Service Learning Connects Revolutionary War to the Present

by Mary Ellen Daneels, Civics Instructional Specialist
The Illinois Social Science standards support classroom learning that connects the past to the present with enduring understandings and essential questions to harness disciplinary content. Knowledge becomes relevant when students can connect it to their own lived experiences and communities. Having a clear notion of the “why” of social studies gives context to understanding our nation’s history, including the founding principles that guide our republic.

Corie Yow, an Illinois Civics Instructional Coach and sixth grade social studies teacher at Ball-Chatham CUSD #5, used a recent unit on the Revolutionary War to engage her students in exploring the essential question, “How can your voice be heard to make positive change?” Taking inspiration from the founders, Corie’s students identified modern issues related to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” and used service learning to take informed action.

Corie is one of 26 educators participating in the Guardians of Democracy Microcredential Program with Volunteer Generation Fund support from Serve Illinois to facilitate service learning opportunities for classrooms to work together for the common good of Illinois. We asked Corie to share a bit more about her experience of connecting the “spirit of 1776” to the present. Here are her responses.

Can you tell us more about your project?

Following the completion of our unit on the Revolutionary War and the Bill of Rights, we focused on the essential question: “How can your voice be heard to make positive change?” Since this question focused more on the process of making change, students were allowed to focus on a topic important to them. This resulted in a variety of topics ranging anywhere from the environment to LGBTQ+. Students researched, created a way to raise awareness for their selected topic, and developed a call to action for those consuming the information. We had a few groups post their projects on social media through Facebook and TikTok.

How did this activity deepen students’ disciplinary content knowledge and/or meet learning targets?

When posed with the question, “How can you use your voice to make positive change?” It sparked several other questions: “How do people make change?”, “Where do we start?”, and “Why don’t more people make change?”

Students first reflected on how the colonists advocated and fought for change. During this process, we created a list of all the actions they took to try to facilitate change. Next, as a class, students looked at how the individuals we studied during Black History Month made change, and we added their actions to the list. To complete the list, we looked at current young activists, the topics they are passionate about, and the steps they are currently taking to make change. Students developed an awareness of the process and all the possible ways of making change.

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

Students came to the conclusion that people do not try to facilitate change because they do not know the avenues in which they can advocate for change. Now, students understand different routes to make positive change and that different avenues are needed depending on the topic, and that every little bit counts towards making a difference. Students came to the realization their voice is powerful enough to make change despite the fact they are so young.

What feedback did you receive from students and staff about this service learning experience?

“I used to think that it was impossible to make change, especially for someone like me who is young. Now I think that anyone can make change no matter what your age is, it's just all about how you approach and commit to your change while still trying your hardest to make positive change in the world.” - Ava, sixth grade student

“When I was first introduced to this change project, I didn’t have a clue about what I was going to do because I didn’t really feel passionate about any certain problem and was quite worried about completing this assignment. As I kept researching childhood hunger for my project however, I found that I felt very strongly about helping solve this problem and was actually quite interested in it. As I neared towards the end of my project, making change all of a sudden didn’t seem like something I HAD to do, rather it felt like something I wanted to do instead and ended up really enjoying it. It feels good to make change.” - Beckett, sixth grade student

“I used to think that change was about changing the world and fixing major problems. Now I know that change is about taking little steps at a time and doing whatever you can to fix the things you're passionate about. It doesn’t matter the scale of the change that you are making, just that you are trying your best to get there.” - Kinsley, sixth grade student

“I used to think that change would take a lot of time and you have to make a big change for the world. Now, I think that you don’t have to make a big change and the small ones ripple and spread to others. “ - Reagan, sixth grade student

“Wow, the project in Mrs. Yow’s class empowered students to appropriately use their voice to make changes they are passionate about. Their enthusiasm and drive to make change was inspiring. Students couldn’t stop talking about their projects” - Crystal, sixth grade language arts teacher

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

Since the essential question really focuses on the process of making change, students were able to recognize the essential question as one that can always be revisited over and over again when they see an opportunity to advocate for change. It left students asking, “What steps can I take next to continue to make change?”

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

Although you may be nervous or fretting about how everything will turn out, you will have students surprise you with their passion, enthusiasm, and effort. It is well worth it!

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