Skip to main content Skip to main content

Making Civics Real: A Workshop for Teachers

Civic Engagement Civic Engagement — Student Perspectives

The students whose interview comments are excerpted below were juniors and seniors enrolled in a human geography course at Anoka High School in Anoka, Minnesota, a suburb of Minneapolis. They each participated in a service learning project in which they were to identify a community problem, select a student partner with a similar interest, identify a community partner who could educate them on the history and current status of the issue, and make a presentation first before their classmates and ultimately before the City Council.

Standards and service learning

Rachel: Service learning is usually in the social studies department in classes such as U.S. government and U.S. history, geography, modern global studies, and law. It doesn’t matter if you take a regular class, an honors class, or an AP class, you need to still complete service learning hours. We actually have a service learning office in the social studies resource center that has postings of service learning opportunities.

Class routine

Andy: We have the base curriculum that we use out of the book, where we learn about population, growth and how the population is being affected [in different countries]. Service learning is kind of an added thing to put you in touch with your community and let you know that you can make a difference.

Rachel: We get into class, he takes attendance, and then we do Connection Points, which are basically what we have heard in the news, read in the paper, gotten off the Internet or TV or anything like that. We take those and relate them to things that we have learned in the previous weeks or what we read from the chapter over the weekend. Then he’ll go through a summary of the chapter and we will start to apply it to our lives.

Usually he will give us a chapter to read over the weekend, and then he will refer to it in his lessons during the week. On Monday or Tuesday and Wednesday, he’ll go through the information that the book covered as well as his own personal experiences and things from the news. [On] Thursday, we relate it to our lives, and on Friday, we take the test—usually not questions directly from the book, but things that we have talked about. He uses the textbook for examples, maps, charts, or geographic things.

Service learning projects

Andy: (River clean-up project) Our project is the Schwartzman Complex. It shreds complex metal material–mostly automobiles. They separate the metal and the plastics and stuff from the cars. There is a lot of pollution in the ground as well as on the surface of the area and the complex is located right near the Rum River, which is connected to the Mississippi River. Any hazardous waste that could travel from the complex to the river could cause problems in both rivers. Our project is to try and find a way to diminish that and get rid of the surface waste before it travels into the rivers, as well as to deal with the long-term effect of the hazardous material.

John: (River clean-up project) We chose this project because we’re really connected to the river. The river has a lot to do with the whole city. We know that our age group is really connected to the river because there’s a lot of activity we can do, such as fishing, swimming, and boating. We want to keep [the river] clean for future generations, such as our kids. It would be good to preserve a great resource that we have for our community.

Rachel: (Commuter rail project) We were listening to a City Council member talk about how the North Star Corridor Train was dead. We were just amazed to hear that because it was not what we wanted to hear. It didn’t make any sense. Mr. Mittlefehldt came back a couple days later, saying that he had talked to some of his contacts and had heard that it wasn’t dead–that there was still a chance if somebody wanted to work on this project.

I don’t like waiting in traffic and I don’t like having other people wait in traffic. This $147 million has been there for seven years, and they haven’t done anything about it. They’ve rejected all offers to get this going. As a last-ditch effort, we need to go down there and see how the House works and hear what the major opponents of this are saying. They are Republicans, when most of the Republicans throughout the country support commuter rail. That in itself really didn’t make sense to me, and I figure what they must be doing is trying to get a Republican governor. Their numbers don’t make sense in regard to newer studies, and they’re using the old ones when they know that there are new ones. If this were a matter of numbers, it would have been done a long time ago.

I never thought that I would get to go down to the capital and meet different legislators and go down to their offices and into the retiring room behind the House floor. I’m excited to go paint our sign. I was excited to design the sign, and I was very excited to just interact in my community and get together with some people at the county and discuss what we could do to help save this.

