Raise Students' Depth of Knowledge through Stewardship

Grade Level: 
K, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12
Environmental Stewardship
Scientific Investigation
Service Learning
Service-learning toolkit: Should we teach stewardship when we have so many demands on our time already? Does stewardship belong in the classroom to support the curriculum? Yes! Teaching stewardship is NOT an “add-on,” but stewardship through service-learning does provide purpose and ownership by connecting the curriculum expectations to real-life applications and projects in the “community” that kids care about. This guide helps teachers develop cross-curricular, service-focused units. Author: Angelia Mahone, 2016 Teacher in Residence at Learning to Give

Why Stewardship and Service?

Stewardship gives students a sense of purpose and internal motivation to participate because what they are doing makes a difference. And, every teacher wants their students to develop caring and engagement in the classroom! Additionally, the process of service-learning—investigating needs, determining a project, and reflecting on their impact— involves higher critical-thinking skills: strategic and extended thinking (Depth of Knowledge levels 3 and 4). Ultimately, stewardship and service-learning facilitate a climate of accountability that prepares students for responsible citizenship, as well as college and career readiness.
Photo credit: Rooftop Garden by Christopher Porter is licensed under CC by 4.0

Objectives of the Toolkit

This toolkit guides teachers as they:

  • plan cross-curricular, service-focused units based on a Learning to Give lesson
  • conduct investigation and authentic research of community needs with students
  • gain understanding of service-learning strategies, depth of knowledge, and the scientific method

Students engage in authentic learning connected to their community that expects them to do the following:

  • address a real-world issue(s) or “need”
  • plan a service project related to their research
  • discuss, analyze, and make decisions as a group (student voice and choice)
  • use scientific process for investigation(s)
  • ask and answer open-ended questions
  • generate questions throughout the learning process

Step One: Start with a lesson plan or unit

Choose a Learning to Give lesson that relates to your area of study, a community resources, or an issue you and your students care about. Enter a term into the Lesson Search.

You can browse lessons and resources by issue areas to get ideas for themes you and your students care about.

Author Note: We entered "river" in the search and chose the elemenary unit “Rivers for the Common Good” because we have access to a river, and our class was talking about the Flint River crisis. This lesson plan gives us the framework to investigate the scientific process and link to language arts and social studies.

Why philanthropy education? Learning to Give lesson plans help build youth understanding of their role in the community as giving and participatory citizens. These lesson plans are written by teachers who infuse philanthropy themes into academic content. All lessons are aligned to Common Core and state standards. This is not an add-on, but a way to teach the whole child with real-world purpose.

Step Two: Link lesson objectives to student interests and needs

Review student data to determine their knowledge-base, individual requisite skills and deficit areas, as well as group learning targets/objectives. Consider student interest and community needs to set a vision for a service-learning project. This is a time to facilitate pre-service reflections and determine what students will investigate further. Learn more about the service-learning process with this Learning to Give Educator Mini-Courses: Getting Started with Service-Learning and Reflection in Service.

Step Three: Investigate through research and state the problem

After initial discovery, conduct investigation with students to narrow the topic and state a problem that can be addressed by the students. The Learning to Give lesson plan may include anchor texts and investigation guidance. The investigation stage of service-learning mirrors the scientific method stage of stating the problem and making a hypothesis. See the following chart correlating the steps of four strategies.

Student investigation may include one of the following methods:

  • interviewing community members or experts (local nonprofits are a good resource of information),
  • taking a survey,
  • research and reading literature (Internet or ARbookfind.com), or
  • observing a place (local farm, museum, retirement facility, etc.) or situation in person.

Make a Problem Statement

Then, students assert a hypothesis, or problem statement about the needs/problem they found in investigation. This statement gives structure to the planning of the service-learning and investigation. Generating and testing hypotheses extends students’ thinking

For example, the students may take a survey about the type of bullying present at school. As a result of the survey, they state the problem that students are not skilled in conflict communication. Or after research and observation they conclude, that human-environment interactions have negatively impacted the Great Lakes ecosystem.

The above hypothesis connects social studies and science through one of the Five Themes of Geography, human-environment interaction, and provides a platform for a crosscutting concept of the Next Generation Science Standards, cause and effect.

