informed by the curriculum.” This basic trait makes it easily distinguishable from Community Service and included an acknowledgement that there is a place and value for both in our schools. An expanded description (using the acronym, L.E.A.D.) incorporates these ideas:
  • allows for rich classroom Learning
  • guides students in Extending their learning and Exploring issues that have become evident through their classroom learning
  • has students engage in Authentic Action with real world impact
  • gives students a platform to Digest and Demonstrate their learning.
The panel addressed a range of issues pertaining to this best practice, including some of the misconceptions, the ways in which the remote landscape has impacted Service Learning, examples of cross-curricular connections, and some guidance for beginners. As we think about how to approach this work, the article “What Kind of Citizen” provides guidance on the types of engagement that we can support our students to have.

One of the first ideas that the panel spoke about was the way that Service Learning in their classrooms had significantly impacted how they see their role as teacher, and that stepping back from the “sage on the stage” role provided much more opportunity for student choice, voice and leadership. It allowed students to tap into their own lived experience and gave them an increased ability to see the entire system, rather than just their own little piece of it more directly. Dr. John Bierbaum aptly summarized, “sometimes teachers just need to get out of the way.”

The major misconception about service learning that teachers spoke about had to do primarily with the perceived complexity of Service Learning projects. Mary Ellen Daneels again reminded the attendees that this best practice “does not have to involve a bus.” As with all instructional practices, there is a range, and there are many examples of exemplary Service Learning projects that are not complicated at all. Gwynne Ryan poses this question for teachers to consider as they plan for projects with their students, “What are we doing to do with what we have learned?”

Despite the several challenges that come with remote learning, all panelists felt that there were some positive aspects to virtual platforms when it came to Service Learning. Some types of student engagement in the community (attending a City Council meeting, meeting with an elected official, etc.) have been made more possible with the various platforms that exist. Coordinating a districtwide (or even statewide) effort across many schools is possible, since it does not involve students/staff having to gather in the same place. There was also general agreement that remote technology had made some strides in increasing access and equity in schools.

Service Learning also creates opportunities for collaboration with teachers in other disciplines. Barbara Lindauer explained a joint effort of Social Studies and Biology classes at her school where students studied the Monarch butterfly, created pollinator gardens, and wrestled with the conflicting ideas of development and progress. She also spoke about the still-expanding cross-curricular celebration of Women’s History Month.

Lastly, panelists unanimously endorsed the age-old practice of connecting with other like-minded educators as the best way to support efforts with Service Learning. Seek out teacher networks and professional development from consistent and dependable providers. (And use the resources they provide, such as this Service Learning toolkit or this activity on Community Mapping.) All three teachers on the panel have participated in the Guardians of Democracy Service Learning online course, and believe that it gave them resources, support and a safe place to try out new ideas. Guardians of Democracy will be starting several new courses later this spring.

Our series continues on the first and third Thursday of the month from 4-5 pm on Zoom. We hope to see you at the last three webinars in the series!

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