Male student: (Riverfest project) We are trying to bring the historic sense of Anoka back to the river—that’s a unique positive attribute for Anoka history. In the past five years, Anoka has held a Riverfest event, but it’s not something totally new. One of our ideas is a canoe race, which actually dates back to about the 1930s or ‘40s, when a canoe race started somewhere off the Mississippi. They would spend their last night in Anoka before going to Minneapolis. We’re trying to get volunteers to help with the Riverfest. We need somebody to sponsor it, partially to cover the insurance costs. It’s beneficial to both parties because they get advertised and get their names out there in the public. We want the Council to help get the canoe race going. If it doesn’t work out this year, we still want it to work out next year or maybe years after that. We made a commercial to run on a local cable channel and we hope to be able to promote the Riverfest with this commercial. We’d like the Council to help get UCTV to run that quite often. Anoka had more connection with the river in its past and we hope that Riverfest in the future will bring people down to the river and possibly bring people from other areas of Minnesota or even around the country to visit our town.

Student partners

John: (River clean-up project) Basically, I’ve known [my partner] most of my life. We played basketball for 10 years and we happened to be in the same class. We were both interested in the river being clean so we’ve decided to do something that would help maintain its environmental status as a really good river in our community. Basically, he’s more the speaking type. He can rattle off stuff. I’m more of the researcher kind of guy. I know the facts a little bit. He’s a presenter. [The partnership] works really well because we both can use our strengths and we don’t have to show off our weaknesses. He can kind of fill in where I’m not as good and I can kind of fill in where he’s not as good.

Community partners

Andy: (River clean-up project) We met with Jeff Connell, a representative from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. He is our coordinator. He works with hazardous sites to find a way to clean up the whole area. He gave us the background on the whole complex: what was there, why it was there, how it was there, how it got there. In our meeting with him yesterday, he described their clean-up plan–the action they’re taking to clean it up and preserve the rivers.

Rachel: (Commuter rail project) I’ve mostly worked with Jeff Connell from the county. Jeff was the one that I got in touch with first. We went down there one afternoon and got all the information they had gathered already, which was very useful in that we didn’t have to search around. I’m going to meet with Commissioner Erhart to discuss some of the things that are going on in the community regarding the train. He’s worked on this for 18 years so I figure I’ll get really good information and opinions [on] what can influence how this is going. We can discuss some of the legislative aspects of it and the money that goes into it and the people that have been working for such a long time to get this passed.

[After her meeting with the commissioner]: We discussed what I can do to further this next year if this doesn’t get passed, and how much of a setback it will be, not only for him in working 18 years on this, but for me working a month on this, having to start over next year because they are voting in a week. So we discussed how we can merge to work even stronger. He was very complimentary to our group in talking about how teenagers made such a big impact at the capital and the discussions that have gone on down there and how exciting it was to have new faces making a difference.

Preparing their presentations

Andy: (River clean-up project) I think for the most part we do know what we’re talking about. We’ve talked to many people who are very aware on the subject and there’s not really much to hide in this. If you want to find it, you can find it. I believe we’ve found what we need. Hopefully, we’ll let them know that younger generations do care about our community as well as our rivers–stuff that adds to our community and makes it a better place. I guess that’s kind of what our main goal is. Hopefully, they’ll jump on it and say, “Hey, we need to clean this up before it gets too late.”

John: (River clean-up project) Hopefully the City Council will be receptive to our idea and not shut us down. I’m expecting that they will fire a lot of questions at us. Hopefully, we can answer those with ease and look like we know what we’re talking about and know how to solve it.

The grading is based on how well you interpret the problem in the community and how well you define it as a real problem for everyone environmentally–businesspeople and the community as a whole. Our peers are going to be grading us and giving us some constructive criticism so we know what we did wrong and what we can do better. We can really build on that so when we present to the Council tonight they’ll be really impressed and take our project to heart.

Recapping their presentations

Andy: (River clean-up project) I think they enjoyed what we said. They understood what we said, and they thought it was very important–the environment and our community. We got our point across. It was a lot of fun. It gave us an opportunity to tell what we felt. They listened to us, and it kind of makes you feel you get a little more power in the community.

