Learning and Teaching about Service Learning: A Model Project about Freedom Seekers

Learning and Teaching about Service Learning: A Model Project about Freedom Seekers

Dana Faye Serure and Michael Broccolo

The College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies State Standards advocate civic engagement in which students take informed action as “both a means of learning and applying social studies knowledge” in order to prepare for civic life living in a democracy (National Council for the Social Studies, 2013, p. 59). Civic engagement is also an aspirational learning goal of the New York State K-12 Social Studies Framework (2015). That said, preparing pre-service social studies teachers who are equipped with teaching civic engagement can be challenging especially in our current times with increased political polarization (Hess & McAvoy, 2014), fakenews vs. fact-checkers (Breakstone, McGrew, Smith, Ortega, & Wineburg, 2018; Journell, 2021; McGrew, 2020), and the continued social studies wars – recently evident by President Trump’s “1776 Commission” and The New York Times “1619 Project” debate (Davis, 2020; Evans, 2004; Evans & Passe, 2007; Kendi, 2016).

This manuscript details the process of pre-service secondary social studies education candidates learning “how to teach” as well as learning “how to teach service learning” during a required course project. In addition, pre-service teachers examined social justice from the perspective of Learning for Justice (formerly Teaching Tolerance). The authors are the course instructor and the educational specialist with the Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center (hereafter referenced as UGRR or Heritage Center) who offer insight on this topic. The course instructor is a newer assistant professor in the field of teacher education, and previously served as a social studies instructional specialist and classroom teacher. The educational specialist is a social studies education graduate from Institution_insert. He/she began working at UGRR in 2018 as a Visitor Experience Guide, and recently promoted to develop UGRR educational resources.

Being mindful that teaching “how to teach” and learning and teaching “how to teach service learning” with social justice in mind can be a daunting task for any educator. A meta-ethnography of social studies education research pinpoints an un-even score card of pre-service social studies teachers’ capability to internalize democratic education  concepts, such as civic action, equality and equity, and social justice (Tannebaum, 2015). While many social studies teacher educators address these topics and issues, Tannebaum (2015) indicates that pre-service teachers demonstrate a developing competency to apply theory into instructional practice. As expressed by Bickmore (2008) teaching social studies methods compares to making “soup” and all of its “ingredients” with a sprinkle of hope that pre-service teachers will learn to be/become civic-minded, social justice teachers.

Hence, the course instructor believes that the initial methods and materials course prepares pre-service teachers for “doing social studies,” in other words, to develop their social studies purpose similar to a teacher’s creed (Author, YYYY; LaMorte, 2017; Ross, 2015). “Doing social studies”extends beyond content, skills, and literacy; it leads with civics which “enables students not only to study how others participate, but also to practice participating and taking informed action themselves” (National Council for the Social Studies, 2000, p. 31) as critical for pre-service teachers to learn during their preparation programming.

What is service learning with social justice in mind?

According to the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS), service learning connects meaningful service in the school or community with academic learning and civic responsibility (NCSS, 2000). Service learning is distinguished from community service or volunteerism in two ways: 1) the service activity is integrated with academic skills and content; and 2) students engage in structured reflection activities about their service experiences. Service learning seeks “to equally benefit the provider and the receipt of the service,” distinguished from traditional service learning as charity work (Furco, 1996, p. 12). One’s service intention should avoid the deficit perspective which dis-empowers the community partner, and instead advocate an asset perspective which aligns with “social justice” or “justice orientated” civic engagement principles(Bringle & Hatcher, 1996; Ho & Barton, 2020; Tinkler, Hannah, Tinkler, & Miller, 2014; Wade, 2000). This approach, social justice service-learning, is encouraged by NAME_INSTITUTION for service learning, credit-bearing courses, which is the future goal for this teacher educator to become a service learning instructor.

