Experiential learning resources for the innovative educator
Spring is here, the weather is warming, and students are getting antsy. The school year is wrapping up. Teachers want to end the year with a bang, but we're also exhausted and don't know how much more we have in us! It's testing season, prom season, graduation season, grade report season! Ah! May is bonkers in the world of education.
What better way to go out with a bang AND cruise through the rest of the year than with community action projects (CAPs)? I did a post on this a while ago. Feel free to go back to that post for details. In summary, students choose a local or global issue, design an action plan, and take action. It's a great mix of project-based learning, problem-based learning, and service-learning. Community action projects are interesting, multidisciplinary, and mine are designed to be student-directed, which means there is little to no preparation on your part other than introducing and facilitating the project.
Here's how it works: Students choose an issue that they'd like to get involved in and do some research on the problem. After students have chosen and thoroughly investigated an issue, they brainstorm solutions, design an action plan, and act. Hosting an exhibition night to showcase projects is a nice way to wrap up the experience.
You could allow students to choose any issue of interest or keep it within parameters pertinent to goals or learning objectives for a class. For example, I have done an entire seminar called "community action projects" where that's all we did. I have also incorporated CAPs into specific courses such as a final project for my environmental science class. Students focused on issues pertinent to the environment such as water pollution. Check out this community action project designed specifically to the concept of pollution.
There are a couple important distinctions between this kind of project and any other school project. My community action projects follow the principles of project-based learning, so one of the most important distinctions is that these projects make an impact on the community, preferably long-term. Check out my post on the elements of project-based learning for more details. A student could create an elaborate awareness campaign with beautiful illustrations and a catchy slogan, but if their final product isn't shared or never reaches a relevant audience, then learners aren't reaching their full potential. The project wouldn't make a real impact if not shared with a meaningful audience and the student is robbed of deeper learning, particularly of opportunities to build important 21st-century skills such as networking, communication, collaboration, problem-solving, and citizenship. The purpose of a project like this is not to theorize solutions to hypothetical problems. It's to teach students how to be responsible and active citizens, to have the tools to fight injustices, or simply know how to solve real-world problems.
The following is a list of community action project ideas that could apply to most issues. Students can refer to this list when designing their action plans or you could choose an idea from the list to assign to the class. That would be the more teacher-guided approach vs. student-directed where students design their own projects. You choose!
***I have a community action project toolkit in my store that includes all guiding materials and templates needed for students to carry out projects on issues of their choice.
10 Community Action Project Ideas To Wrap Up the School Year
1. Awareness Campaign:
Students design a campaign that would educate the public on the issue. They could create posters, t-shirts, a video promotion, etc. They can get super creative with this one, and the options are endless, especially with social media and other technologies having come onto the scene.
2) Design and Make a Product:
The idea behind this one is that students design and make something that raises awareness and provides a tangible outcome. The product should be usable or sellable to raise money for the cause. One example would be starting a philanthropic business. The shoe company, TOMS, was founded on this idea. They observed that kids without shoes were developing health problems such as hookworm. TOMS business model then is one-for-one where they give a pair of shoes to someone in need for every pair they sell. Check out this free business plan organizer from my store. Another example would be taking an invasive species, like buckthorn here in MN, and using it as material for a product to sell such as a bracelet or waste basket. This action plan physically removes the problem and brings in money (selling the product at a school function, in boutiques, or on ETsy) to use toward a permanent, long term solution (ex: donating the funds to the DNR.) This is a great option for the makers of the world.
3) Innovative Strategy to Raise Awareness:
Imagine a student is interested in the issue of teen pregnancy. One way to raise awareness would be to create a brochure with some info and stats on the isse and pass it around town. Okay. That is technically raising awareness, but it's not a head turner. There is nothing creative, interesting or shocking about it. Brochures are overdone and overlooked. To truly make an impact, the student's audience needs to be intrigued.
For example, a student of mine did her community action project on teen pregnancy. Rather than a simple brochure, she created a website with information about teen pregnancy. She then assembled HUNDREDS of fortune-tellers (paper origami game). She put information about teen pregnancy on the fortune-tellers as well as a link to her website. Near the website link was instructions for entering a drawing for a prize. She then discretely dropped hundreds of these fortune tellers around the city - on city buses, in community center bathrooms, on the bleachers at school football games, etc. In order for a reader of the fortune teller to get their name in the drawing, they had to go to her website, find the contact page, and send her a note that included three facts that they learned from her website. There are several cool things going on here. One is that the fortune teller screams to be picked up. It would be odd to see a fortune teller sitting next to the soap dispenser in a public restroom.
