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October 12, 2021

Steps for Community-Based Lessons

Four steps for connecting the classroom to the questions and concerns that deeply affect students’ lives.
School Culture
The global pandemic, perhaps more than anything else in recent history, has brought into focus just how fast schools and communities can respond to change. Many of the things that seemed impossible pre-pandemic—restructuring the school day, rethinking the role of homework, revising instructional modalities, extending unemployment benefits—suddenly became necessary and doable. What does this mean for educators as we contemplate the future of education?
In our current moment, we need to ask some fundamental questions about why, in the world’s wealthiest country, many schools and communities are still on life support. Why do so many schools still lack necessary resources and economic opportunities? Why are people still without enough food or a safe place to live? These questions should give us pause and compel us to reconsider what we do in our schools and why. What if our schools were places where we had the time to think deeply about how to revitalize our communities? What if we spent more time examining how we can prepare our students to be kind and caring participants in a democratic society?
As a former high school teacher and a current teacher educator, I have explored how to connect more deeply to the community with my former and current students and colleagues. In my high school, for example, we found out that there were lots of ways to link to the community. Many local organizations in our city were already working on issues like homelessness, food insecurity, and gun violence. 
I set up a schoolwide committee on community engagement who connected every teacher in our building with at least two community partners for an annual partnership day. To prepare, teachers selected local organizations who would send representatives to every classroom for the day. Students heard short presentations from activists, community organizers, and other nonprofit organizations about the work they were doing, then brainstormed how to work together to be part of the solutions the organizations were addressing.
For example, in one of our classes, students examined the causes of food insecurity in the city and then organized a food drive. They volunteered at a local food depository to see how food was distributed across the city. For the final project, students conducted research on living wage jobs and drew maps showing how such jobs were scarce, making connections between economic stagnation and related social problems like food insecurity.

Steps for Community-Based Lessons

For educators looking to connect the classroom to the questions and concerns that deeply affect students’ lives, such as systemic racism, economic inequality, gun violence, homelessness, and mental health awareness and support, these four steps can help.

1) Build a Relational Culture

At the heart of community and school transformation is the relational work of connecting with others, which includes sharing our stories in intentional ways. A key strategy that community organizers use is called the relational meeting, also known as a one-to-one. One-on-ones start with this question: What do you care deeply about, and why? These meetings often end up revealing common interests.
At my high school, a small team of teachers started this work. We scheduled short meetings (15 minutes or so) before, during, or after school—one or two a day—to find out what colleagues cared about and why they do the work they do Based on these discussions, the group grew to include administrators and students, and we could start to strategize around the specific issues and actions we wanted to address. It is this relational work, above all else, that forms the foundation for transforming schools and communities. It's a process with a horizontal, rather than hierarchical, structure, which is different from the way decisions are often made in school districts.

2) Connect with Community-Based Organizations

Just about every town has local organizations that support community revitalization. Organizations like the Chicago Grassroots Curriculum Taskforce (CGCT) bring together educators, parents, and scholars to write and publish place-based curriculum that examines local history and communities. Students learn about the history of local struggles for justice, as well as how race, place, and economics intersect. One popular project developed by the CGCT is the community tour, where students work with local historians to develop a walking tour of their neighborhoods and share their knowledge of local history, activism, and landmarks. The CGCT provides a model for educators who want to transform their curriculum in ways that allow students to address the questions that matter most to them.

3) Center Marginalized Voices

 Educators are used to being at the front of the room. Working with others requires us to reframe our role as leaders to become facilitators, allies, and accomplices. Identifying local leaders and centering the voices of marginalized populations can help ensure that initiatives about local spaces are driven by local communities. This can be as simple as bringing in guest speakers to your classes, but it can also include having students and community members co-teach courses and develop new curricula. As a high school teacher, my students and I invited students and community members to co-create curriculum and to work as co-teachers in some of our classes.

4) Develop Civic Literacies

Teaching civic literacy means linking the work of teaching with broader questions of equity and justice in our society. Leaders must embrace the role of citizen teachers—those who work to revive active involvement in democratic and governmental processes. These educators not only study social movements of the past, but also examine how these movements are connected to current efforts to promote racial and economic justice and find ways to link the curriculum to these efforts.
For example, the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) is one of the oldest and largest community organizing networks in the country, with a number of local affiliate organizations. Other organizations include PICO California, Community Change, the Poor People’s Campaign, Black Lives Matter, Teachers 4 Social Justice, and R3 (Resist, Reimagine, and Rebuild), just to name a few. At the University of Redlands, where I teach, we have developed a course in collaboration with local community organizers on community-based leadership. Students not only learn about how to engage communities, but also how to identify and work with existing community leaders.

Doing Education Differently

This past year has been a time to enact new ways of doing education. Now, more than ever, we need to center civic literacy in our schools and focus on how to solve the most pressing problems around us. In this vision of civically engaged education, teachers and students can work with communities to create a liberatory, anti-oppressive, humanizing, culturally relevant, and antiracist education system. 

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