Social Justice. For teacher educators implementing the National Standards for the Preparation of Social Studies Teachers (NCSS, 2017) social justice is defined as “(1) a goal for improving access to equity for all individuals in a society who face any type of marginalization; and (2) the process by which individuals work toward realizing this goal” (Adams, Bell, & Griffin, 2007 as cited in Cuenca, 2017, p. 373). With civic responsibility at the core of service learning, and taking informed action to demonstrate civic engagement, pre-service teachers also need to self-reflect on their social justice knowledge. It begins with self-awareness of one’s own intersectionality, such as gender, race, ethnicity, social-economic status, and etc.

In developing the ability to teach and learn about social justice, the instructor and students examined the “Social Justice Standards: The Teaching Tolerance Anti-bias Framework” (Learning for Justice, 2018). The social justice standards include: identity, diversity, justice, and action; and were explored by four online learning modules that the course instructor adapted from the professional development resources by Learning for Justice. Additional class lessons supported student’s online learning experiences by viewing model lesson plans and participating in class discussions.

Overview: High School Methods Course and Service Learning Project. The high school methods and materials course introduces pre-service social studies teachers to social justice and service learning concepts in the first of two required methods and materials courses. At the course onset, explicit instruction centered on the NYS Social Studies Framework (NYSED, 2015), and an array of social studies teaching methods, such as historical thinking, social justice standards (identity, diversity, justice, and action by Learning for Justice), cultural-relevant sustaining pedagogy, taking informed action as advocated by the C3 Framework, as well as pedagogical skills (i.e., lesson plans, assessments, etc.).

In brief, the service learning project assessed a multi-step culminated learning process in which pre-service teachers either developedan action plan to coordinate a service learning experience with a future community partner or created a unit of study (sequenced lesson plans) to support the education platform of a community partner. Figure 1 outlines the development of the service learning course project over the last two years.

Figure 1: Service Learning Course Project

Due to various circumstances each semester (a total of four semesters over two years), the course project took on slightly different versions. Year One was split between a pre-coronavirus semester and a semester that included an extended spring break plus full remote instruction. During the second year only one semester of pre-service teachers completed the project who participated in a model service learning experience with the Heritage Center. This unique opportunity offered students a social justice lens to develop lesson plans that met UGRR’s value of freedom seekers. In seeking a reciprocal action students’ lesson plans were reviewed by the course instructor, UGRR’s education specialist, and collaborated upon to create a single inquiry which applied the Inquiry Design Method (Swan, Lee, & Grant, 2018), and formatted like the NYS Toolkit Project (for examples visit EngageNY – NYS K-12 Social Studies Resource Toolkit, 2015).

Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center

Niagara Falls, New York served as an impactful geographic place in the story of freedom seekers. The transportation routes afforded by the Niagara Falls region aided abolitionists, free African Americans, and enslaved people who crossed the International Suspension Bridge (located in the former village of Suspension Bridge) and/or the Niagara River into Canada (Wellman, 2012).

The public opening of the Heritage Center took place in May of 2018 after of decade of planning by the Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Commission. The museum is attached to the Niagara Falls Amtrak Station and housed in the former 1863 U.S. Custom House. The mission includes a desire “to inspire visitors to recognize modern injustices that stem from slavery and take action toward an equitable society” (UGRR, Mission, n.d.). As adopted by the board of directors, UGRR vision is:  

To be at the forefront of Underground Railroad interpretation by encouraging visitors to take action for civil and human rights and creating global change that begins in the Niagara Falls community (Bacon, 2018).

The Heritage Center’s perspective advocates for social justice, such as “identity” and “action” by the language usage and teaching local history. The rethinking of language by the Heritage Center allows us to consider how words and images make us think and feel as demonstrated by exhibits of “freedom seekers” and “enslaved people” who achieved self-emancipation; some aided by others while many sought freedom unaided (National Parks Service, What is the Underground Railroad, 2020;Wellman, 2012).