4. Organize a school club or community organization:
I have had several students start and organize clubs for their community action projects. One group started an environmental science club. Enough with the science examples already! I'm a science teacher, what can I say? They created objectives and goals and organized club events related to their community action projects. They put together a community wide clean-up day where they walked the school neighborhood picking up trash. The club organizers invited speakers to come in and educate students on local environmental issues and give them tips on how they could help. I have a PBL project specific to starting a club, which includes templates helpful for getting one started.
5. Community Volunteer
One way to take action on an issue of importance is to give time to a cause. That often takes the shape of volunteering. Students find an organization relevant to the issue they've chosen for their project and give their time to that organization. Leaving it there would be a typical community service or volunteer experience. A community action project doesn't stop at giving a few hours of their time. Students also need to document their experience and share that experience with an audience that is meaningful or relevant to the issue.
One student was interested in trafficking. She connected with a shelter that took in trafficked survivors to help them get back on their feet. They asked her to organize a food and clothing drive for women in the shelter. In order to collect a substantial amount of food and clothing, this student needed to get the attention of the community. She invited some of the women from the shelter to speak at the school. She opened the event to all students and community members. The women's stories were powerful. More people were willing to donate food and clothing once they were aware of the issue. This wasn't a simple volunteer experience where clock hours logged and signed by a supervisor. This student not only gave her time to cause that she was passionate about, but she was able to raise awareness about the issue a the same time. Deep learning took place here. Volunteering has a been a popular action plan. Other projects have included a student helping dog shelters at adoption events. Another group of students observed elementary teachers needed help, so they connected with a local elementary school to come in and help, which included reading with kids.
6. Host a Fundraiser
Raising money is a great way to take action for a community action project. The outcome makes a direct and tangible impact. Several of my students organized a holiday pie fundraiser at the time when the Syrian refugee crisis was front and center. They not only learned about the Syrian conflict, but also how to organize an effective fundraiser. They had to learn which organizations were reputable and would get the money into the right hands. They learned how to make homemade pies and how to market their fundraiser. They had to figure out how to make a profit, not lose money! They knew pie ingredients could get expensive (particularly apples), so worked with local orchards to work out a reduced price. They created a survey to determine how much money people would pay for homemade pies so they could price them appropriately and effectively. See this free student-directed fundraiser organizer from my store.
7. Write Letters and Meet with Legislators
Advocating for legislation is a really powerful learning experience, not only because students make an impact on their community at the time, but they also develop the skills to continue to do so long after they've graduated. It's important for students to know their rights and how to advocate for themselves and their communities over the course of their lives. I had a student that was frustrated with the lack of job prospects for ex convicts. She wrote letters to her local legislators expressing her interest in the issue and invited them to come to the school to meet with her and talk about possible solutions. One of her legislators called her back, came to the school to meet with her, where they brainstormed solutions at the legislative level. Minnesota Association of Alternative Programs (MAAP) also organizes a statewide legislative day every year where students from all corners of Minnesota come to the state Capitol to discuss the importance of alternative education with their legislators.
8. Artistic Production
This is another way to raise awareness about a local issue. This idea here is that students create some kind of production such as a skit, play, documentary, music concert, etc. that raises awareness in an interesting way. They then bring the production to relevant audiences around the community or host an event. For example, a group of students doing a project on the issue of bike accidents might create a skit that demonstrates bike safety and perform that skit at local elementary schools or community clubs in the area.
This is when students organize a walk or demonstration to raise awareness or put pressure on politicians to act. Our students have participated in the Science March, March for Immigration, and the Women's March. They create original signage for the events. They document the experience via vogging, a documentary, photojournalism, blogging, etc. I have also had students organize walks, which is what the photo on the cover of my Community Action Project resource illustrates. Some students read a book for their book club called "Am I Blue?", which inspired them to organize a walk for gay rights. They recruited participants from the school and community.
10. Host a School Event
This is a fun one but might would take significant effort on your part. I have had students organize screenings of documentaries that are only available to educators. One specific example is the documentary "Sold", which is a movie version of the book "Sold", which I read with students for a women's studies seminar. I have also had students host environmental science fairs, fundraisers (carnivals, cook-offs, car washes, etc.) We have had students host a speaker series from community members relevant to the issue at hand. The list goes on. Let kids get creative!
There are many more options for action plans, but these are the most common with my students. This particular project is really powerful, inspiring, and is a great way to end the year, especially if you host an exhibition or presentation night to show off their final products. Good luck! I would love to hear of student projects and outcomes. Feel free to send me photos or comments to email@example.com. I'd love to feature them on my blog.
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To provide innovative educational resources for educators, parents, and students, that go beyond lecture and worksheets.
Sara Segar, experiential life-science educator and advisor, curriculum writer, and mother of two.