Civics and Environmentalism Intersect through Service Learning

by Mary Ellen Daneels, Civics Instructional Specialist
All educators are civics educators. This year’s Illinois Democracy Schools webinar series illustrated that civics happens across the curriculum. We send implicit and explicit messages to students about power, identity and justice through how we engage student voice in creating norms, the content we curate for classroom use and the way we engage both students and faculty in exploring the intersections of civic learning, school climate, and vision and leadership.

Whether students aspire to be a dancer, scientist, accountant, farmer, or plumber, all occupations are impacted and impact public policy. All students are members of their community with lived experiences that make them uniquely qualified to be counted among “we the people.” All sectors of society contribute to making a “more perfect union.”

Jason Artman, an Illinois Civics Instructional Coach, and his colleague Aaron Sester from Mendota High School had their social studies students explore the intersection of environmental science and civics with the essential question, “How responsible are we for preserving the environment for the future?” Jason and Aaron are two 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 them to share a bit more about their experience of exploring the intersection of environmental science and civics to encourage students to be personally responsible citizens in their community. Here are their responses.

Briefly describe your service learning project. Please include the essential question.

Jason explains, “The project is one that challenges students to look at the environment and question if environmental protection is a job for the government or for the people. In exploring the role of the government versus the role of the individual, we have read articles supporting different views and discussed what the students think about when considering what environmentalism is. Students researched supporting questions concerning Earth Day and keystone species, identifying bees and other pollinators as keystone species that make their homes in the Midwest.”

Aaron adds, "Ultimately, we secured grant funding in order to create an additional habitat onto our school campus. We linked up with other classes and teachers within our own building as well as community members. In order to get plant species into the ground we had multiple learning components to our service learning project including having the students create a student contract, creating SMART goals, creating a Root Cause Tree on consumerism, completing a Question Formulation Technique lesson plan, creating a class rubric to score our own campus’s habitat, and walking the campus to collect data. We then created a student assessment rubric, having students assess our learning standards, and planned for a class presentation — emailing and inviting multiple stakeholders from the community.”

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

Jason explains, “Early in discussions of the environmental actions individuals can take, all the students could identify were things that seemed out-of-reach: becoming vegan, giving up driving to school, and other ideas that just didn’t seem practical for most students. It took getting out and really looking at things to identify something that students could do in the immediate future in order to make a difference before graduating high school. The activity made environmentalism seem like something that could be done on the small level. We are not stopping global warming, reducing greenhouse gasses, or even eliminating all litter. We’re exploring how we can take a small action that can contribute to a greater good — and as luck would have it, we may be making progress on it before school is out for the summer.

The students also engaged in further inquiry once they identified an unkept prairie plot on the school property as a potential site for an informed action project. They needed to know what was there, why it was there, and how they could do something that would both impact the school in a positive way and address an environmental concern. The students developed a survey that would help them answer their own questions about the plot and find ways to make the unkept plot a positive part of the school. They distributed their survey to administrators, science teachers, and the agriculture teacher, hoping to learn more about the plot and get some ideas of how the prairie plot can be a vital part of the teachers’ curriculum.”

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

Jason shared, “I used videos and activities surrounding the 5 Whys Tool to get my students to think about their place in the environment — my students were struggling with how they could save the world as opposed to making small contributions that could impact other things and become larger contributions.

Mendota High School is located on a rural highway and is adjacent to a local lake. Much of the property slopes toward the lake, so this was a good opportunity to demonstrate to students how people have chosen to use land for their purposes and to see some opportunities for environmental projects along the school property. Among the concerns students found were the amount of trash that comes from a combination of the highway traffic and the typical crowds at outdoor high school events, particularly fall and spring sports events — when trash is not placed in garbage cans, wind often carries it until it lands in drainage ditches and retention ponds between the school and the lake. With so few outdoor sporting events in the last year due to the pandemic, students were able to deduce that most of the trash they were finding along the drainage ditches leading to the lake came from the highway — there simply was too little human interaction on much of the school property to believe the trash students found came from sporting events. Students did express concern that when sporting events resume and regular crowds gather two or three nights a week for fall events, the amount of trash in the drainage ditches will increase many times over.

Through the students’ inquiry, they learned that the abandoned prairie plot that is outside my window was created years ago through a project from a science teacher and an Eagle Scout student. The problem appears to be the Eagle Scout has long since left the community and the teacher has since retired and moved away! So what had potential as a sustainable environmental project sits unused and unattended the vast majority of the year. This is the project my students have identified as something they wish to explore. Their chief wondering early in our study was what the plot was meant to accomplish and what benefits to the school and the environment currently are associated with the plot. As we move forward, the students have an interest in learning what they could plant and build in the plot to both benefit keystone pollinator species and the teachers and students who work and study around the plot.”

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

Aaron explains, “The planting of our habitat is our next step. Upon the completion of that is making sure we maintain the habitat area for years to come and future generations. They did such a great job with information gathering and they will continue to share this information with next year’s class in order to keep the momentum of civic dispositions moving forward.

I received a random text last week from another teacher that we didn’t even think to reach out to. She texted the following, ‘Hey! I just heard you’re redoing that prairie land area. I want to be a part of that!!!’ I have messages from others, but I felt that perfectly sums up what we were trying to accomplish with spreading our message with stakeholders. Once we started sharing the message, we had other community/school members reach out who want to be a part of the process.”

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

Jason replies, “I think the toughest thing for me to learn is that the student learning comes from the process, not the product. I was so worried that the only benefits would come when the students actually finished building an outdoor classroom that I had to be reminded to put the process over the product and value the learning that came from questioning and discovery, not only from the answers. I didn’t put a lot of value into the small service-learning project that had the potential to become much more — I only could envision the end. As our students become informed and involved citizens, it is the cumulative effect of all the experiences we give them that will help them understand how to be participants in a democracy.”

Aaron concludes, “Do it! I know there can be early hesitations on starting the process of service learning but if you can find the courage to take that first step into the unknown, your whole community will be better for it. You will have to learn to give up some control and structure of the course in order to give students more of a voice which can seem scary. But just know students are thirsting for a chance to make learning their own. Reflection is the key to learning. That is true whether we are in an educational setting or just out in life in general. Being able to reflect upon their own experiences and use their own knowledge to move forward in the learning process is super beneficial. This process has allowed the students to reflect upon their own communities and how to be a part of solutions.”

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