Niagara Falls was not the only Underground Railroad passageway yet served as a predominant crossing point known as “one more river to cross” and a permanent exhibit at the Heritage Center (UGRR, One More River to Cross, 2020; Wellman, 2012). The grassy space of the museum and remnants of the Suspension bridge is called the Harriet Tubman Plaza, a sacred place where freedom seekers crossed into Canada for their freedom (UGRR, On Site – Niagara Falls Suspension Bridge, 2021). Equally important, the Heritage Center is dedicated to the heroic efforts of many unknown everyday heroes who accomplished extraordinary things. UGRR prides itself in telling freedom seekers stories, for example John Morrison, Nancy Berry, Cecilia Reynolds, and Patrick Sneed (UGRR, n.d.; Wellman, 2012).

Service Learning: Course Project for a High School Methods and Materials Course

As pre-service social studies teachers learn “how to teach,” the aim of this teacher educator is to develop their ability to be “democratic social justice” leaders (Bickmore, 2008). As previously noted this endeavor can be a challenging task as pre-service teachers may be novices to civic engagement and civic responsibility themselves (Ho & Barton, 2020; Tannebaum, 2015; Wade, 2000, 1995).

Project Description and Process

Pre-service social studies teachers enrolled at INSTITUTION_NAME, an urban-engaged campus, prioritizes social justice and service learning at the collegiate level. The college’s Social Studies Education Department is also refining its program to enhance alignment with the National Standards for the Preparation of Social Studies Teachers (NCSS, 2017), specifically social justice and service learning experiences. That said, the instructor addressed these learning intentions by exploring the Learning for Justicesocial justice standards and collaborating with the campus organization, CCE (as previously outlined in Figure 1).

The service learning project was inspired by a fifth grade classroom project called Civic Zines (Kawai & Cody, 2015) and Project Citizen protocols (Center for Civic Education, 1996).

Learning civic action for elementary students took the form of creating an individual current events magazine based on a topic or issue that was civically important to them (Kawai & Cody, 2015). For pre-service teachers, they followed a similar structure to inquire about social justice issues in the community and to connect with a community partner in order to develop a service learning experience. During this segment of learning, course readings included articles about the Inquiry Design Model (IDM) by Kathy Swan, John Lee, and S.G. Grant (2018) and viewing videos on the c3teachers.org website. Each of these resources connected with explicit instruction in the classroom which established the foundational “ingredients” to prepare students for the culminating project.

The initial step to implement the course project was the “What is service learning?” presentation facilitated by CCE specialists and included a class discussion about social justice issues important to students. The process continued with the following tasks: students conducted their own research seeking out an issue important to them, researched potential community partners to collaborate with, and reviewed NYS Social Studies Framework (NYSED, 2015) for instructional alignment with a grades 9-12 social studies course. The instructor reviewed students’ drafts and provided feedback as students focused on writing either a structured action plan detailing the logistics of a service learning experience for their future students or creating an unit design with a sequence of lesson plans for a potential service learning project relevant to high school social studies students. One criteria of the assignment that demonstrated exemplary performance compared with developing performance was planning for social justice beyond the act of charity, or volunteerism (Furco, 1996; NCSS, 2000). Last, pre-service teachers reflected upon service learning as a pedagogical approach in fulfilling their social studies purpose.

Even though the instructor intended to implement a class service learning experiential model as he/she transitioned from year one to year two, some limitations were encountered including the coronavirus pandemic. Collaborating with the CCE specialist, INSERT_NAME, and a former student, INSERT_NAME who serves as the educational specialist with the Heritage Center, a virtual partner was coordinated. The course project took on new meaning as the class experienced service learning through the eyes of a “student” and a “teacher.” The updated service learning project entailed a virtual tour of the heritage site, detailed learning about how language matters with an emphasis on Freedom Seekers, a walking and driving tour of local historical sites, and the option for additional research to develop lesson plans for UGRR. Three out of twelve students created lesson plans which are currently being vetted with the intent to be published on the Heritage Center’s website.

