A couple weeks ago I took my two young children to the zoo. On our way home my four-year-old said "did you know that jellyfish can grow their bodies back when they get chopped up?" In other words, they can regenerate when, say, they have a close call with a sea turtle. My son learned this from chattin' it up with a zoo volunteer. He practiced communication skills, asked questions, took a social risk, and gathered information from an expert on a topic of interest.
I often talk about project-based learning on this blog because it's what I know and use in teaching. An overarching theme of project-based learning is community, from generating projects ideas to the final assessment. Students use community experts to gather information on their project topics, create innovative final products that impact the community, and present their projects to an authentic audience, one that is relevant and often public. All of the PBL components just mentioned involve the community in some way or another.
Before I get into any details on specific ways to use the community as a resource in project-based learning, let's first talk about why you would do this in the first place? Sounds like a lot of work, an extra task or thing to organize, or time away from teaching content. It can be an extra task if you let it. But you could also put some of the responsibility on your students. They can certainly and should be tracking down their own community experts and authentic audience. Community experts also deliver much of the content you would have to otherwise. It also doesn't mean you have to leave the building. As an experiential learning educator I strongly advocate for doing so, but that is not an option for everyone. If it's not an option in your situation, then bring the community to you! And your students can do the same. I'll get to some options soon, but first, why bother to use the community as a resource?
Benefits of Utilizing the Community in Project-Based Learning:
1) Development of 21st-century Skills - students learn a variety of important life skills such as resourcefulness, communication, and collaboration.
2) Real-world application of content - students make meaningful connections when they can see and experience concepts first-hand. For example, shadowing a genetics counselor would allow students to experience genetics concepts in the context of real-life.
3) Building a professional and personal network - students develop a hefty network that could lead to future references, job offers, lifelong mentorships and even friendships.
4) Strengthening the community - community collaboration puts students in a position to actively work at breaking down walls between students and community members that may have developed due to misunderstandings or stereotypes. There is so much to be learned from others, and not just from their expertise, but from their stories.
5) Access to resources you may not be able to offer - I took a graduate class with the biotechnology department at the University of Minnesota several years ago. They offer up their equipment to educators and their students, which I have taken advantage of many times. There have been a variety of scenarios where my students have needed a resource that our school couldn't provide, from actual materials to expertise or skill.
How to Use the Community as a Resource in Project-Based Learning:
The following are ideas or ways that I have personally used or have seen coworkers use the community as an element of learning experiences. You do not have to be doing project-based learning to include community resources in your curriculum. Use some of the suggestions below and adapt them in a way that works for you and your learners.
These are only a few options of many. When planning community involvement in your curriculum, consider the topic of study. Take constraints such as time, your own skills, equipment and space into account. Think about your needs and how a community member might be able to fill that role or provide that resource. It may seem like an additional task to an already demanding load. But if you plan well and put some of the responsibility on your students, it may actually feel like you're saving time, and the end result is worth it. The benefits are worth it.
What are some ways you currently use the community your curriculum? I would love to hear more examples. If you don't currently, what is keeping you? What obstacles do you face and how could you work around them or work through them?
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Student Climate Strike
Students from around the world skipped class today to raise awareness and push legislators to make moves on climate change. I was able to pop over to the Minnesota State Capitol Building and watch the students in action. I was drawn by two issues that are important to me; climate change and education. The energy exuded by students and bystanders was contagious. I was both inspired and in awe by this student-led movement.
I wrote a blog post on student activism a while back called "Four Ways Students Can Take Action." The gist of the post is that students can have a voice. Students can make massive waves of change. The four ways that students can take action mentioned in the blog post includes: 1) raising awareness, 2) advocating for legislation, 3) raising money, and 4) giving time. The climate strike is a small piece of a much greater movement, but the strike alone has been wildly successful in raising awareness.
This current climate change movement, initiated and led by students, is gaining global attention. Why? In my opinion, it is because young people are the ones making the demands. And they have that right. Students at the capitol building today spanned every race, socioeconomic class, gender, religion, sexual orientation, and background. They came from all walks of life, yet were brought together today to work toward a shared goal; to secure their future and the future of those that will come after them. I don't know if the message would be as strong if a bunch of middle-aged folks like myself stomped up the steps of the capitol building waving around posters. Young people not only have the passion and the energy, they also have the tools and skills to spread the word to mass audiences at a rapid rate simply because they are growing up in the 21st-century.
