A School District Commits to Civic Engagement


In Oak Park, California, the entire school district has embraced civic and social action. Both educators and students are involved in a wide set of projects, most addressing environmental issues. Some of the efforts are service-oriented, while some focus on advocacy and policy. It seems that when service activities are sufficiently wide-spread and multi-faceted, they begin to add up to a larger, more substantive institutional change. Here’s their story, shared by guest blogger Vanessa Heller.

Looking beyond ourselves: Service learning in a suburban school district

By Vanessa Heller: Educator at Oak Park Unified and trainer at Oak Park Inquiry Institute

A mindset to serve

Oak Park Unified has become a district focused on inquiry based teaching and learning. This focus includes a growing dedication to service learning. One of our driving questions is:

How might we move from service learning opportunities to true civic action?

OPUSD is a small, progressive school district in suburban Southern California. We are a public “district of choice” [ed: not a charter] — 40% of our students come from outside our boundaries (via lottery). We are known for high achievement and high expectations. It’s fair to note that our students come from mostly middle to upper income backgrounds. Teachers have much autonomy in curricular and instructional decisions because we are trusted as professionals. We do not teach to the test, yet we outperform other districts consistently. Professional development is mostly self-selected. These factors lay a foundation for inquiry and its outcome, service learning. It is our goal to move towards true civic action — to create real change.

Setting the stage for inquiry and civic action

“American society’s intense focus on individual achievement and well-being tends to eclipse community needs and efforts.” Zemelman in From Inquiry to Action (2016)

Several years ago, we revamped our mission, one aspect being that each student “Will Become a Compassionate and Creative Global Citizen.” We:

• Recognize, celebrate and embrace diversity, inclusiveness and personal beliefs

• Foster character development, acceptance, ethical and compassionate behavior, social responsibility, community service and global stewardship

This is a lofty goal indeed, but a grassroots effort by many teachers helped make this ideal of a global citizenry a reality, realized through inquiry and civic action.

Like a few teachers before me, I attended professional development at UCLA’s Critical Thinking Institute (CTI — now defunct) at their inquiry-based Lab School. This was the teaching model I never knew I wanted and was everything I believed about teaching — hands-on, high level thinking, student centered, and based on asking and honoring critical questions from students about content and its application to the world outside the classroom. I knew many colleagues felt the same way about teaching — they had to see inquiry in action!

In the spirit of taking action, I served as a liaison between CTI and OPUSD to bring their professional development to us. After a three-year partnership with CTI, over 70 teachers from our elementary schools through our high school have experienced CTI’s inquiry training. This fourth year, OPUSD has established its own Oak Park Inquiry Institute (OPII). OPII is now training its first cohort (equivalent to CTI fourth cohort) in-house plus outreach we do for other districts to help fellow educators teach through inquiry.

So What is Inquiry-Based Learning?

As Larmer & Mergendoller discuss in their article on project based learning (PBL) and in the inquiry model we teach at OPII, students begin with their own driving questions or pose real-world problems, then research to discover possible answers or solutions. This process leads students to generate new driving questions, research and test ideas, and draw their own conclusions. With authentic inquiry comes creativity, engagement, collaboration, and new ideas and ways of thinking — perhaps a new answer to a driving question, a new product, or a new solution to a problem.

The emphasis in inquiry is on authentic, meaningful real-world experiences for students, allowing us to ask driving questions about all issues, especially those pertaining to social justice. At OPII and OPUSD, we value going beyond a classroom project to make an impact either locally — at school and in our community — and/or globally through charity work and awareness of important issues.

How does water impact the development of civilization? An example of Civic Action

In 6th grade humanities, we teach ancient civilizations — which developed near rivers. As we studied the impact of water, students noticed that their peers were littering — plastic water bottles were left in class and all over campus. Kids complained about the hypocrisy between what we study and how we act. As a teacher of inquiry, I asked myself this driving question:

How might we relate the development of ancient civilizations to how we live now?

Students continued to complain about water being wasted and littering on campus, so I asked:

“What are you going to do about it?”

Our civic action campaign was launched — we simply addressed a problem that bugged us. Action was immediate as we:

  • actively recycled to clean campus and raised money for carefully researched charities
  • petitioned the school board to ban sales of plastic water bottles
  • donated monies towards the installation of hydration stations on campus
  • implemented distribution of eco-friendlier reusable water bottles in our district

We worked in class and at lunch time — kids were motivated and engaged — this was learning at a higher, deeper level. Our content may have been social studies, but what we learned is not only how ancient civilizations depended on water for survival and success, but how we as Southern Californians depend on a vital resource that, in our region and in other regions around the globe, is less and less accessible. A driving question such as How might we relate the development of ancient civilizations to how we live now? takes students beyond the textbook into the real world where they advocate for change locally by recycling and globally by donating money to water conservation charities.

