Addressing Hard History with Service Learning


The Educating for American Democracy Roadmap identifies five Design Challenges educators must grapple with in teaching civics and history. Jennifer Burdette, a social studies teacher at Spoon River Valley High School in western Illinois, used service learning to address design challenges one and four in her American History course, using inquiry for informed action on the essential question, “How can we address the legacy and impact of past injustice in our history?” to engage students in a unit of Native American history.

Jen 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 common good of Illinois. We asked Jen to share a bit more about her experience of teaching this hard history with the goal of helping our youngest citizens understand their role as civic participants, be appreciative of the founding, while also honest about past injustices. Here are her responses.

Can you give us a brief overview of this service learning endeavor?

Our service learning project was for a junior-level American history class. The students learned about the relationship between the United States government and Native Americans from the mid-1800s to modern day. After examining that relationship students were asked to reflect on the essential question “How can we address the legacy and impact of past injustice in our history?”. In pursuit of answering this question, students were asked to examine their own confirmation biases. Then, they worked in groups to create a list of what they considered to be injustices that exist in our society.

After creating the list, they had to discuss with their group and narrow down which items they truly felt were injustices. From their group lists, a master class list was created. The students then had a class discussion on which items they agreed with and if there were any they questioned or disagreed with. After the discussion, the class narrowed it down to three injustices to focus on and chose racism, discrimination, and government corruption. Students examined the issue that they felt was most important by completing an iceberg analysis activity. Students identified root causes of the issue, as well as how it is present and impacts society. After each group completed their analysis, students were given the opportunity to add their own thoughts by leaving sticky notes on the iceberg of any additions they would make. This also allowed students to see commonalities in the root causes of the issues. From there, students sought information from the public on how members of their school community viewed injustice. Many students believed that it was more of an issue elsewhere and that it wasn’t as present in our community.

The students designed the questions and then sent out a google form to all district staff and high school students. To inform next steps, students analyzed the data, and narrowed it down to a specific topic to focus on. Based on the data, students chose the issue of racism and the two sections ended up developing slightly different projects. The one class wanted to reflect more on their own personal biases and how they could better work to understand those of different backgrounds. The other class wanted to deepen their understanding of what racism was and hear others lived experience with racism. After the two projects were developed, I allowed students in both classes to pursue either project depending on what their personal interests were.

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

Through the analysis of government relations with Native Americans, students were able to see how modern day issues stem from our past and that understanding the historical context helps us better examine these issues. Students also strengthened their skills in the inquiry process and their ability to analyze diverse sources of information.

How did this project deepen students’ knowledge of themselves and their community? What sort of feedback did you receive?

From our community survey, students were able to see that the issue of injustice does exist locally and that it isn’t just an issue that exists in large communities. As part of the survey we had respondents reflect on both their personal experiences and the country as a whole. Some of the students were surprised by the fact that almost every issue we listed on our survey had students who said it was relevant to their personal lives.

One student during the injustice list creation commented on how it was hard to do this because he “didn’t think of the world like this”. Another student during her exploration of what is racism made the comment that she ‘didn’t realize making a comment like you speak good English was racist.’ She then made a connection to our learning in another class when a student made a comment that qualifies as a microaggression. She was able to express to the student that even though it appeared to be a compliment it actually wasn’t.

A parent also reached out to me in an email about how she appreciated the professional manner in which I speak to the students about this topic and how it allowed them to discuss the topic at home. As part of the discussion she had an opportunity to share what she had learned about racism with her family.

What comes next? What did students identify as future opportunities to address this essential question?

Although students in the two classes developed slightly different initial projects, both classes identified the goal of wanting to better understand people of diverse cultures. They recognized that they had limited interaction within their communities with people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds and that increasing their understanding of different backgrounds was a step toward fighting against the stereotypes that our society holds.

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

I know as a teacher one of my biggest concerns is “do I have enough time for something like this?” I won’t lie; it definitely took a time commitment both in planning and implementation in the classroom, however, seeing the students grow and reflect reminds me that it was time well spent. Don’t be afraid to set aside the time for informed action!

If you would like to learn more about the Educating for Democracy Roadmap, you can view our recent webinar providing an overview of this framework to enhance your current practice on the Webinar Archive. If you are interested in earning your microcredential in Informed Action through Service Learning, please visit the Guardians of Democracy website.

What are you doing to address the design challenges of teaching hard history? Please comment below. Together, we can prepare all students for college, career and civic life.