Community Service in Social Studies Class

Jennifer Ingold believes the best way to engage her students in American history is by showing them how much they can learn about their past and future “from looking right within our own community.”

By Jennifer Ingold

What’s in your bag? ” I asked my 8th grade history students. “What’s the #1 thing you must have for your field trip?” For most, it was snacks and food, of course!

However, for others, it was more primal thinking – as if they were exploring uncharted territory, either seeking adventure or anticipating survival with maps, a cell phone and another type of emergency or communication device.

“How much can we learn about our past and future from looking right within our own community?” I wondered with them.

We recalled that FDR knew how important that connection was. He created his alphabet soup agencies during the Great Depression in response to the overwhelming needs of ordinary residents in towns and cities across the nation. Roosevelt knew if he were to succeed in helping America forge a new pathway forward, he needed to begin at the heart of America – people in community.

“Where, within our community, do you think is the best place to start looking?” I asked. What I found in their responses was nothing short of awe-inspiring. (Click any slide to enlarge.)

 Our GR8 Investigations

“The only limits you have are the ones that you place on yourselves,” I shared with my eighth graders. This was the part where students began to do deep dives into their community through examining their own inner passions.

“Let’s take a field trip!” I suggested. “ What is one topic, issue or problem that you feel needs attention in our community?”

Some were instantly intrigued, while others were hesitant, struggling with exactly where to begin. So, with a student choice board and 3 easy steps, the Historical Investigations magically began! Each step provided a simple structure that allowed students to seamlessly transition from one phase to another, providing more time for them to concentrate on how to best meet their own individual goals. I provided them choices; they supplied their voices.

From that point forward, each project took on a life of its own. Collectively these examples of student advocacy became the KCC Projects – Kids Creating Community.

Practicing “Passion in Action”

For Liam and Naill, the intrigue came from finding out that many of the Bay Shore residents they randomly polled on Main Street knew little to nothing about the history of their own community. With the help of the Bay Shore Historical Society, they devised a plan for ways to begin better educating others about appreciating the history surrounding the place that we all call home.

Jaiden, like Anna, Kaitlyn, Gianna, Emily and many others, had a desire to decrease the number of homeless animals in need. With the help of The New York Bully Crew, a local not-for-profit dog rescue, Jaiden learned how a dog’s story could best tell the tale, providing the necessary clues for the obstacles to each adoption.

While VanGough had only one ear, Seraphina was a stray originally from the streets of Puerto Rico who needed lots of love and attention. ”She’s just a good dog,” Jaiden found. His interviews with animal shelter organizer Angelique confirmed his views that community education, along with empathy and human compassion, were key to finding each animal a new, loving home.

A healthy dose of volunteer work provided the education and experience required for Jaiden to feel more confident that he could be that difference. He walked away with a renewed sense of self-worth and greater appreciation for how each animal’s story helps us to better connect with the humanity that we all share. Now Jaiden’s mission is helping others to acquire that same appreciation and sense of responsibility.

Other student projects included environmental and wildlife conservation, community clean-up efforts, support for the homelessness, mental health and wellness, and local beautification and greenway development.

Aya’s Story of Creating Community

 “I learned that Bay Shore is a very diverse community and that is what makes our community important. The public library is open to everyone and is full of opportunities, such as ESL offerings that promote literacy and inclusivity helping new English Language speakers to feel more at home.”

— Aya, a 13-year old Bay Shore student

Aya was born and raised in America, the child of Moroccan immigrant parents. She recognized, through her parents’ story of sacrifice, the strength it takes to create a better life. Her passion for her family’s story brought her to the Bay Shore-Brightwater’s Public Library.

Learning about the history of Bay Shore at the library brought Aya closer to her community in ways she never thought possible. As she deepened her understanding of how her community formed and became so diverse, she was inspired by the individuals who strived to make it more inclusive. That inspiration led her to want to be more involved and to give back.

Aya found the library to be an available and openly accessible resource for all, thanks to its well-informed staff and the internet. She further discovered that the library continues to be a central hub for strengthening the bonds between the community and its diverse population.

