Literacy and Service Learning

There was a great article by Amy Conley on edutopia this week about teaching literacy skills through service learning. Her school has implemented a “Change the World” project with the senior class that blends Project Based Learning and literacy to create a student-driven service project that will have an impact on the broader community. Students got to design and implement their projects, which culminated with a presentation about their work to the school community.

The projects were designed to incorporate real-world literacy skills. Students did research on their interest and wrote project proposals, learned about professional email etiquette, honed their presentation skills, gained strategies for approaching authentic, complex texts, and practiced how to interact in a professional setting. The project required students to problem-solve, revise plans when obstacles arose, work under real-world deadlines, and connect with leaders in the community. I’d encourage you to check out the original article if your school requires seniors to complete some form of a capstone project. I thought I’d also share some ideas for adapting this model to a smaller scale. The pieces of this project that I thought were most valuable were:

  1. Projects were chosen based on students’ passions and interests. This type of project requires a lot of buy-in and commitment to be successful, so allowing students to decide on their focus is key. If you are adapting this project on a smaller scale, you might want to have your class work on one project as a team. If this is the case, be sure to leave room for students’ voices to be heard when choosing the project.
  2. Assessment was ongoing throughout the project. Although students had a final presentation, feedback and support were given multiple times throughout the process. Because this assignment allows for so much student choice and is completed in collaboration with community members, support is especially important at times when students need to reevaluate their plans. This reminds me of Kuhlthau’s information search model and how it honors the affective aspect of research. Although students get to take the lead with this project, teachers, librarians, and adult mentors should be ready to guide and coach students’ through the uncertainty, anxiety, and excitement that stems from the project.
  3. Literacy skills were applied to real-world situations. This type of project is a perfect opportunity to examine authentic texts through the lens of critical literacy. Giving students strategies for approaching professional e-mails, company or government documents, and even casual conversations with professionals and leaders will empower students and provide them with tools for their lives beyond the classroom.

Here are a few ways you could adapt these principles into a smaller service project of your own:

  • Ask students to brainstorm ways they could improve the school community. It could be adding a student garden, having healthier or tastier choices in the cafeteria, starting a mentor program for younger students, or redesigning an underutilized space. Once the project is chosen, guide students through the process of writing a proposal for school administrators to review, implementing the project, and evaluating the results.
  • This idea is borrowed from a classmate – please check out her original post on “Blending the Digital and the Just” here. In a literature or history class, ask students to identify problems or issues people faced historically or in the text you are reading that are still present in our world today. Have students choose one of these issues and create a PSA to inform viewers about the problem and the organizations in the community that are working to improve the problem. The teacher who shared this idea suggested that next time, she might have the students then chose one issue that stood out and have them design a project to benefit the community organizations they found.
  • Do a mini-version of a TED conference, where students in the class become experts on a topic and present their findings to the school community. If possible, invite community members that work on issues related to the students’ presentations. The research that students did to prepare for these presentations could then be used to design projects in those fields.
  • Connect with a class abroad via skype or email. Students from both classrooms can share the issues that impact their local community and swap ideas for how to make a difference. You could have the classes work on their local issues and share their progress for motivation, or you could have your students work on a project that would improve the community abroad.
  • I was impressed by this article on edutopia about fourth and fifth graders running their own food business that helps educate others about farming, nutrition, and hunger in their community. This type of project provides students with opportunities to create flyers, websites, or brochures about their business, present their work to members of the community, and partner with local organizations to widen their impact.

Any other service learning projects that you have used to increase literacy skills in your classroom?

Conley, A. (2014). How to Change the World: Service PBL in the Common Core Literacy Classroom. Retrieved from


4 thoughts on “Literacy and Service Learning

  1. –Do a mini-version of a TED conference, where students in the class become experts on a topic and present their findings to the school community. If possible, invite community members that work on issues related to the students’ presentations. The research that students did to prepare for these presentations could then be used to design projects in those fields.–

    I really like this idea! My students love watching TED Talks. I think we we would need to start by discussing topics, motivation skills, and the elements of giving an oral presentation like that. What else do you think would be important to discuss? I am thinking about using this as an enrichment project for AIG students when we write our “Say You Want a Revolution” essays. Thanks for the fabulous ideas!


  2. Thanks for the link to the elementary school students working on a food business! We all have great ideas and it really helps to hear how other people are actually implementing similar ideas. Are you considering taking these ideas back to your school? Does your school already do something like this? It would be really cool if a high school teamed up with an elementary school to work on some project ideas. The little kids would just soak up the high schoolers like a sponge!


  3. I’m echo-ing Erin’s thoughts here: I LOVE that Ted Talk idea! Watching TED Talks makes those ideas seem so do-able, don’t they? I think transferring that same do-able-ness to student’s ideas makes so much sense! [What doesn’t make sense? All the words I am making up and slapping hyphens in throughout this comment.] What would you think about also then posting the student Talks to a web-site? That way, the talk could be shared with other classrooms or decision-makers…just like TED Talks are!


    • Wow! Thanks for sharing all these great ideas. I have to echo some other posts and say that the TED talk is such a brilliant idea. I love how great these ideas will fit with the project approach and with service learning. We are always working as a school/staff on “School Improvement” but the ideas and changes our students want to bring are some of the most insightful and important ideas on this front. The TED talk just ties all this in with another interactive and engaging activity. It gives the students a REAL voice! I second Julie’s ideas on posting it somewhere so that other people can refer to it later. Very empowering!


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