PREPARING STUDENTS FOR SERVICE LEARNING AND CIVIC EFFICACY PROJECTS
Preparing Students for Service Learning and Civic Efficacy Projects
By Jerry J. Morris, Ph.D. Learning to Give Teacher-Consultant, University of Detroit Mercy
Service learning requires students to give of their time, talent and (possibly) treasure to advance the common good. The service learning project usually addresses some community problem that is of concern to the student. After the service learning project is completed there is an evaluation of the experience, reflection and usually a celebration. If this is what we accomplish through service learning it is enough because it builds a positive sense of self, the spirit of altruism and caring for one's fellow man. As the nation responded to the tragedy of September 11 we revalidated that these qualities of character, of civic virtue are fundamentally what are most important.
Service learning, however, can be much more. If we are to maximize its benefits, students need to learn about more than service. Students need to learn about the public policy issues that underscore the problem that the service project addresses. Collecting blankets for the homeless or serving food at a shelter is worthy. Understanding the public policy issue of housing and welfare and examining its history; hearing the competing voices that explain causes and prescribe solutions; and giving voice to one's own convictions in an informed and reasoned waynow these are important, too.
A service learning project, therefore, needs to go beyond service. But it also needs to go beyond an academic connection. It needs to connect to civic engagement/activism. Students need to learn to make informed and reasoned decisions and act responsibly on their knowledge and convictions. This is the work of citizens.
This connection to civic engagement/activism is needed because students feel disconnected from the body politic and think "politics" is a "four letter word." They think politics are to be avoided, when they are in fact a logical extension of the civic virtue of giving (which, ironically, students value). If civic engagement-activism follows service learning, students will see that political action is primarily the job of the citizen, a job that fulfills one's self-interest and builds on one's capabilities in pursuit of the common good. Hopefully, politics will not be perceived as the corrupted skill and sole province of government officials. Hopefully, the importance of civic engagement will not be forgotten upon graduation.
Getting students to the point of civic engagement/activism is no easy task. It will take time, but it will be time well invested. I think service should precede civic engagement/activism and the academic learning should be introduced as the project unfolds. I think that before students even begin to think about a service-learning project, they need to be prepared to understand themselves and their community. How to prepare the student for that understanding is the focus of this paper.
Why is it Important to Prepare the Student for Service Learning? Service learning in a community-based project that leads to civic engagement-activism should evolve over time through six phases: (1) Self Knowledge, (2) Community Knowledge, (3) Identification of Challenge or Opportunity, (4) Decision to Act, (5) Service-Reflection-Celebration and (6) Evaluation. If the first two phases of service learning are skipped, the student may not make the emotional and personal connection that lies at the heart of learning. They will not be able to sustain a commitment.
Before one enters the community to serve, one needs to know themselves; know their strengths and assets; believe they can make a difference; see their community as a positive place to live and believe the opportunities for involvement are meaningful to themselves and their community. If we skip the first two phases of preparing students for service learning and, instead, start with examining the community as a collection of problems, we may paint an image that is too powerfully negative thus demoralizing students and fostering a sense of helplessness and cynicism (1). This caution is of particular import for urban youth whose immediate communities are often portrayed in the media as someplace one is better off leaving. "Why," they might wonder," should I care about improving a place that has little going for itself?" Urban youth need to understand that their community and culture is different, not deprived. They need to see themselves as able and resilient rather than "at-risk." They need to focus on recognizing personal abilities and developing their potential (2).
How we approach service learning is very much like the way a journalist approaches a story and decides whose voice and perspective is included (3). If we view the learner and the community as deficient, the discussion that follows will be "framed" by a sense of negativity. If we view the learner and the community as an asset, the discussion that follows will be "framed" by a sense of hope. We need to instill in young people the hope that comes not only from knowledge and skills but also from a belief in their own capabilities and the legitimacy of their own interests.
The instructional activities that follow are meant to prepare the student for "Self Knowledge" and "Community Knowledge" phases of service learning. These two phases will help create the personal vision, confidence, commitment and common unity within the classroom upon which a service learning project can be built. These instructional activities will also sustain the student during the civic engagement-activism that will follow.
Phase One: Self-Knowledge
Identity Plaque (4) The purpose of this instructional activity is to identify the student's interests and abilities. The Identity Plaque consists of a colored piece of paper divided into the following categories: "Words that describe me," "What I care about," "Topics I would like to talk about," and "Something I could explain or show how to do." Have each student complete an individual Identity Plaque. In the center of the paper is a space for a picture of the student. Take a Polaroid picture of the student while they are completing the Identity Plaque and paste it on their plaque.
In teams of four, students will present their individual Identity Plaques to each other. At the end of each presentation, the students will tell the presenter something positive that was learned. Post the Identity Plaques in the room. An extension of the Identity Plaque could be to set up a barter system ("Skill-Exchange") for students to swap skills based on what is on their respective Identity Plaques.
Know Yourself The purpose of this instructional activity is to help students know themselves. It will help develop the skills of observation and inference. This instructional activity has been called "shoe-box" history.
Ask students to bring to class a shoe-box filled with artifacts that represent themselves. Place the shoeboxes around the classroom and give each student time to examine each and make notes to write a profile (only positives) of the person represented by the artifacts. Leave these interpretations at each shoebox. The owner of the shoebox will collect, read, report back to the whole class the interpretations, and explain the meaning behind the artifacts.
