5th Graders Use Service Learning to Advocate Personal Responsibility for Public Spaces

What responsibility do we have to our shared ownership of our public spaces?  Matthew Wdowiarz, a 5th Grade teacher at Winfield Elementary School led his students in an inquiry that wove together social studies, language arts and science to take informed action through service learning. This past week, Matthew’s students returned to school during their summer break to meet with the school board to share their findings and make recommendations to enhance their school.

Matthew is one of 26 educators participating in the Guardians of Democracy Microcredential Program with Volunteer Generation Fund support from Serve Illinois to facilitate service learning opportunities for classrooms to work together for the good of their community. We asked Matthew to share a bit more about his experience of using interdisciplinary inquiry to take informed action to develop the civic knowledge, skills and dispositions of our youngest citizens. Here are his responses.


How did you start this project?

Setting my students off on the service learning project, I wasn’t sure where exactly the students would head. I knew our essential, driving question: “What is our personal responsibility to shared ownership of public spaces?” But from that point, I wasn’t sure how they were going to drive the bus. I only knew that I was going to occasionally redirect them back to the road they chose.


How did this activity deepen students’ disciplinary content knowledge and/or meet learning targets?

This project essentially asked them to take all of the skills they learned in Argument and Expository writing, and couple that knowledge with their skills in presentation software and technology. The project they ended up choosing also asked them to think about their science curriculum, never mind all the skills we worked on in civics!


How did this project deepen students’ knowledge of themselves and their community?

One of the students’ biggest moments of clarity was looking over the survey data they collected. It did not take much buy-in to throw ideas out onto a piece of paper, but when they looked at the data from a fairly large swath of stakeholders, their sense of direction and drive became pronounced. That was really neat.


What was the end result of this project?

My students presented  their project to our school board. They were excited to show their presentation video! The superintendent approved their idea of putting some trees and bushes along the back line of the field that gets a lot of flooding at Winfield Central School for up to $5,000 of investment. He didn’t outright approve their plan, but said he’d like to meet with them on a special committee in the fall, in order to get their idea planted in the spring of 2022. 


What advice would you give teachers thinking about opportunities for engaging their students in service learning?

Speaking to more custodial aspects of teaching, what worked best for my class was making it a point to work on our project several times per week. With my fifth graders, regularly scheduled project sessions kept my students focused and engaged. 


Speaking to the philosophical side of teaching, there’s certainly a necessity for a different mentality in your teaching. You’re going to trade in comfort  and a sense of security for student trust and class culture, as well as  all of the academic and real-world problem solving skills learned. It’s powerful. Your students are going to surprise both you and themselves with what they are able to understand and achieve. And the group-cohesion they experience will stick with them for years to come.

Would you like to learn more about the proven practice of service learning? Consider joining our webinar on Equipping Students to Take the L.E.A.D.with Service Learning on August 10th at 9:30 a.m. CT or, for deeper learning, join our Guardians of Democracy Microcredential course on Informed Action Through Service Learning this July. Details for both professional development opportunities are linked to our Illinois Civics Hub calendar.