I guess that they were kind of curious [about] the cost. We’re not real up-to-date on the cost because there is not an actual cost that the MCPA’s come up with, so we were a little shaky on that, but there’s nothing we can do. That’s kind of a future event.

John: (River clean-up project) I think it went really well. They were pretty receptive to us. They understood our idea, and they understood what we were going for. I feel really good that we did it and did it successfully and [I] feel kind of relieved. It was a pretty satisfying experience because we were able to empower ourselves and make a difference with the Council and the mayor.

Jenny: (Commuter rail project) I think we really got our point across, and they listened to us really well, which is nice.

Rachel: (Commuter rail project) I think we got all of our ideas across, and [it felt good to] talk to the people that were at home and ask for their support and help with it. [Ed. Note: The meeting was broadcast on a local cable access channel.] I wouldn’t say that there were any [questions] that were really surprising because I have talked with a few of the council members, and they had always been really supportive and already committed to the rail, buying land, and proposing a station for it. There wasn’t any opposition that I really expected.

Bill Mittlefehldt's teaching style

Andy: He changes his voice and he keeps you interested. He’s not one of those teachers that just bores you. He’s always up on his feet. He’s always moving around, getting people involved, so you’re always paying attention to find out what’s going to happen next. It makes class a lot more fun and it’s a much better learning environment. He’s real big on going out to the community and working with the community. He thinks that’s a really good feature to have as students–to get out and work with your community–and that has bettered us a lot, I believe.

John: He’s taught me that you can really be a part of your community and apply yourself not just by learning the textbook but just to go out in the community and do something that’s really going to help the community–apply what you’ve learned all 18 years you’ve been in school and use that to better the community.

Rachel: He’s very enthusiastic and very loud. If somebody is falling asleep in the class or is reclining, he will send them out for walks around the building or the social studies area just to get the blood up and pumping. He’s very interactive and encourages you to talk and share your opinion and will ask people out of the blue what they think about certain topics. I believe that what makes him a great teacher is his passion and energy for what he is doing. He smiles all the time about certain subjects. He cracks jokes all the time. I think that the passion comes from teaching for a really long time in this school district. Also, his life experiences have led him to be very insightful on certain things. He taught in south Chicago at a reform school. In New York, he was a social worker. So he’s just got very, very, very different kind of ideas and experiences than we have had.

He’s not passive in dealing with students. He doesn’t sit behind his desk and talk. Just [having] to interact is what really brings him into every student’s vision and he’s very in your face in regard to making you be there to learn instead of just to sit. I believe his interactions really encourage us to get to know the different people in our class. There are people who are in the bottom half of their class. There are people in the top half of their class, juniors and seniors, girls and boys who are in groups together and groups apart. I think there are some really shy people who wouldn’t get their ideas out without him calling on them and making them speak. All the people in our classes come from different places in their lives, so we really gain different insights from that.

When he listens, he looks you in the eyes. I think that really creates the tone of respect that he cares what you’re saying. Or he’ll refer to something you said in the class as a good example of what you thought and how it relates to things that we’ve talked about in class. I think when he engages people in conversation it really shows that he cares what the students are talking about. He’s never upset with us if we have a differing opinion. He’s always more than polite, always very welcoming of new opinions, and will take it and run with it, even if he doesn’t agree with it, to help you to evolve. Now, where teachers can only stay until 2:40 every afternoon, he actually stayed past that to help us get things together because we were going to the capital the next day. It was a big step to help us. He really cares about what we’re doing. I think that really helps create a really good place to learn.

When he talks about service-learning opportunities for our area, he really focuses on stuff that we can do to help. He has a lot of contacts so he really focuses on what we can do here and now. The focus is on improving your community, and we learn about that from the book, from lessons, and going online.