Acts of Kindness (4) The purpose of this instructional activity is for the students to realize that giving is good for us individually and collectively and that we do not "go it alone" in this life. In teams of two, have the students explain to their partner about a time when they did something kind (giving of their time, talent or treasure) for someone or when someone (or an organization) did something kind for them or their family. They could include a kindness toward animals or things as well as people. Combine two groups into a group of four and have each person tell the story of their original partner. As a whole class, talk about how performing an act of kindness made one feel; how receiving an act of kindness made one feel. Make an "Acts of Kindness" bulletin board out of pictures, words, dates, and artifacts. Promote and document acts of kindness in class, school and community.
Happy World, Sad World (4) The purpose of this instructional activity is for the students to begin thinking about the world around them and how they are connected to this world. Each student has a sheet of paper titled "Happy World-Sad World." The paper is organized by a "T-chart." One side of the chart is labeled "What is happening in the world that makes me happy." The other side of the chart is labeled "What is happening in the world that makes me sad." Ask the students to think about and then record their ideas in the "happy" section of the paper. Then ask the students to think about and record their ideas in the "sad" section of the paper. Draw a picture to represent a "Happy World, Sad World." Collect and post. Let students examine, reflect and write about generalizations they see. (Signing one's name is optional).
Magic Lamp Ask students, "If you could change one thing in this world, what would it be?" "If you found a magic lamp containing a powerful genie who could grant three wishes to make this wish come true, what would be the three wishes?" Have students share their ideas and wishes. Talk about whether making a "wish" will solve a problem. Follow-up questions might include: "What knowledge and skills are needed?" "What knowledge and skills do we already have?" "How does this issue touch you personally?" "What could you personally do about the issue?"
The Many Hats We Wear The purpose of this instructional activity is to get students to realize that they are members of different groups; that in each situation they utilize the virtues and skills of citizenship; that they make decisions and adjust their interests for the welfare of the group (common good).
Have students list the different roles they play and the groups in which they take part. (e.g., student in class-school; child in family; athlete on team). What are their rights and responsibilities in each? Who has the authority/ Have they ever had to set aside private or personal interest for the good of the group? Use this discussion as a bridge to citizenship and civic duty. Make a mobile that illustrates the various facets of the different groups.
Citizen Simile The purpose of this instructional activity is to examine prior understandings and misunderstandings about being a citizen. Have students write a simile by completing this phrase, "A citizen is like a ___ because ___. Then have the students draw pictures of the similes. Each student then presents the simile through the picture to the whole class. Explore with the student if there is any negative connotation associated with their similes.
Civic Super-Heroes The purpose of this instructional activity is to have students consider the qualities that a person should have in order to make a positive difference in the life of their neighborhood or community.
Assign students to watch a TV super-hero show or read a comic strip that features a super-hero. What can the super-hero do? How does the super-hero use his/her power? To what end? If you had super-hero powers that could be used to solve community problems (or make this a better world) what would they be like? For example, our super- hero might have super hearing to listen to the people. Have students draw and name their civic super-hero. Present them to classmates. Display them in the class. Send them to the local newspaper or mayor with an introductory letter by the students.
Role Model The purpose of this instructional activity is to illustrate to students that "average" citizens make a positive difference in the life of the community and that they do not have to look far or look to history to find examples. It can be a follow-up to "Civic Super Heroes" or "Neighborhood Scan." Ask the students to consider, "Who are these people?" "What do they look like?" "What are their stories?" These questions lead to letter writing, correspondence and interviews. Have students invite community role models to class to share and explore their stories.
Have students make a role-model portrait gallery. Include the student's own picture in the gallery including a narrative about how they want to be remembered.
Civic Balance Sheet The purpose of this instructional activity is to have students monitor their individual growth in the civic virtue of giving. Have students keep a record of their civic giving as credits and debits. Each student will start with $10,000. The class will have decided on what is a credit and what is a debit. Each student will decide the value of his or her own entry. For example, students might think in terms of instances when they personally contributed their time, talent or treasure to advance the "common good" or when they performed a random act of kindness toward another person or thing or when they made a decision to follow the law. The aforementioned would be example of credits. Debits could be a time when a decision was made to break the law (could civil disobedience be a credit?) or when one laughed at an inappropriate joke or when one did not speak out against an injustice or did not take advantage of an opportunity to help someone or something in need. For each entry write a corresponding reflection in a journal. The "Civic Balance Sheet" might be formatted as follows:
Phase Two: Community Knowledge
Glass Half-Full or Half-Empty The purpose of this instructional activity is to prompt students to think about their community and realize that they have a point of view and that there are advantages to having a positive point of view. There are also disadvantages to having a negative point of view.
Demonstrate a half-filled glass of water. Ask the students to write a description of what they see and then discuss using a pair-share strategy. Hear, record and then discuss their ideas. "Is the glass half-full?" "How many agree?" "Is the glass half-empty?" "How many agree?" "What is a half-full glass (assets, strengths of individuals and community) filled with?" "How does looking first at strengths effect how we approach a project?" "What is a half-empty glass filled with?"
Neighborhood Scan The purpose of this instructional activity is to build on the asset-model view of community and individual and to create a talent pool that permits us to work together and find common ground. Have the students conduct an inventory of their neighborhood citing local institutions, citizen associations, clubs, informal social groups and talents of individuals. Use this information to paint a positive, resource-rich view of the neighborhood and as a way to match students to community resource...