Rondo: Beyond the Pavement
I recently had the opportunity to go back to my school, Jennings, to view a one-time screening of a documentary created by a group of High School for Recording Arts students. The project was entirely student-directed. The film, called Rondo: Beyond the Pavement, is about the Rondo community in St.Paul that was leveled and fragmented to make room for highway 94 decades ago. The hours and hours of research conducted by the students, rifling through thousands of documents, revealed that there were other route options that would have kept the neighborhood of Rondo in tact. They discovered in their research that the displacement of marginalized communities for the sake of development has happened to 1200 neighborhoods across America, leaving community level trauma in their wake.
What these students did was take an issue close to home, close to their community, relevant to the future, and they spread the word. Their film will be shown at six film festivals across the nation this year, possibly more. Their message is to learn from history, from people's stories, and not to sit back while others determine their fate. This student project is another great example of students taking action by raising awareness.
I have a resource in my TpT store called "Community Action Projects", which is a student-led PBL project where students take action on something important to them in the community. It doesn't have to be creating a global movement. It could be as simple as getting a crosswalk put into an area with a lot of pedestrians. The idea is to get kids involved and invested in their communities. To be responsible and educated citizens. It doesn't have to be political and it should not be teacher led. It has to be personal to the student and relevant to their lives.
I used to teach a climate change seminar before I decided to stay home with my own children. I have a lot of climate change resources to put in my store, but need to get them organized. That will take some time. I will probably have to take the summer to get it all on there, but keep an eye out for single resources here and there. It will likely be a mix of inquiry labs, project-based learning, and problem-based learning, and will be scientific in nature.
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Student Activism with Community Action Projects
My entire teaching career was at one school, Jennings Community School. The philosophy is written right there in the name. Wayne Jennings started the school with "community" as the foundation for learning. In nine years teaching there I developed a deep appreciation for student involvement in the community.
Students have the capacity to make massive waves of change because they are young, technologically savvy, and many injustices happening in the world today are happening to them, impacting them directly. What they need from us are the tools, skills, and knowledge to have their voices heard. They have opinions, they have ideas. They just need a nudge and some guidance.
I designed a project that gives students the tools, skills and knowledge they need for a lifetime of community activism. Check out Community Action Projects at Experiential Learning Depot. Community Action Projects teach many important social-emotional skills such as empathy and self-reliance. They help students develop essential life and career skills such as networking and responsible citizenship. Most importantly, action in the community gives students the tools to make a positive impact long after they have completed the project, finished the class, or graduated from school.
There are many ways students can take action in the community! Here are four such ways:
1) Giving Time/Volunteering/Community Service:
Service learning is one way students can be active in the community. Encourage students to give thanks this holiday season by giving back! Help them organize a community involvement club, have a weekly community clean-up day, regular visits to a food shelf and so on. Inspire students to identify community issues that matter to them, and give their time to that cause.
Students love fundraising! Encourage them to direct that spirit toward a cause that is meaningful or relevant in their lives. Many people don't have the means to donate money from their own pockets, especially students. They can plan and host a fundraiser for a specific cause and donate money to a worthy cause that way.
3) Advocating for Legislation:
This is a really important learning experience for students to have in my opinion. In many cases it is the most effective course of action one could take. The Minnesota Association of Alternative Programs (MAAP) coordinates an annual "Legislative Day", where students from across the state come to the capital to speak with their legislators. This is a powerful way for students to be heard. This type of action also teaches students important citizenship concepts, among other things. I had a student who personally contacted her legislator, who traveled all the way to Jennings to meet with this student. They met one-on-one to discuss a bill that would help ex-convicts get jobs, an important and personal issue to this particular student.
4) Education/Raising Awareness:
Education is the most effective course of action in making long-term change. Say what you will about social media, but in this case it is a huge ally. Information travels fast, far and wide when shared on social media platforms. Students are especially competent with technology. A simple awareness campaign poster posted on social media will reach more people in 5 minutes than a flier would in weeks, for example. Encourage your students to utilize these 21st C. communication skills to their benefit and the benefit of the community.
There are so many ways students can be active members of their communities. They don't even have to get radical if you're not up for that. What seems like a small and simple gesture may not be small and simple for some. I had a student who wanted to get a crosswalk put into a high traffic area near the school. Getting a crosswalk put in may not bring world peace, but it's something, and an important something to that student and her community.
Change the world one project at a time! Have a great school week everyone.
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.