We definitely hear an opinion. [That’s] not to say that he doesn’t show the other side. It’s just you can tell what side he is on. He does maintain neutrality on certain subjects. Being a teacher for so long, he knows how to interact with the class and get people to respond to different questions and show their opinions. We don’t deal with very many controversial issues, but the ones that we do deal with, both sides are represented and the information he has is recent. It’s very interesting to hear his ideas, and we look forward to them.

Value of service learning

Andy: As a freshman and sophomore, it’s more community service where you go out to walk dogs or smaller things–like you help out somebody for different events. As you get to your junior and senior year, you’re more connected, presenting projects and ideas to people such as the city council or even the state legislature or the governor’s office. As you get older, they kind of get you out into the community more, dealing with more people, to show you that this is the real world and prepare you more for your adult life.

I believe service learning is a lot more hands-on. I know I learn a lot better hands-on. It gives us an opportunity to go out there and meet with people in the community, lets us know that we can make a difference and that people do care what we think and believe. It gives us an opportunity to get out of the classroom a little bit and get away from the books–you know, traditional learning–and put what we learn in the books to a real-life situation. So we’re going out and seeing the actual value of that in the real world and that adds a lot to it.

Service learning is preparing us for the real world because a job is not going to be just sitting looking at [a book]. You’re going to have to go out and connect it to real-world situations. This allows us to actually see what’s going on in our community, to see who deals with it and how they’re going to fix the problem. It adds a lot [to your learning] because you’re out there actually seeing it, not just hearing.

I think our roles as citizens have become more involved in caring what happens in our community, what is going on, what could happen, the possibility. The role has just become strengthened. You actually care more as you learn about it. [When] you’re younger, you don’t know as much of what’s going on in the community, but as you get older and do service learning, we find out what’s going on.

Jenny: I think it was really good because it shows that anybody can get involved, if they just take the time. If they want to put forth the effort, they can change things. It shows that we actually do have the power to change some things–that not everything is run by people that we elect that we really don’t know anything about. We can meet them, and they’re just like us.

Standards of Quality for School-Based and Community-Based Service LearningGetting to work with the mayor and also one of the council members really brought our government closer to us. For them to really care and interact with us was really exciting. I think this gave me the opportunity to see that government positions are kind of in reach, and that I can make a difference.

Lessons learned

Andy: I feel more in touch with my community. When you’re younger, you don’t feel like you have the power to do anything. Doing projects like this gives you [the feeling that you] can actually make a difference. I can tell somebody how I feel and somebody is actually going to care. Being 18, it kind of adds more because I can vote and I mean a little more to the community now as [far as] making decisions and being able to let them know how I feel about stuff. It’s a good feeling to have. I like it a lot.

John: Basically, we’ve learned that you can make a difference in your community even though we’re not older [and don’t] have power in the city. But we do have power to change people’s minds and make people aware of a problem that really does exist and that really touches everyone’s lives. After a meeting with the state leaders, we felt more empowered because we had more right to make decisions and change people’s minds [even though] they were higher people. We felt we could really make a difference in the community after meeting with those people.

Rachel: I was talking about this kind of thing with my grandparents–about how, if you don’t get involved, you really can’t complain about anything. If you don’t have positive passion and positive influences on your community, then nothing good will ever come of it. I really feel that what we’ve been doing is influencing our community in a better way and showing people that there are options, even if you don’t like what’s going on. To be able to influence people that way is really exciting, and I like it. I get kind of a warm, fuzzy feeling inside.

It was fun to talk with [her community partner] because he is such a powerhouse in the local community’s government. The input that he gave, not only for this project, but also for life in general, was to find something that you are passionate about and stick with it and show people that you care. He said that one of the most important things to represent about yourself is that you’re passionate and have opinions about certain things. He said that we should present our passion in the best light to some of the council members because, as teenagers, they don’t hear our opinions a lot and to hear them from us will be a great awakening to them in some respects.

Series Directory

Making Civics Real: A Workshop for Teachers


Produced by State of the Art, Inc., in collaboration with the National Council for the Social Studies and the Center for Civic Education. 2003.
  • ISBN: ISBN: 1-57680-679-0