1. In 1994, ninth-graders at Bear Creek High School in Colorado studied issues related to gun violence in their government classes and then organized a community forum on gun control that was attended by more than 300 people. As part of Active Citizenship Today, a public policy based service learning program, this forum helped community members gain a deeper understanding of one of the nation's most complex public policy issues.
2. High school students in a "Teens, Crime and the Community" class in Sigourney, Iowa, researched the prevalence of child abuse in their county and discovered one of the highest rates in the state. Responding to this problem, the students worked in collaboration with community groups, churches, and the police to develop a public education campaign and resource mobilization plan called, "It Shouldn't Hurt To Be A Child."
3. Elementary school students in Hazelton, Pennsylvania, selected the issue of school safety for extensive study and action as part of Kids Around Town, a service learning program sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania, Citizen Education Fund. Discovering that bathrooms and bus zones were considered unsafe by children in the school, the students developed a plan to improve security in these two areas.
These three examples of service learning projects in social studies classes share an important characteristic: students who took part in them were encouraged not only to learn about, but also to do something about, the problem of violence in today's society.
As educators become increasingly concerned about the problem of violence in American schools and communities, many are exploring service learning programs as one aspect of a comprehensive school-based violence prevention program. David Hawkins, one of the nation's foremost experts in violence prevention, sees this as a step in the right direction: "Service learning programs, when properly implemented, have the potential to reduce violence because they send the message that young people are assets in a community and should be expected to make positive contributions."1
To ensure a good fit between violence prevention and service learning, Hawkins suggests that school-based service learning programs be aligned with the Social Development Strategy. This strategy is a prevention approach for reducing identified risk factors for violence by enhancing known protective factors against health and behavior problems.2 As applied to service learning, Hawkins suggests that such projects should have four essential characteristics:
Service learning programs need to provide for developmentally-appropriate and active involvement in meaningful activities. "Simply moving rice around in a food bank," says Hawkins, "is not going to help most young people develop the necessary bonding to individuals and institutions that promotes healthy beliefs."3 Research on violence prevention emphasizes the importance of bonding as a key factor in a project's success. Quite simply, "children who are bonding to those who hold healthy beliefs do not want to threaten that bond by behaving in ways that would jeopardize their relationships and investments."4
Many service learning practitioners echo Hawkin's views. Erin Donovan, co-director of Teens, Crime and the Community (TCC), says the goal of that organization is "to reduce teen victimization and engage students in meaningful solutions to local crime problems. When young people participate in service projects, they are becoming active partners and participants in society, not passive recipients of information. Students learn how to link to people in the community who are problem-solvers, not problem-creators." 5
Service learning programs should explicitly teach students the skills needed to actively participate in solving community problems. According to Hawkins, "Service learning programs that demand sophisticated skills, without teaching them, set students up for failure."6 Such programs are often criticized because they demand service (such as requiring a certain number of service "hours" to graduate) without providing opportunities for students to develop the skills they need to participate effectively.
The Active Citizenship Today program (ACT) includes both student and teacher materials designed to explicitly teach young people the skills necessary to accomplish five major tasks:
Susan Philips, co-director of ACT, explains why there is a skills-instruction emphasis in ACT:
"The reason for teaching the skills is so students understand the problem that their project is designed to address. If students do not learn how to do extensive research, then the service project designed to address the problem will be meaningless...The single most important skill students learn in ACT is to develop good questions to get information. We do not assume young people know how to do this, instead we encourage the explicit teaching of question-developing skills."7
Helping students learn to work with, and not against, one another is another skill that effective service learning programs teach. Drawing on more than twenty years of research, David and Roger Johnson recommend cooperative learning as a way to "decrease alienation from schoolmates ...(which)... puts children and adolescents at risk for violence and destructive behavior."8
Service learning programs that capitalize on the known benefits of cooperative learning are more likely to produce the pro-social skills that students need to avoid violence. For this reason, Donovan recommends that service projects in TCC involve teams of up to five students so "young people learn how to work collaboratively."9 In the ACT program, an entire class often chooses a particular community problem to address, researches the problem and related public policies as a class, and then uses cooperative learning to develop several small-group projects designed to help solve the problem.