Assessment and Students’ Self-reflection. Pre-service teachers were assessed by four dimensions: 1) Research, 2) Learning Experience, 3) Reflection, and 4) Elements of Writing, see Figure 2 below.

Figure 2: Rubric Dimensions

Student reflections provide insight for the teacher educator and potential next steps in re-designing the course’s learning objectives. In year one, two students (whose names have been changed to protect their identity) expressed the following:

  • Firstly, I like the fact that service learning allows for learning outside of the classroom. I also like the fact that this type of learning shows empathy toward one’s community (Ed).
  • I learned about what goes into planning and organizing a service-learning project…like research to find a reputable place that fits your classroom with relevant issues. Then, how will this learning experience impact the students. I would like to assume that if students understand the problems existing in their backyard…that they would be willing to make a difference and take-action (Rachel).

Both students reflect on the importance of community awareness and empathy as a civic action Second, these pre-service social studies education candidates recognize the potential impact on student learning that service learning can have on their own future students. In year two, this cohort participated in the virtual service learning experience with UGRR, and one student who developed lesson plans reflected on his learning experience as

This semester we had a chance to interact with the Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Museum; I found it an enriching and meaningful experience. For my final project, I created lesson plans to focus on using language and imagery, and how they affect how we think, view, and feel about a historical topic, specifically the Underground Railroad. The museum encourages visitors to rethink how we use language and imagery. Some of the lesson plan resources that I used included documents and videos from the Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Museum (Don).

The reciprocal deed is reflected upon in this student’s statement as he expressed his own learning from UGRR resources and desired to create lesson plans which aligned with the Heritage Center’s belief system of freedom seekers.

According to the educational specialist, connecting history to the present is a paramount goal of the Heritage Center. He/she explained the impact of conversations between UGRR specialists and visitors, like students, can have when “learners make their own connections with history while UGRR staff help to deepen their understanding and probe more challenging questions” during a Heritage Center experience. Similarly, UGRR specialists, like teachers, aim to engage participants in discourse in order to enhance their learning experience, especially when seeking to take action about social justice.

Next Steps and Conclusion

            To meet and exceed the new NCSS teaching standards (2017), social studies education programs must provide purposeful learning experiences about social justice and service learning in order to develop civically, and social justice mindful educators. In attaining this goal, one potential next step is re-designing the methods course and formalizing it as a service learning course, which would entail:

a credit-bearing educational experience in which students participate in an organized service activity that meets identified community needs and reflect on the service activity in such a way as to gain further understanding of the course content, a broader appreciation of the discipline, and an enhanced sense of civic responsibility (Bringle & Hatcher, 1996, p. 222).

Even though not yet an official service learning course, another student’s reflection statement demonstrates that some of these attributes are already in place with the course project. She stated:

During the research stage I learned that there are many organizations trying to help those in need, and a service-learning project would impact high school students in a positive way. I never had the chance to do a project like this and I wish I did (Yvonne).

Yvonne recognizes the impact service learning can have on her future students; thus, indicating the course project’s learning intention were met.

Another next step is a continued community partnership with UGRR. As expressed by Michael Broccolo, “the museum is always looking to make connections with schools and educational institutions; collaborating with service learners offers UGRR an exciting role in sharing its mission and continued advocacy for modern day freedom seekers.” Ultimately, the participants, including the pre-service teachers, instructor, and community partner, found the social justice, service learning project worthwhile.

In conclusion, the notion of doing social studies begins with better equipping future social studies teachers with service learning experiences, including social justice mindfulness. It is imperative that teacher educators continue to focus on developing future teachers as “democratic social justice” leaders(Bickmore, 2008, p. 155; Tannebaum, 2015) in order to achieve the endeavor of fostering adolescents’ civic mindfulness for democratic social justice.

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