Again, I start a blog post with a reminder of how the world is changing. We are neck deep in a pandemic that doesn't seem to be getting better in any way; a very powerful racial justice movement is in place, and change feels hopeful and possible because of the tireless effort from the citizens - from the people.
I have been so impressed by the actions of not only the people, but of young people. Kids, from kindergarten age to high school graduation, have the capacity to do so much good in the communities that they are a part of, whether that be on a grand scale or simply advocating for a crosswalk to get put in near a local playground.
When I was teaching high schoolers, I included community action projects in every facet of my teaching. A community action project is a form of project-based learning where students identify issues in the community, research the issues, brainstorm solutions, develop an action plan, and take action. Community action projects deepen learning AND build essential 21st-century skills by engaging students in the community and investing their time and energy into relevant community issues.
My own children and I recently did a community action project together that involved a supplies drive for a local animal shelter during Covid shutdowns. This project was entirely based off of my children's interests, but I had a big hand in organizing and coordinating the experience because my children are 3 and 6 years old. A high schooler could do the same project, but they would lead the entire experience themselves.
I have specific community action projects in my TPT store that focus on specific themes, such a mental health. I also have a community action tool kit that offers an unlimited number of open-ended, self-directed community action projects for high school students. This tool kit includes all of the guiding materials and templates that follow the community action project steps below.
Community Action Project Steps
1. Brainstorm/Identify Community Issues:
This is arguably the most important step of a community action project. This is where students find their interests, make observations about their communities, and decide on a general direction to take with their project. My tool kit includes a variety of brainstorming activities to guide students through this process.
My own children decided to focus their attention on Covid era animal shelters, which was inspired by a stray cat that had been frequenting our yard. My son wanted to keep it, my husband is allergic, and frankly, I don't want a cat. So we researched ways to make an outdoor cat house to protect it from storms and predators, and in doing so, came across a plea for supplies from our local animal shelter. This series of observations lead to our project focus.
2. Research the Issue:
Once students have settled on a community issue that they would like to tackle, they research the issue more thoroughly. The purpose of this step is so they can make informed action plans.
My children and I researched the details of the problem (lack of supplies for shelter animals during the Covid) and exactly which shelter supplies were needed. We discovered that many of the supplies could be hand-made, such as cat toys and blankets.
3. Explore Solutions and Write an Action Plan:
There are many ways that young people can take action. I have another blog post titled "Four Ways Students Can Take Action Today". Check that out for specifics. But this step basically includes brainstorming effective solutions that students can be a part of.
My children and I decided that the best way we could get involved would be to organize a supplies drive for the shelter, which included a neighborhood crafting project.
4. Take Action:
At this point students carry out their action plans. My children created their own fliers using Canva (with my assistance) and passed them around the neighborhood asking for shelter supply donations. We wrote a post on our block Facebook page asking for donations. We made a bin with a sign listing all of the supplies needed, and placed it on our stairs outside for people to make drop-offs. We also organized a cat toy making craft "party". By party, I mean supplying neighborhood kids with materials to make cat toys, having them make them at their own homes, and dropping them off in our donations bin.
We did all of this during the Covid stay-at-home order. This is an example of creative and authentic distance learning. My community action project tool kit includes a digital option to be used with Google Apps so that these projects can be done anywhere.
My entire teaching career was at one school, and the philosophy is strongly rooted in "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, some guidance, and a little confidence.
I designed a project that gives students the tools, skills, and knowledge that they need for a lifetime of community work and activism. Check out Community Action Projects at Experiential Learning Depot. My community action projects are entirely student-led. They are a cool mix of project-based learning, problem-based learning, and service-learning. Students identify important issues in the local and global community, explore solutions, create action plans, and take action. These types of projects teach many important social-emotional skills such as empathy and self-reliance. They help students develop essential life and career skills such as collaboration 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.
You can take a look at my Community Action Project Tool Kit for all of the guiding materials needed for student-led CAP, or you can choose from some themed community action projects in my store such as Mental Health, Women's Issues, and Nutrition. Good luck!
Student-Led Service Learning Projects for Secondary Students
There are many ways students can take action in the community today! Here are four such ways:
1) Giving Time/Volunteering/Community Service:
Giving time is one way students can be active in the community. Students can organize a community involvement club, have a weekly community clean-up days, regular visits to a food shelf, take on a role at a relevant established organization, and so on. Inspire students to identify community issues that matter to them, and to 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 to discuss a bill that would help ex-convicts get jobs, an important and personal issue to this particular student. That legislator traveled a long distance to come and meet with my 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. Encourage your students to utilize these 21st C. communication skills to their benefit and the benefit of the community. If social media is not an option, challenge students to spread awareness far and wide without it.
There are so many ways students can be active members of their communities. 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.
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?
Follow Experiential Learning Depot on Pinterest, Instagram, and Facebook for more on experiential education, and check out my TpT store for experiential learning resources.
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.
Thanks for stopping by! Follow Experiential Learning Depot on Pinterest, Instagram, and Facebook for more on experiential education. Check out student-directed curriculum in my TpT store, Experiential Learning Depot.
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.