Recognition of Student Effort
Service learning programs should provide a consistent system of recognition and reinforcement. Hawkins suggests that, in linking service learning to violence prevention, it is important to make sure that students are recognized and acknowledged for their participation. In his words, "Recognition will reinforce students' skillful performance and provide an incentive to continue to make contributions to their community."10 Ensuring that students receive publicity about their service learning projects is one way to provide recognition.
Some violence-prevention service learning projects have provided students with positive reinforcement by involving them in providing their ideas on public policy to adult policy-makers. Youth for Justice, a national collaborative program that focuses on violence prevention, law-related education, and civic education projects, has sponsored Youth Summits on Violence. At many of these summits, students have provided testimony to local, state, and federal policy-makers about violence-related policies. Being listened to-and taken seriously-by-adults is significant recognition for many young people. Jennifer Bloom, director of the Center for Community Legal Education in Minnesota, describes the recognition effect of the 1996 Minnesota Youth Summit: "Kids became true players in the system and were respected for that." 11
Recognition, however, is a tricky business. Some educators believe that certain types of recognition are not good for students. As educator Alfie Kohn says, "I know a lot of adults who are praise junkies-sadly unable to think about the worth of their own activities and actions and products, and utterly dependent on someone else to tell them they did a good job. This is the logical conclusion of being marinated in praise for years."12 To encourage the development of intrinsic motivation, Kohn recommends "facilitating the process by which kids come to grapple with complex ideas-and those ideas, as John Dewey has told us, have to emerge organically from the real-life interests and concerns of the kids."13
One way teachers can help students develop intrinsic motivation is to encourage reflection throughout the service learning process. Reflection provides ongoing and structured opportunities for students to think about their experiences and what they are learning. While reflection can take many forms, service learning experts agree it is an essential component of effective service learning.
Clear Expectations for Non-Violent Behavior
The final ingredient that Hawkins suggests must be included in service learning programs dealing with violence prevention is an explicit expectation of non-violent behavior. As a part of a school effort to establish clear norms against violence, service learning programs should be based on very explicit anti-violence tenets. Hawkins thinks two are of particular importance: respectful behavior and zero toleration of physical violence.
Service learning programs often consist of multiple opportunities for students to work together toward a common goal; setting a standard for students to respect one another, as well as those in the community with whom they are working, is especially critical if violence prevention is the goal.
A strictly enforced rule against physical violence is also essential if service learning programs are to have a violence-prevention effect. While this may seem almost too obvious to merit attention, Hawkins believes that stating and enforcing the obvious is a crucial step in changing attitudes that allow violence to flourish. Involving students in anti-violence norm setting is one way to make a connection between service learning and violence prevention. For example, students could be given the opportunity to discuss and develop service learning codes of conduct.
Service Learning to What End?
Beyond its potential to reduce violence, service learning has been lauded as a cure-all for many of the ills besetting the nation's school and communities. It is important for social studies educators to be critical consumers of these claims. In particular, we must continually remind ourselves that social problems, such as violence, are extremely complex. To expect any single educational program to adequately address them is foolhardy. This does not mean we should throw in the towel and give up. However, we must carefully consider the purpose of any new program or educational approach.
Joseph Kahne and Joel Westheimer argue that service learning advocates should not assume that all educators share a common vision about the purpose of service learning.14 Their research indicates that how social studies teachers personally define citizenship influences the kinds of service learning programs they use in their classes. While some teachers emphasize the expression of altruism and compassion as the desired end, others favor political activism to ensure that "George Bush's thousand points of light" does not promote a "thousand points of status quo."15
Although Hawkins argues that service learning does not have to be about violence-related issues to have a violence-prevention effect, policy debates over societal violence are currently taking up a goodly portion of the political landscape. To the extent that service learning in social studies classes addresses community concerns about violence, students can learn important lessons not only about effective citizenship in a democracy, but about some of the problems most challenging to U.S. democracy today.
