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  Workshop 6: Civic Engagement  
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Service Learning in the Social Studies
prepared by the Constitutional Rights Foundation

The approach to service learning in the social studies explained here is based on the work of the Close Up Foundation and the Constitutional Rights Foundation in Los Angeles in developing Active Citizenship Today (ACT). ACT is a unique social studies service learning program because it includes the analysis of public policy as a crucial step in the service learning process.

Although service learning is often defined as "learning by doing," it is actually much more. In a good service learning program, students learn by doing something real that needs to be done. There is a true connection between the classroom and what is happening in the community. Students develop a deeper sense of caring about others, as well as the ability to put their caring into practice.

[Although] many of the materials in this publication have been adapted from ACT, the overall framework focuses on ACT's five fundamental steps.

A Working Definition
Service learning, as defined by the Alliance for Service Learning in Education Reform Standards Committee, is a method by which young people learn and develop through active participation in thoughtfully organized service experiences that:

  • meet actual community needs;
  • are coordinated in collaboration with the school and community;
  • are integrated into each young person's academic curriculum;
  • provide structured time for a young person to think, talk, and write about what he/she did and saw during the actual service activity;
  • provide young people with opportunities to use newly acquired academic skills and knowledge in real-life situations in their own communities;
  • enhance what is taught in the school by extending student learning beyond the classroom; and
  • help to foster the development of a sense of caring for others.

How Service Learning Fits With the Social Studies
[Whereas] service learning can fit into many subject areas at nearly any grade level, social studies teachers have come to value the powerful connection between service learning and the goals of social studies. In an effective service learning program, what students know, what they are able to do, and what they value intertwine with the goals of social studies education.

The core of the social studies is the goal of helping students develop into effective citizens. To contribute to a democratic society, people must be able to deliberate with one another about the nature of the public good and how to achieve it, and take an active role in shaping a better society.

Service learning provides students opportunities to develop and practice the skills needed to create positive change. Whether through advancing a position on a public policy issue, volunteering in a direct service program, or forging coalitions to solve a problem, effective citizens are "doers." Just as effective science education involves lab work, service learning can be a laboratory for civic education. [It gives] students structured opportunities to make decisions in the real world.

The Service Learning Steps--Using the ACT Approach
[Although] no two teachers will--or should--infuse service learning into their curriculum in exactly the same way, the steps of the ACT approach provide a framework for each teacher's creative implementation. In this model, students study the strengths and needs of their community, select and study a specific problem, analyze a public policy issue related to the problem, and conclude by conducting a service project and evaluating it.

STEP 1: Students define and focus on their community.
Students begin by defining "community" for the purpose of their project. Typically, they complete a "draw your community" lesson. The geographic area must be of a manageable size so that students can have an impact. They then identify the resources, strengths, and weaknesses in their community. At the close of Step 1, students brainstorm a list of community problems.

STEP 2: Students research community problems, select one, and research it more fully.
In this step, students research the problems they brainstormed. Research might involve interviewing political, community, or business leaders; creating and conducting community surveys; or attending meetings of governing bodies. Students then narrow the list of problems and select one. They conduct further research focusing on the questions, "What are the causes of the problem?" and "What are the effects of the problem?"

STEP 3: Students analyze and evaluate public policies related to the problem.
Public policies are made by citizens and/or their representatives in matters that concern the community. In this model, public policy is defined as a plan of action designed to solve a problem or achieve a goal. Students consider the existing and proposed policies to address the problem.

STEP 4: Students design and implement a service project to address the problem.
Using knowledge gleaned from research and analysis, students develop and implement a project to address the chosen problem. Projects take many forms, from raising community awareness to working in a community agency or collaborating with local government.

STEP 5: Students reflect upon and evaluate the process.
Throughout the service learning process, students are encouraged to reflect on and evaluate what they are learning. Activities structured around the questions, "How did the project help the community?" and "What did I learn from this experience?" promote academic, social, and emotional growth.

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