Halstead High School Social Studies teacher Derek Schutte remembers being given an assignment to attend a school board meeting during his own academic career. Seeing value in that, Schutte took that lesson and made it his own when he became a teacher — turning it into a civic engagement project that students (mainly juniors and seniors) in his government class now take part in annually.
"It's just an opportunity for students to either inform themselves or others about their school or community, or try to make their school or community better in some way," Schutte said.
Over the past couple of years, Schutte has taken some creative licensing from the Boy Scouts of America and now offers "badges" as part of the project to encourage more participation among students.
Civic engagement activities can range from items like those that inspired Schutte to start the project — attending school board or town hall meetings — to any number of items that would constitute community service, like donating blood.
For this year's project, though, Schutte challenged students to do something for an authentic audience, which led to more unique engagement, such as students creating a podcast about Halstead sports, repainting some of the classrooms and one group of girls who led an effort to renovate the girls locker room, even getting a sponsor to install a water fountain with a bottle refill station.
"There were all kinds of really good things they can now look back on and say, 'Hey, I did that to kind of help our school be a better place or make some improvements,' " Schutte said. "A lot of the things were things that I think our school wanted to do, but when it's student-led it just gives it a little bit more push as opposed to being teacher or administration-led."
With the badges came a sense of recognition and competition, which Schutte said has increased engagement even more. Typically, the project for the government class lasts the duration of the first semester, but students continued on well past that last year.
Beyond that, the project overall helps build an interest and investment within the community among students. Some of the built-in badges are meant to help encourage that — such as the civic friend badge, awarded to students who carpool to an event like a city council meeting — as the project is meant as a means to promote a lifelong habit.
"I hope it's something that they want to continue to do. Maybe they've been to a town hall and they're not thinking about it now, but maybe they want to run for a local office. Or they go to a city council meeting and they've been there before. All of a sudden, they're 28, 30 years old and they're like, 'There's things in my city I'd like to change; I'm not afraid to run for city council because I kind of have an idea of what that looks like,' " Schutte said. "That sense of community, I think, is important. Like with our school, we look at students who are engaged in athletics or activities (who) tend to do better. People who are engaged in their community tend to build those bonds and they have a stake in what's happening around them; they're going to want to put more effort towards keeping their community clean and taking care of it. I think that's an important piece of education."
Going along with that idea of engagement past the one semester of the project, Schutte noted there are other teachers in Halstead leading similar efforts, so the opportunities are out there for students. Engagement is a choice, and with so many ways to get involved, Schutte said he hopes students will keep actively thinking about ways to make the community better.
"There's plenty of ways to do that," Schutte said, "plenty of resources and plenty of ways to help."