Illinois Democracy School Celebrates Veterans Day with Service Learning

Many of us in the Illinois Civics Hub have been promoting service learning projects to meet state standards and involve our students in learning civic skills for several years. But sometimes, those projects grow organically to fill a need within the school.

In 2009, Mendota High School chose to adjust the school calendar to be in session on Veterans Day and teach students about the meaning of the day rather than leave it as another day many students considered a holiday but gave little meaning.

That year, as the social studies department chair, I helped the school administration organize and deliver a Veterans Day ceremony that would be delivered to all high school students. In addition, we bussed the junior high students in for the program and opened the event to the public. Our program included the local VFW, the school’s Madrigal singers performing the National Anthem, the school band performing patriotic music, and several community speakers on the importance of Veterans Day. While our ideas came from good intentions, we did not deliver the program we wanted. Essentially, we had too many variables out of our control to deliver the quality program we wanted. We attempted to adjust the program over the next couple of years, delivering programs that met our needs but still lacked when it came to leaving a lasting message.

In 2012, I had an idea; I wanted to deliver a program that made an impression on our students. I wanted to deliver a program that got people in the community talking. With tremendous support from my school administration, including helping me make local contacts that I did not have, I found five families who were willing to meet with my Honors US History class and the Honors American Literature class and tell the stories of family members they lost at war. Our stories covered World War II, Korea, Vietnam, and Afghanistan. The school administration allowed me to organize mini-field trips to visit these families in their homes and conduct the interviews that would become the focus of a new approach to our Veterans Day assembly—student research, writing, and delivery. It was successful, and I realized it was service learning years later.

We had such a successful assembly in 2012 that I knew the expectation was there to keep it going. With whichever of my colleagues was teaching Honors American Literature, we’ve organized the assembly ever since. We’ve had tremendous support from the school band, choir, and several other classes, including an art project with 100 students painting a mosaic unveiled at our 2019 assembly. All of these programs were researched and written by students, including my daughters completing the projects with me when they were high school students, and all of the assemblies were rewarding in their ways. But I do not think any of them epitomized student voice the way the program we have prepared for 2022 does.

We lacked an idea for our Veterans Day program this year; to be honest, as teachers, we had run out of ideas. We interviewed everyone we knew to interview. We covered various topics, including family members lost at war, the women left behind when soldiers left for war, the history and meaning of the 21-gun salute, USO shows, the history of patriotic music, the story of the red poppy, and so many others. We needed an idea. That is when I turned to the skills I learned as an Illinois Civics Mentor and Instructional Coach—I used student voice and inquiry to guide learning.

The students selected the topic of veterans’ mental health and created a podcast; a pair of teachers had just launched a school podcast, Trojan Town News, a few weeks earlier. This project was student-initiated and student-developed from its inception to its final execution. The students interviewed two veterans, one who regularly donates to organizations supporting veterans and their mental health and one who works for the Veterans Benefits Administration. The students wrote and recorded a 12-minute podcast and a lesson plan for every teacher to deliver during the school’s 30-minute intervention period on November 11. They wrote and delivered morning announcements to describe the event to their peers, visited every teacher to request their cooperation, and organized a mass email to the entire student body with the links necessary to write letters to veterans in honor of Veterans Day. They even designed the artwork accompanying their podcast link on Spotify and the school website. In the days leading up to November 11, the students sent emails to teachers with the podcast link and other activity files students could complete during the period.

When I started promoting civic instruction across the state, service learning was the single topic I considered the most confusing. Little did I know then that I had already embraced the strategy. Service learning and civic action can take a variety of forms. What started as filling a need for the school years ago has grown into a project my students own in every way. I would not have considered mental health a topic for a schoolwide presentation. I would not have considered developing a podcast that is now capable of reaching an audience much greater than the people in our building. More than anything, in this case, I was a project manager keeping everyone working toward the common goal and making sure we met a deadline. The project is impressive—an example of what can happen when student inquiry and the opportunity for action meet.