Civic Engagement Starts Close to Home for Illinois Democracy School

Taking informed action through service learning results in increased civic knowledge as well as the development of skills and dispositions related to active citizenship. This proven practice helps to facilitate a deeper understanding of the roles and responsibilities necessary to contribute to the common good through student-centered experiential learning.

The Guardian of Democracy Report published in 2011 explains:

Service-learning helps to make education real, connecting academic skills and knowledge to issues that matter to young people. When students have opportunities to use the knowledge and skills they are acquiring in school to address meaningful issues in their community, the content of their learning becomes more relevant to their lives, and they better understand the importance of civic participation. (p.29).

The Pedagogy Companion to the Educating for American Democracy Report published in 2021 further explains the importance of constitutional democracy as content AND practice:

Classroom-based practices of constitutional democracy is a pedagogical approach that centers the student in the instructional activity and cultivates the daily habits of a learner and citizen. Such repeated, even daily processes allow students to master the content and concepts of American constitutional democracy by regularly engaging in its practice. When done well, direct engagement encourages student-teacher contact, student collaboration, and active learning and reflection (pg. 12)

Kelly Van Hout, a social studies teacher at Hinsdale South High School in Darien, Illinois, was one of 33 participants in the Fall 2021 Guardians of Democracy Microcredential program, hosted by the Illinois Civics Hub. Kelly earned her Gold badge in the use of Informed Action through Service Learning in the classroom. Part of her coursework had Kelly engage students to co-create, implement and reflect on an experiential learning plan to take real-world action on an issue important to the students. The students selected the issue of school parking for their plan of action, starting close to home to build and apply their civic knowledge, skills, and dispositions.

We asked Kelly, a member of the Illinois Democracy School Network, to share her experience facilitating this service learning experience for students. Here are her responses.

Briefly describe your service learning project. What essential questions guided your civic inquiry?

In my Civics classes this semester, we all had the same essential questions, “What is community?” and “What are the individual’s responsibilities to the community as well as the community’s responsibilities to the individual?” 

Through a lot of class discussions in each Civics class, I had three strong service learning projects. In my first-period class, they felt that their community lacked a sense of community involvement within the community of Darien. They are trying to get a Farmers Market brought to their town.  My class presented to the Mayor of Darien and now have been asked to present to the Darien City Council. In my second class, their idea was to get a security guard to help empty the student parking lot quicker, increase traffic flow and create a safer environment outside our school. They felt that when exiting the parking lot at the end of the school day it becomes extremely dangerous. They presented their project to the administration and they have agreed to make it a right turn only out of the student parking lot. The signs are coming soon! And my last class felt that students are reckless in the student parking lot. Driving way too fast and dangerous. This class created a project to propose to the administration to add speed limit signs throughout the parking lot and do a driving awareness campaign for a week to bring awareness to the problem. 

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

Service learning has deepened the students’ understanding of what civic engagement is and the steps to do. Throughout this process, students have also been taught how to create surveys, polls, and interview people to name a few. In addition, how to analyze data and what impact the data has on affecting the outcome. They also learned how to create and present a very professional presentation to valuable stakeholders in the school or the community. In addition, they also had to understand how the real world works with timelines and budgets. Students were broken up into groups and had to work together as a team to gather the information needed for their part of the project. This project hands down creates an environment where students within a class are held accountable for their part of the project. They truly have learned that students can have a voice and make change through civic engagement.

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

This project has created a deeper understanding of students’ ability to work as a team toward a common goal. The amount of communication and collaboration that took place during this project is indescribable. All of my classes have a sense of community within them that I have never had in 17 years of education. 

It has also challenged them to think about solutions to a problem and how to create change. It has given them the opportunity to lead within our classroom in a variety of roles. Students were able to work toward their strengths and let that shine through. It has given the students a sense of how their community is structured whether that be their school community or the community in which they live. 

What comes next? What did students identify as future opportunities to address these essential questions?

For students to be active members of the community when they leave this class in the next couple of weeks. For example, I had a student ask me how to see their percentage on their online grading program. She asked who she needed to see to try to make it so that when the students logged onto the program they would be able to see the percentage of their grade right when they entered instead of clicking around. The student then took the initiative to go speak to the Assistant Principal to try to make that change! Overall, the goal is for the students to become active members and care about the community around them.  Here are some reflections from staff and students about this service learning experience as well as a short video featuring the project.

  • Mrs. Van Hout’s service learning project prepares students to be responsible, active and engaged citizens.  It gives them a sense of collective responsibility, and agency as young people.  Students are able to apply research, communication, and problem-solving skills in a real-world setting to improve our community.

Kathy Lencioni – Hinsdale South Department Chair

  • The Service Learning Project provided the students with an opportunity to work collaboratively to identify problems within their community, complete research, collect data, and inform others of the need to implement solutions to the problems. They were able to learn the value of collaboration, problem-solving, and most importantly, the impact that they can have on their community. It was great for them to be able to experience firsthand their effect on the community.

  Michael Gross– Hinsdale South Co-teacher

  • The value-added in my eyes was the entire class finding out ways to work together as a whole. Not only that, we did this project and now something might actually change because of it. 

Hinsdale South Student

  • The project gives a sense of community to the classroom, like a colony of ants all working together to achieve the same goal. 

Hinsdale South Student

  • This service learning project has not only allowed me to connect with my classmates, but it has also allowed me to meet and connect with other citizens of the Darien community. Knowing that the goal of this project will benefit not only me, but the town is super surreal and allows students like me to realize that we have a voice in this community. Overall, this project makes you learn that, with a little hard work, you have the power to make a change!

Hinsdale South Student

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

One piece of advice that I would give to teachers thinking about opportunities for engaging their students in service learning is to take the Informed Action through Service Learning Class through the Guardians of Democracy. This class really helped prepare me for the entire project with the activities and lessons that you do and create as the “student.” This class allowed me to create actual lessons that I use in my classroom and it really helped me get the project going. In addition, the feedback from the instructors with resources they have used or different ideas is extremely valuable and helpful. However, I can tell you that this project has been one of my favorite projects and the most fulfilling things I have ever done with my students in 17 years of education. 

If you are interested in participating in the Guardians of Democracy Microcredential Program, registration is now open for the winter cohorts. For more information, including course syllabi, visit