The Underground Railroad Starts a Journey with Service Learning


The Illinois Social Science standards provide a pathway for students to use rigorous historical inquiry to explore essential questions around justice to help students appreciate how individuals worked to create a “more perfect union” and their own rights and responsibilities in this constitutional republic.

Students at Glenn Westlake Middle School in Lombard embarked on this journey to understand their own role as “we the people” with the help of social studies teacher Dana Bering and instructional coach Annette Hanson. Students studied the pre-Civil War era with attention to the Underground Railroad and how Harriet Tubman took action in the face of injustice. Then, students brought this topic of inequality and injustice into the present by engaging in a virtual Town Hall meeting with Illinois State Representative Terra Costa Howard to explore how she serves her constituents and the community resources they could use to be upstanders in their community to address issues of concern.

Dana and Annette are two 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 them to share a bit more about their experience using the narrative of Harriet Tubman to help our youngest citizens understand their role as civic participants. Here are their responses.

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

Students explored the inequality of slavery, but even more importantly, how people took the risk to take action against the inequality. As students began to realize that Harriet Tubman’s actions could be similar to their own today, they became more engaged in the content.

Students met with Illinois State Representative Terra Costa Howard to learn more about how she serves the community and addresses community concerns. They learned that they can make a difference in their own community and that their ideas matter. They also learned that there are people and programs out there that will help them solve their concerns.

What comes next? What did students identify as future opportunities to address this issue in their world?

Students wanted to work together to create a continuous informed action club to address needs in their school or community. Representative Costa Howard offered to do a monthly chat addressing student concerns regarding community affairs and issues.

What lessons did students learn from this historical inquiry and interaction with their state representative? Can you share some of their reflections?

  • There are a lot of problems with the world, but there are a lot of solutions.
  • It brought awareness to me about problems like veteran homelessness and hunger in my community. I didn’t know they were that big of a problem until I heard about them.
  • That there are lots of important issues and there are a lot of good solutions that we can use to help.
  • I will try to be more conscious about my actions and try to fix anything I might be doing that might harm us or the environment.
  • I learned that there are many issues right around us that we can help solve and a little can go a long way.

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

I would tell them to go forth and give it a try, it links the curriculum to the real world and gives students real life experiences. Students realize they can make a difference.

My biggest advice is to not be afraid to try and release some control to the students! There will be bigger gains for the students in the end as they learn from the process not just the end product. Students need more choice and relevancy in their education. Just start small and work with a colleague!