Step Four: Design Procedure and Plan Service

It is time to design a plan to address the identified need in the hypothesis/problem statement. Brainstorm possible actions to take, and use critical thinking and communication skills to narrow the options and determine next steps. Make an action plan that gives students a real-world purpose to practice and learn the selected standards and learning targets. 

For example, students who indentified the problem of pollution in a local river decide to organize a clean-up day in collaboration with a local environmental nonprofit. 

  1. First, break down the plan into action steps on sticky notes (contact the nonprofit, determine a date, make posters, ask for donations of supplies, get permission, etc.).
  2. Second, put the steps in order on a board in a timeline.
  3. Third, assign students to take on different tasks.
  4. Fourth, as the group starts taking action, keep track of progress on the planning board and hold students accountable for their tasks. 

Involve student voice and choice in the planning. Determine what you will plan and what students are ready to take on. Give them as much ownership and responsiblity for planning as their experience allows. It is extremely important to teach expected behaviors and processes, or procedural lessons, because stepping out of the classroom together may be new, and students require structure and practice with what to expect and how to behave as responsible representatives of the school and community. 

Planning tools and suggestions:

  • A rubric is an invaluable tool for guiding practice and expectations in the planning and implementation process. Rubistar.com
  • During class discussions, carefully consider the power of the pause. Students need time to process the question and their answer and to navigate the social environment within the classroom. Giving questions in advance and allowing think time, increases the quality of thinking. 
  • Refer to learning targets throughout the field experience. 
  • Work with your professional learning community (PLC) to increase connections between content areas and define student performance expectations according to stanards,
  • Magnify the impact of field trips by connecting social studies, language arts, art, and the philanthropic theme. Example: Use visual literacy strategies at a field trip to the art museum in discussions related to your service issue area Examples: “Courageous Conversations,” "Artful Adjectives," “Visualizing Verbs,” "Art and the Five Themes of Geography," and "Building a Sense of Community."
  • Relate their action to historical context by visiting local museums and historic sites. In Detroit, that may be the Dossin Great Lakes Museum or the Detroit Historical Museum

Step Five: Take Action! Field experience and data collection

The action students take to address a need empowers them to recognize they are capable of making a difference. The real-world experience extends thinking (DOK level 4) and broadens their world to see diverse places, people, and opportunities available to them. Students recognize that their actions matter!! This is the first step on the path to lifelong empowerment and engagement in community. 
Document your planning and action steps in journals and with photos. Have students write essays and poems about their experience and understanding of the issue and philanthropic concepts. These data tools will be used to communicate to others and validate the internal and external experiences of the givers. The documentation is also important so the experiment can be duplicated by others or repeated and improved upon in following years. 

Step Six: Analyze results and reflect on impact

  1. Like in a scientific experiment, analyzing service action results helps you and your students understand process and impact at a deeper level. Open-ended questions will provide opportunities for students to consider broader issues in the community and reflect upon their role as an individual in the neighborhood and the global community. View the educator mini-course Reflection in Service for background and ideas.
  2. As you facilitate the critical thinking process, use the collected data and scaffolding to help students formulate a conclusion. Direct students to interpret and communcate cause-effect relationships. Ask questions about responsibility and the effect of individuals acting for the common good. 
  3. Engage the students in a variety of post-service reflection activities (writing, physical activity, music, discussion, social media, and art) to extend thinking. The Learning to Give lesson and philanthropic standards provide a structure and ideas for reflection and presentation. Use this reflection tool from the Detroit Institute of Arts for students to see themselves and their work in the context of community. 

Step Seven: Share results and involve the school community

Communicate results to an outside audience, including community partners. Have students share their process of discovery, planning, academic and philanthropic knowledge, and the impact of their service. This may take many forms:

  • a formal presentation to parents
  • a grant proposal for funding to a youth council of a community foundation
  • a film or creative work of performance or visual art that shares their story
  • essays, poems, and songs
  • party with the recipients of their service

Note: When working with community partners, the initial contact should include an “ask.” Community partners require clarity to provide needed support for any joint endeavor. The final presentation would then demonstrate reaching the objectives of the ask. 

Remember to recommend service-learning as a strategy in the School Improvement Plan! Student stories of impact are a great tool for sharing the transformational nature of service-learning and philanthropy education. 
As you implement Learning to Give lessons, reach out and collaborate with other Learning to Give teachers, and share resources, your list of community partners will grow!