For Teachers Who Think They Can’t Do Service Learning

Green Ambassadors student interns lead community workshops on energy efficiency.
Green Ambassadors student interns lead community workshops on energy efficiency.

When I lead workshops for educators who want to implement service learning in their schools and classrooms, the most common thing I hear is: “How do I do this on top of my already overwhelming workload?”

Many people use the Five Stages of Service Learning or IPARD models. The basic idea behind those frameworks is this: teachers lead students in an inquiry process of investigation and preparation that leads to action addressing a need in the community, all while finding ways throughout to incorporate authentic reflection and also demonstrate the processes’ impact on both students and community members.

Teachers are excited about and want to engage in service learning. But sometimes these frameworks can feel disconnected from what they already need to teach – and definitely too much to do on top of all the demands stretching teachers thin.

Here’s the main disconnect: when people think of service learning, they’re usually thinking about the “action” piece. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. They see students volunteering in a soup kitchen, or giving public testimony to City Council, or walking dogs at an animal shelter, or mentoring younger students at a neighboring school. But when we view service learning as an inquiry process centered on our existing curriculum, it opens up space in our classrooms to use what we’re already teaching to help students prepare and plan for actions they would like to lead in their communities.

Most teachers see only the “action” stage when they think of “service learning.”
Most teachers see only the “action” stage when they think of “service learning.”

I would suggest that much of the work we already do in the classroom lives in the Investigation stage. We teach our students about the Civil War, or the natural history of California, or geometry. We lead awesome, engaging lessons; we invite guest speakers; we take field trips; we watch documentaries; we read and analyze texts; we facilitate inquisitive discussions. These activities may even incorporate elements of project-based learning. But for what? Why do we even want them to know these things?

What if we thought of all of our lessons and classroom activities, resources, field trips, guest speakers and films as ‘investigation’ and ‘preparation’ for action that students must take to better their community? What if we could teach all of the same lessons, content and skills we want our students to walk away with but instead, students take ownership of those learning experiences to become active leaders in their communities?

For teachers who think they can’t do service learning – here’s how you can actually use your lesson planning time to plan for student-led action.

The Backwards Planning for Service Learning framework is an attempt to combine the backwards planning process many of us already use for curriculum development with the Five Stages of Service Learning. This planning tool is intended specifically for classroom teachers who want to incorporate community-based experiences in their classrooms. It connects our existing curriculum to the service learning process and helps us plan for authentic student-led engagement on the issues of most relevance to our 21st century world – equity, environmental justice, economic justice, community safety, climate change, racial justice, quality education, gender & sexuality diversity, migration, disability justice and more.

If we plan for our classes, then we can plan for service learning and community-based action.

Backwards planning – in a nutshell – is identifying your learning goals, and working backward from there. If by the end of the school year you want students to be able to host a community forum where they engage family members and community leaders on a social or environmental issue, what will you need to teach and facilitate in order to make that happen? This is where we zoom into the ‘curriculum’ circle around which the service learning process revolves and embed the cycle into our planning process.

Here’s how the backwards planning process can work for service learning: Pick a theme or unit you’re already teaching. What overarching essential question will students be exploring through this unit or school year? What content will you teach in the process? What skills will students gain through this experience?

Choose the standards that align with the content and skills students will need to know in order to develop authentic solutions to the issues at hand. How will the action plans students create demonstrate understanding of those learning goals, while incorporating their own voice and interests and fostering authentic two-way collaboration with community members? How will challenging students to take community-based action actually transform the learning process – for them and for you?

If when we are planning we add the learning goal of “students will be able to actively participate as engaged members of their communities,” how does it fundamentally change our unit plans and way of teaching?

A key element of this work is learning how to shift power dynamics in the classroom. Service learning asks you to structure the classroom environment in a way that trusts students to be leaders. To listen to students and help guide their learning experiences using the rich network of community resources and assets that young people bring to the classroom. You’ll no longer be a “teacher;” you’ll become a “facilitator.” No, it’s not easy, and it will take extra time to plan action-oriented units that take the bigger picture into account: the fundamental why of this work. Some people call this service learning. Others just call it responsive teaching.

This process will look different in every setting. At Environmental Charter Schools where I am the service learning coordinator, every high school teacher leads students in a month-long interdisciplinary exploration of an essential question, culminating in student-led action. But it doesn’t have to be a school-wide endeavor – it can start with one teacher, who slowly engages the rest of their colleagues in this project.

In many schools the service learning program lives outside of the classroom, if it exists at all. Teachers don’t feel they have the skills or experience to incorporate service learning into their core academic curriculum. I hope that by using the tools we already use to plan our curriculum to also help us plan for service learning experiences, we can together demystify the process and create more space for student-led action in our schools. Share in the comments: how do YOU scaffold service learning in your classroom?

Download a free copy of Backwards Planning for Service Learning to support your backwards planning for service learning. Bonus: if you can brainstorm this planning document in a team with your colleagues, interdisciplinary connections will make the unit or experience that much stronger.

Thank you to Marissa Nadjarian & Sofia Rose Smith for their support on this article. For more information on backwards planning see Understanding by Design. For more on the Five Stages of Service Learning, see

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