Aya, like Jaiden, also began to volunteer. Her focus was on children and families, helping spread the joy found in cultural traditions through preparing Gingerbread Kits for families. Aya helped put together and distribute the kits looking to help all families create and celebrate holiday tradition.

Other Examples of Student Advocacy

While Aya was helping children at the library, Nelson was meeting with Dr. Steven Maloney, Superintendent of Schools, to advocate for better sleep quality for all students in our school community. “Kids naturally learn better when they have more sleep,” Nelson told Dr. Maloney.

His research suggested that elementary children, who naturally are up earlier, would benefit from elementary schools beginning earlier, while middle or high students require more sleep therefore benefitting from a later start time. Dr. Maloney listened intently to Nelson’s concerns, then offered Nelson a detailed explanation on the “how’s and why’s” of the traditional district schedule explaining to him why it works the way it does, including the challenges of scheduling and other contingencies involved.

Dr. Maloney then thanked Nelson for advocating on behalf of all of his fellow students in Bay Shore and promised to take his ideas into consideration when making future changes.

Courtesy of: KCC Project, authentic materials, J. Ingold, October 2021

Steven and Jason met with Principal Lisette Lors to discuss ideas for how our school community could come together to help out the non-for-profit STAR Foundation, whose mission is to save the lost, abandoned or injured domestic and wildlife animals of Long Island.

During their interview with STAR , the boys heard the organization’s current concerns and discovered a need for more creative solutions. After talking with Dr. Lors, they decided to spearhead a fundraising initiative bringing together other members of our school community for a common cause. Other school groups included National Junior and TRI-M Honor Societies, who are planning events in order to further spread awareness. Here’s what Steven and Jason concluded:

Courtesy of: KCC Project, authentic materials, J. Ingold, October 2021

My Take-Aways

Steven and Jason, along with the rest of their fellow 8th grade classmates, want to help create a better world. This desire has given each student a renewed purpose, and a valuable opportunity to learn that by strengthening the bonds between their school and the Bay Shore community they can make a real difference in so many ways.

Using a local history lens to get personal and give back has allowed all my students to feel a closer kinship with American history while acquiring a deeper appreciation for the importance of all types of community relationships.

Each of their projects illustrates passion, purpose and hope – a way to work toward the better, brighter future that we all hope to one day share. And for middle schoolers to feel so confident that they can be part of making a real difference for themselves and others – that’s life changing!

Jennifer Ingold (@msjingold) was chosen as both the NCSS and NYSCSS Middle School Teacher of the Year in 2019 and has received the Cohen-Jordan Secondary Social Studies Teacher of the Year Award from the Middle States Council for the Social Studies. In April 2022 the Organization of American Historians (OAH) named Jennifer the OAH’s 2022 Mary K. Bonsteel Tachau Teacher of the Year.

Jennifer currently teaches eighth grade social studies at Bay Shore Middle School in Bay Shore, New York. She has been a speaker at local, state, regional and national conferences, is a lead blogger for, and has had her work featured in major publications such as Social Education, Middle Level Learning, and AMLE Magazine. And, of course, MiddleWeb. 


MiddleWeb is all about the middle grades, with great 4-8 resources, book reviews, and guest posts by educators who support the success of young adolescents. And be sure to subscribe to MiddleWeb SmartBrief for the latest middle grades news & commentary from around the USA.

1 Response

  1. JADONNIA B says:

    I simply love the premise here. Community engagement and social studies are two connected areas of learning. It is from social studies that we learn about our communities, or we are supposed to. We learn about what worked at one time, we learn about what didn’t work and what still doesn’t.
    It is where we envision activism and adopt a ‘what can I/we do?’ attitude. Getting involved and making changes are pondered and planned. If approached properly, encouraging civic engaged youth will begin from kindergarten forward, getting more complex with each growth stage.

    When I taught Social Studies, the subtext to all discussions and lessons asked that youngsters imagine themselves decision and change makers. I emphasized the fact that they all had voices and set out to help them imagine where and how they would/could make themselves heard. It all begins with ‘truth’, and seeking to improve lives for all equitably and respectfully.

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