Community involvement is essential for fostering smart, driven and successful students. Civic duty initiatives can also boost student morale, making school a more engaging environment.
“When we interact with our neighbors on issues that impact our lives, we experience a greater sense of connection to those we otherwise would not have met,“ Sandi Schwartz, founder of the Happy Science Mom blog, points out.
Community involvement also builds essential social, emotional and organizational skills that can help students succeed in the world today. Here’s how you can get elementary and middle school students flexing their civic duty muscles out in the world.
Getting younger students involved in their community starts with a foundational understanding of local, state and federal governments. When students understand the voting and lawmaking process, they’ll better realize their personal role in influencing local and global change.
Teaching community involvement to children is different now than it used to be, International Rescue Committee development director Ben Moskowitz explains. “Amid profound social, cultural, and technological transformations, we must change how we prepare kids for civic life.” Specifically, the role of technology has distanced us from the people around us. The more time we spend glued to our respective devices, the less time we have to engage with our communities and those in need.
Fortunately, service learning offers significant potential for helping reverse this trend. This is because service-based projects help students interact with community members while meeting essential curriculum requirements, Elizabeth Larson-Keagy, Ph.D. explains at The Journal for Civic Commitment. She adds that it’s important for students to fully explore what civic responsibility means and why it is important, so that they can fully embrace the concept of giving back before jumping into a project.
Identifying Community Needs
Teaching students how to develop questions is central to advancing community involvement. The National Council for the Social Studies writes that there are two main forms of questions that young children should learn: compelling and supporting.
Compelling questions focus on inquiries like “why do we have rules?” because they’re rooted in enduring lessons and concerns that remain relevant over time.
Supporting questions focus on defining and describing the processes behind the compelling questions. For example, a supporting question might follow a compelling question with an inquiry like, “what are some rules that families follow?” and “what are some classroom rules you’ve followed in the past?” to get students thinking critically.
Social studies teacher Brian Rock agrees about the importance of questions for framing conversations about civic duty. In particular, he suggests starting the year with three important questions about government: What is the purpose of government? What does the government owe us, and vice versa? What does it mean to be a good citizen?
These questions are a great launching pad for deeper, more insightful questions about what democracy means — and how students can influence changes in their communities. Rock’s PowerPoint is available to download for teachers interested in adopting this lesson model.
Lower elementary students who might need to supplement such discussions can also benefit from books and stories about how to take action regarding issues they care about. There are many books that highlight the benefits of citizenship and responsibility, and educational consultant Jodie Rodriguez shares an updated list that teachers are loving at the moment.
One book on this list is “A Castle of Viola Street,” which details the story of community volunteers rebuilding homes for their neighbors in need. “The Red Bicycle” highlights the importance of doing good. It follows a boy who donates his bicycle to someone else, showing the lasting benefits of this simple act.
Ideas for Community Engagement
Elementary students can benefit greatly from focusing on small, manageable community engagement tasks. Kyle Wagner, founder of the San Diego-based firm Transform Educational Consulting, suggests that young students work on projects to improve their schools.
Starting with a school issue or topic that involves students directly — and one that they have control over — can show them the direct results of their engagement efforts. Brainstorming issues at recess and lunch is a great place to start. School beautification projects, such as planting a garden, can also excite and inspire elementary learners.
Another manageable idea for connecting students to their community is to adopt a local organization. Students can choose a local group that they’d like to be involved with and then support them with simple acts and projects throughout the year, elementary school counselor Kerri Powers Pye says. If it’s a local hospital, your students might enjoy writing supportive letters to patients, creating a funny and inspiring joke book and visiting the organization at least once a year to spread fun and joy.
Similarly, students can host an event to raise money for an organization they care about. Car washes, garage sales and bake sales can be a great way to help students make a difference, Shama Davis at Scholastic writes. These events might start out small, but there’s no telling what kind of impact they’ll have if they gain traction — one event started by a single classroom could morph into an annual school-wide fundraiser over time. You don’t have to take on a massive project in order to improve the community around you and provide meaningful learning opportunities for students.
Murals and art projects are another way to beautify schools, communications expert Joseph Voelbel adds. He notes that the educational arm of the public art expansion project Beautify Earth focuses on making public and private schools in the United States more beautiful.
In addition to making schools aesthetically more pleasant, these projects can foster important civic duty skills like communication, cooperation and self-efficacy. Murals can easily be tied to educational themes as well, and many school paintings are inspired by authors, artists, civic leaders, musicians and other creative, inspiring people in history that boost student ambition.
Service Learning Field Trips
Field trips are one of the best ways to provide students with hands-on community service experience in their local surroundings. They help frame community projects and give in-classroom lessons more context, educator Bill Ivey says.
But what’s the best way to plan a meaningful field trip? Jumping on board with current events, such as charity walks, fundraisers and bike rides, is an easy way to instill the benefits of a field trip without excessive planning. Plus, repurposing another classroom’s idea or joining an existing event instead of creating your own can offer a less stressful approach to community involvement.
To see how other teachers are succeeding at community involvement field trips, consider this comprehensive list compiled by elementary teacher Erin Bittman. From bike-a-thons and math-a-thons to soap drives and growing herbs for local food banks, this list offers a range of ideas.
There are many factors that determine whether or not a field trip will be beneficial for you and your students. Depending on what your students are interested in and what’s going on in the community, for example, this can all vary greatly.
And once a project or service is decided upon, it’s important to incorporate it into your curriculum. This is because a trip really isn’t meaningful if it doesn’t align with current classroom teachings, educators Aruna Patel and Lee Schere write. Plus, teachers need to prepare for the trip beforehand, and facilitate meaningful learning experiences during the trip itself. It is also essential that the lessons learned during the experience are reflected upon and applied to student learning.