Through OPII and inquiry, we help students learn that as Americans, and as students living in our area, we are privileged. Others are not so fortunate. It is our duty to help others — this is what social justice is about. No common core standard states this. We are compelled to ask important and perhaps uncomfortable questions, then take steps to make a big impact.

What have we accomplished so far as schools and as a district?

Our accomplishments both trickle up and trickle down. Here are several examples from our endeavors that any district or school, class, small group, and individual can start immediately or grow over time:

At the district level:

  • Green Ribbon School District — OPUSD and students worked together on many projects to earn this award focused on eco-friendly, sustainable design and habits (sorting trash and composting at school sites, drainage systems, etc.)
  • Food Services: Meatless Mondays (district decision), using produce from school gardens in menus (grown by students). We earned a Golden Seed Award from the California Farm to School Network.
  • Architecture: solar panel installation, eco-friendlier construction (district action)
  • Pest Management: OPUSD won a Sustainability Award for pest control! This was initiated by families, staff, and district concerned about chemical use on animals and use near humans.
  • Super Saturday Sustainability Fair and Recycling Event: Each February, we host this event, drawing 300–500 community members. Many student groups across our schools are involved in this event.
  • Big Sunday Families donate time and money the first Sunday each May to do projects at schools and in the community (trail maintenance, creek clean-up, etc.)
  • Community Dog Walk: a student generated idea with monies donated to Beagle Freedom Project

At the school level:

  • Disability Fairs
  • Campus clean-ups
  • School Gardens
  • Volunteering/Donations/Charities: money raised and donated to Heifer International, Charity Water, Water for South Sudan (to name a few) through lemonade and hot cocoa stands, yard sales, recycling, sending items to servicemen, etc. We communicate with charities, have guest speakers visit classrooms, etc.

Guest Speakers: like Nick Vujicic, spread awareness about disabilities and self esteem. The work we do with Sea Shepherd is all student generated. Sea Shepherd presented to high school students who then decided to bake vegan cookies in the shapes of sea animals the organization tries to save. These cookies will be sold at Super Saturday (see above) with all of the proceeds going to the charity — who will also share information and swag at the event.

How might we tie service learning and civic action to the curriculum?

It is important that teachers, as inquiry leaders, match content to support service learning while still meeting standards and integrating curriculum when possible — saving instructional time as well. For example, 6th grade students read A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park about struggles for clean water, education, and safety in war torn Sudan. This text was chosen to complement our study of how water impacts the development of civilization. We comply with required content and standards but connect the text with a greater good. In the spirit of empathy, one inspired student carried around a jug of water all day to experience the many trips a typical Sudanese girl must take to fetch water! In addition, this novel launches the initiative to save water locally and improve access globally.

The more we engage in service learning, the more volunteers we attract. It is a mindset to be of service. OPUSD creates an environment where student engagement in service learning is valued. The next step for us is to continue to serve and integrate a civic mindset and civic action throughout our curriculum and out to the community. Instead of lesson planning, we would action plan — how can we make content relevant and applicable to today’s pressing issues? This would not take extra time for teachers’ and teams’ collaboration but simply a different approach to collaboration. Our outcomes for student learning would hit the standards and be authentic in their impact.

How might we continue to build relationships within staffs to encourage a shift to inquiry based instruction and civic action?

As with any district, we have staff who stepped up immediately to engage in inquiry and its outcome of action and advocacy — but we also have those teachers not yet on board. It is the goal of the inquiry PLC in our district to foster continued growth in organizational leadership and among colleagues to incorporate a civic action mindset. It is important that inquiry — or any “change” is not mandated but fostered. Allowing colleagues to observe each other teach inquiry lessons, fostering relationships with reluctant teachers through 1 on 1 conversations, coaching, and support helps build trust and confidence.

How do you encourage inquiry and civic action in your classroom, school, and district?

Steve Zemelman is Director of the Illinois Writing Project, works on student civic engagement and restorative justice in Chicago schools, and writes about these efforts in his blog at https://medium.com/@szemelman and in his book, From Inquiry to Action: Civic Engagement with Project-Based Learning in All Content Areas.

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