Service Learning to Bridge the Digital Divide

by Mary Ellen Daneels, Civics Instructional Specialist
Teaching students in a pandemic is difficult with the best of supports and technology. For students in many rural communities, lack of access to reliable internet adds an additional layer of isolation, frustration, and highlights issues of equity and power. Hannah Maze and her students at Anna Jonesboro Community High School recently joined with other schools in her region to use service learning to advocate for policies to bridge the digital divide.

Hannah Maze is devoted to creating hands-on content for her social studies classes. Hannah’s classes have created new school policies, worked alongside legislators in the region, conducted classroom debates, participated in Socratic Seminars, and engaged in mock trials. As part of the Guardians of Democracy Microcredential Program with Volunteer Generation Fund support from Serve Illinois, Hannah has worked with 25 colleagues throughout the state to enhance their use of the proven practice of service learning embedded in the Illinois middle school and high school civics course requirements. Service learning provides an opportunity to apply disciplinary content knowledge to community issues that matter to them to work for the greater good in the Land of Lincoln.

Hannah’s students began this endeavor by examining the essential question — What does it mean to be a good citizen? We asked Hannah to answer some questions to learn more about her project. We hope you will find her story informative and inspiring.

How did this project begin?

“Students evaluated the 14th Amendment to define citizenship, before looking into the process it takes to become a U.S. Citizen through a Webquest. Students identified the different ways that civic participation comes in while discussing why it is necessary to participate in your community. As students began to evaluate how they could participate in their community, students completed a root cause tree to identify why students were unengaged during the 2020 - 2021 school year. One of the main causes students found was unreliable and unaffordable internet services in Southern Illinois. Students then took the initiative to write letters to their legislators to request more reliable and affordable internet in our region. Jamie Nash Mayberry (Cobden High School), reached out to see if Anna Jonesboro would like to join them in writing letters to our legislators about unreliable internet. News Channel 3 covered the project.”

How did this activity deepen students’ disciplinary content knowledge?

“This allowed students to identify who their legislators are, how to contact them, and made service learning attainable. Students began to analyze how they could participate in government. Even if the task seems small it could potentially leave an impact on our region.”

How did this project deepen students’ knowledge of themselves and their community?

“Students began to realize they can have an impact even at a young age. By identifying the different types of citizens there are, they began to analyze what they could do to move from one category to the next. That we may be personally responsible citizens daily but could move into the participatory or justice-oriented if they were passionate about a specific cause.”

What comes next? What did students identify as future opportunities to address this essential question?

"Students began to evaluate issues around our school and community and came up with a list of areas that could be addressed. Students then organized a campus clean-up day to clean up around the football field, parking lot, and front of the school. Students have discussed starting a petition to reduce the amount of homework that is currently being assigned during remote learning."

What advice would you give teachers thinking about opportunities for engaging their students in service learning?

"Service Learning doesn’t have to be a large project. I know when I first started I thought the project had to be large and take up a large portion of the semester. However, this unit lasted about 3 weeks and the students were engaged and excited to write to their legislators on an issue that affects them daily."

Any other details you would like to share?

"Try to meet as many of the students' needs as possible. Though students had mentioned one of the main causes of engagement was unreliable internet, even more, had mentioned mental health issues. I then invited our guidance counselors in to discuss mental health and coping skills (image to the left). Students will be more likely to engage if they feel their concerns are being heard."

Were you inspired by Hannah’s story? Here are some resources you can use to start your own story with service learning: Do you engage your classroom in service learning? Please comment and share your experiences below. Together, we can prepare all students for college, career, and civic life.

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