Service Learning Connects Students with Local Elections

by Mary Ellen Daneels, Civics Instructional Specialist
The Illinois Civics requirements for both middle and high school require students to engage in service learning to provide real-world opportunities to take informed action on issues that matter to them. These issues can range from local to global.

Candace Fikis, a social studies teacher at West Chicago Community High School, collaborated with her colleagues Roberta Felfle and John Chisholm to engage students in understanding voting and elections by facilitating students to prepare and host a virtual candidate forum. This was an authentic opportunity to apply disciplinary content knowledge to a democratic institution that impacts their everyday life and prepare the community, including 18-year-old students, to cast their ballot.

Candace, an Illinois Civics Instructional Coach and member of the Democracy Schools Network, 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 in their region and opportunities for students from various regions and demographic groups to work together for the common good of Illinois.

We asked Candace to share a bit more about her experience with service learning.

Can you briefly describe this service learning project?

“My service learning project took place in my government class during our election unit. Students first learned about elections, who is eligible to vote, and then about local government. After learning about school boards and what they do, students then went out in the community to discover the issues that are the most important to the community so they could develop questions to ask candidates running for the school board in a student-led candidate forum. They partnered with the local chapter of the League of Women Voters to effectively run a forum that could be recorded (had to be done virtually) to then distribute to the community to educate them on the candidates before the election. The essential question tied to this topic is, Why does my civic participation matter?”

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

By hosting this student forum, students learned that their civic engagement does not just have to be just voting, it can be learning/educating voters or communicating with elected officials.

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

“This project taught them not only about the political power in schools but also about the local issues that are important to the school district’s community. Part of the project required them to interview adults in the community (parents, teachers, administration, business owners, etc) to learn the different perspectives and issues facing them that could be addressed by the local school district. They learned how parents view schools, how tax-payers feel about school districts, and how those who work in schools feel about them, besides just how students feel about schools.”

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

“We would like to continue this candidate forum for future local elections. Hopefully in-person in the future and maybe even pair up with the feeder districts (candidates and students).”

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

“Just do it! Getting started is always the hardest part, and do not think you have to do this alone. Students have lots of ideas and once you tap into some outside resources, you will see you are not alone. The students feel purposeful doing something in their community but so do the adults in the ‘real world’ as so many are willing to help young adults experience real life. Once you build those coalitions, the project will be authentic and purposeful, with plenty of buy-ins.”

If you would like to view the West Chicago Government Students virtual candidate forum, and how they kept the forum going as they evacuated the building when a fire alarm went off (see right), you can view a recording on YouTube.

What are you doing to engage your students in service learning? Please comment below. Together, we can prepare all Illinois students for college, career, and civic life.

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