Service learning programs that involve the analysis of public policy and action-such as the three cited earlier-treat students as citizens in fact rather than merely citizens in training. Often, social studies classes send the unintended message that young people must wait to become adults in order to perform authentic public work. Public policy-based service learning sends the opposite message: you are citizens now. In sum, theory and research on violence prevention suggests that when service learning programs provide students with meaningful activities, the explicit teaching of necessary skills, recognition of effort, and clear anti-violence norms, they have considerable potential to reduce violence.
1. J. D. Hawkins, Telephone Interviews, 1996.
2. J. D. Hawkins and R. F. Catalano, Communities that Care (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1992).
3. Hawkins, Telephone Interviews, 1996.
4. J. D. Hawkins, R. F. Catalano, and D. D. Brewer, "Preventing Serious, Violent and Chronic Juvenile Offending" in Serious, Violent and Chronic Juvenile Offenders, eds. J. C. Howell, B. Krisberg, J. D. Hawkins, and J. J. Wilson (Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications, 1995), 51.
5. E. Donovan, Telephone Interviews, 1996.
6 Hawkins, Telephone Interviews, 1996.
7. S. Phillips, Telephone Interviews, 1996.
8. D. W. Johnson and R. T. Johnson, "Why Violence Prevention Programs Don't Work-and What Does," Educational Leadership (February 1995): 65.
9. Donovan, Telephone Interviews, 1996.
10. Hawkins, Telephone Interviews, 1996.
11. J. Bloom, "Annual Youth Summit Gets Teens Involved in State Government," Gavel Gazette, a Newsletter of the Minnesota Center for Community Legal Education (Spring 1996).
12. A. Kohn, "Punished by Rewards?", Educational Leadership (September 1995): 16.
14. J. Kahne and Joel Westheimer, "In the Service of What? The Politics of Service Learning," Phi Delta Kappan (May 1996): 596.
Teachers interested in more information about the service learning programs described in this article can contact the sponsoring organizations as follows:
Active Citizenship Today is a collaborative project of the Constitutional Rights Foundation and the Close Up Foundation. Contact Susan Philips at CRF (213-487-5590) or Dawn Bova at Close Up (703-706-3512)
Teens, Crime and the Community is a collaborative program of Street Law, Inc., and the National Crime Prevention Council. Contact Stephanie Bray at Street Law, Inc. (202-544-6644, ext. 249).
Kids Around Town is a program of the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania, Citizen Education Fund. Contact Sharon Kletzien (610-544-1735).
Diana Hess is a graduate student at theUniversity of Washington and a consultant for social studies and service learning programs.
The billboard shown here was one outcome of the Teens, Crime and the Community unit taught in the junior/senior sociology elective course at Sigourney High School in Sigourney, Iowa. About 20 to 25 students-a mixture of regular, resource and special students- typically take the sociology elective. The course emphasizes student-generated activities as well as the use of outside resource persons as a major part of the curriculum. Service learning partners include religious, educational, civic, governmental, veteran, business, and other interested groups.
The project on child abuse stemmed from a series of lessons on local crime taught cooperatively with the assistance of the Keokuk County Sheriff's Department and the Department of Human Services. When students learned that child abuse was a significant personal crime in their area, they elected to create a billboard on the subject. Their design for the billboard was computer enhanced and set up on Highway 149 with the financial support of six local churches. The class project on child abuse was followed up with elementary peer counseling that included understanding the role of alcohol and drugs in creating abusive situations.
The Teens, Crime and the Community program in Sigourney High School began in 1990. It receives financial backing from the Iowa Drug-Free Schools and Community Office and many community organizations. In 1992, the local newspaper began to run regular reports on the TCC program. In the same year, TCC teacher Dan Philips was recognized as the Iowa Social Studies Teacher of the Year.