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Serving While Learning: Student Civic Engagement (page 2)

Serving While Learning: Student Civic Engagement

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Updated on Feb 23, 2010

Cross-Curricular Service Learning

Professors across the disciplines are encouraged to integrate service into their curriculum these days. You might think these kinds of service projects would fit best with political or social science courses, but educators in just about all fields have found great success.

Jill Dolan, Professor of English and Theater in the Lewis Center for the Arts at Princeton, doesn’t need convincing about the benefits of integrating civic engagement into classroom work. Dolan has spent more than two decades looking at ways in which theater can serve as an impetus for social change. 

“I see one of the main benefits of theater for civic engagement and working on cultural change as the way it draws people together, live, to consider social issues,” Dolan says. “Political change happens in many ways…but being together in an auditorium, however large or small, creates a current of excitement and interest that can be touch people in often more profound ways.”

Dolan, whose most recent book is titled Utopia in Performance: Finding Hope at the Theatre, says theatrical pieces for social change have also been known to generate millions of dollars in fund-raising efforts. Benefits for “The Vagina Monologues,” for example, have raised more than $50 million for women’s anti-violence groups in the past decade.

“Theater like ‘The Vagina Monologues’…creates a way for performers to embody issues—that lets them experience viscerally another person’s story (or their own),” Dolan says. “For spectators watching…the direct address to the audience asks people to measure their own experience—and in the best possible cases, what they think about these issues—against what they see and hear, and perhaps even moves them to do something.”

“That, for me,” Dolan says, “is the kernel of what theater offers to civic engagement.”

Service Learning for All Ages

We might not see centers for community and civic engagement in high schools or elementary schools, but we can certainly find service learning happening in K-12 classrooms. According a report produced by the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), approximately 24 percent of all public high schools, middle schools, and elementary schools engage in service learning. However, service learning at the high school level is down by nearly 11 percentage points in the past decade, Kawashima-Ginsberg says. She explains that much of this dramatic decline could be attributed to high-stakes testing (teachers don't have as much time to integrate service learning) and budget cuts (volunteer coordinator positions are being cut, which makes it challenging to successfully carry out school-community collaborations).

What does service learning look like at the K-12 level?
  • Students might engage in community improvement projects, or projects collaborating with older community members toward a greater goal.
  • Students might engage in projects exploring issues of tolerance and acceptance (perhaps using a curriculum developed by Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center).
  • Students might learn about world hunger or clean water and explore ways in which their actions can make and difference and save lives (perhaps using a curriculum developed by Teach UNICEF).
  • High school students might collaborate with community members to bring a curriculum on bullying to the local elementary schools.

If you’re interested in bringing civic engagement programs into your child’s school, visit the Corporation for National and Community Service website, Learn and Serve America, for fresh ideas. And take a look at Tom Ehrlich’s most recent book, Educating for Democracy: Preparing Undergraduates for Responsible Political Engagement, to get a sense of how civic engagement and service learning benefits students, community partners, and humankind as a whole.

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