Civics Education Resource Site

Curriculum Design Toolkit: Service Learning

Informed action through service learning allows students to apply academic learning to real-world problems that are important to them. Service learning differs from community service or volunteerism in that the action is informed by the curriculum.

Components of high-quality service learning

At its best, high-quality service learning facilitates students to take the L.E.A.D.

  • Learning: The classroom provides equitable opportunities for ALL students to address essential and supporting questions related to issues in the community through academic content and skills.
  • Explore and Engage: Students extend their academic learning by developing and exploring their questions about what is true in their community and engage with others to gather information and understand diverse perspectives. Students explore and deliberate various options for actions based on this inquiry.
  • Authentic Action: Students take authentic action that has a real-world impact, using what they learned in both the classroom and their exploration and engagement.
  • Digest and Demonstrate: Students digest their experience and reflect on the impact of their informed action through service learning on both themselves and their community. Students demonstrate how informed action through service learning is related to academic outcomes.

Qualities of Classroom Learning to Inform Action

The best foundation for a successful informed action experience is quality teaching. Classroom pedagogy that gives ALL students equal access to proven practices of civic education like service learning can bridge the civic opportunity gap and have a profound impact on academic and social-emotional learning.

Quality classroom learning has students:

  • Identify the essential and supporting questions related to service learning.
  • Understand the learning objectives (disciplinary content and/or skill) to be employed in the informed action through service learning.
  • Analyze appropriate materials to acquire the background information necessary to take informed action through service learning.
  • Practice the pertinent civic dispositions and processes inherent in the informed action.

The learning needed to ground students to take the L.E.A.D. with informed action is not one size fits all. Other proven practices of civic education embedded in the middle school and high school civic course requirements can all be used to help students garner and practice the knowledge, skills, and dispositions that ground service learning. Please visit our resource pages for direct instruction on democratic institutions, current and societal issue discussions, and simulations of democratic processes for resources to ground students in rigorous and relevant learning to propel informed action through service learning.

Engage and Explore. "What is True for Me and My Community?"

After students have participated in classroom learning, They are ready to explore what is true about their own community. Students will also reflect inwardly on their own lived experiences to make connections between classroom learning and their own identity and agency. For educators who teach in communities with different racial, ethnic, or socioeconomic backgrounds than their own, this is an important element of culturally sustainable pedagogy.

The components of Explore and Engage include students:

  • Engage with others to collect information and explore the multiple needs, motivations, and perspectives of the community, including themselves.
  • Explore possible informed actions and employ democratic processes to evaluate appropriate actions.
  • Engage appropriate allies to build coalitions necessary in the informed action.
  • Explore and anticipate challenges to the informed action and prepare possible responses.

There is a wide variety of tools students can use to engage with multiple stakeholders in order to explore diverse viewpoints and gather data within the community.

Engage with Community and Collect Information

Explore Possible Informed Actions Through Service Learning

Exploring Options, Allies, and Challenges

Resources to Support Authentic Action

The practice of democracy is not passed down through our gene pool. It must be taught and learned anew by each generation of citizens.

Justice Sandra Day O’Connor

Just as knowledge of the Rules of the Road does not prepare a person to operate a motor vehicle; the ability to pass a test on civic knowledge does not prepare an individual for civic life. One needs to “get behind the wheel” and practice the knowledge, skills, and dispositions of civic efficacy. Service learning allows students to take the wheel and engage in authentic action in a safe environment with teachers servings as a “GPS” to help students:

  • Use systemic supports to take informed action.
  • Follow appropriate norms of participation throughout the informed action.
  • Employ appropriate means of communication to engage others in the informed action (oral, digital, written, visual, other).

Resources for Facilitating Authentic Action

  • The Election and Voting Toolkit has resources to help students take informed action around suffrage.
  • The Media Literacy Toolkit has a plethora of resources to help students leverage technology to be producers on information to advocate and inform others.
  • Register for the Civic Action Project facilitated by the Constitutional Rights Foundation. This resource is unique in that it not only connects teachers but also students engaging in service learning projects.
  • Educating for Democracy Deep Dive, the Teaching Channel and CERG have curated a collection of videos, blogs, educational resources, and relevant research to support educators in and out of schools in preparing youth to participate fully and thoughtfully in civic and political life in the digital age.
  • Empowering Youth for Positive Change program from the Center for Prevention Research and Development has both rubrics and checklists for informed actions related to local public policy projects.
  • generationOn provides an overview of service learning and resources for each stage of implementation.
  • Join the Generator School Network hosted by the National Youth Leadership Council to access free professional development, curriculum and a network of teachers ready to support your work. Topics such as assessment, management and inspiration for service learning projects are addressed.
  • The Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center has a Take a Stand exhibit and online toolkit for classroom use.
  • Mikva Challenge has online resources to help scaffold successful action civics projects. Sign up for their educator network to access information for training and opportunities for students in your region.
  • Become part of a network of practitioners committed to student-centered, project-based, high-quality civic education. Join the National Action Civics Collaborative. There is a toolbox of resources to help guide best practices.
  • National Geographic Geo-Inquiry uses using a geographic perspective to have students begin to connect complex components, see patterns, and make connections that change their communities.
  • Our American Voice connects middle-school students to the democratic process through active community problem-solving in a program that is engaging, interactive, and grounded in real life.
  • Center for Civic Education's Project Citizen has both a middle school and high school program for service learning.
  • StoryCorps gives people of all backgrounds, typically two at a time, the opportunity to record meaningful conversations and archives the recordings at the Library of Congress.
  • is an international organization that that has toolkits for K-12 classrooms to engage in service learning around topics such as clean water, literacy, cyberbullying and other issues.

Resources to Help Students Digest and Demonstrate Learning

Service Learning is a process, not a product. After students have taken authentic action, the endeavor is not over. Educators must provide opportunities to help students digest what they learned about themselves, others, institutions of power and demonstrate how this aligns with learning outcomes. These activities should allow students to:

  • Articulate how the informed action experience relates to the learning objectives, both skill, and content.
  • Identify areas of personal improvement for future actions.
  • Use the informed action experience to identify areas of future systemic change with democratic institutions and processes explored.
  • Extend learning by creating additional essential and supporting questions to extend the inquiry and inform future action.

Reflection Strategies

Visible Thinking:

Formative Assessment Ideas to Assess Student Growth

Engaging Student Voice in Creating Questions for Further Inquiry

Ideas for Service Learning During a Pandemic published a blog, What Kind of Citizen During a Pandemic? that provides examples of how students can engage in service learning from remote and hybrid spaces.