Illuminating Instruction: Combining Service-Learning and Storytelling into a National Geographic Elective

This post was written by educator Jaclyn Foster.


Last year, I started an after-school club to work on the National Geographic GeoChallenge and service-learning projects. It was all student-driven; we had a camera spot on Exploring By the Seat of Your Pants that talked about plastic pollution in the oceans and the impact it was having on marine life. This sparked an interest in my students to learn more. The GeoChallenge was just about to start and dealt with plastic pollution, so I asked my students if anyone would be interested. Several were, so we had three teams participate in the challenge and that was the start of our Nat Geo Club. It turned into something bigger than we thought, and our dean asked if we could make it an elective class. This year, we were able to create an hour-long elective (called the Nat Geo Elective!) to focus on student-driven service-learning projects.

I teach from the National Geographic Service-Learning Toolkit. My students download the student workbook and go through it step by step. I haven’t had to do much prep — all of those great resources are already broken down into lesson plans, which is a huge support. My students are doing different service-learning projects in groups of two. They researched the topics they wanted to work on and drive the learning themselves. For example, one group is making masks for the homeless and another is working with the Black Warrior Riverkeepers (which helps clean the river of pollution and check balances for contamination). The service-learning workbook walks them through all of it. 

I also have added a new storytelling element to the course. I took the Storytelling for Impact In Your Classroom: Photography course over the summer and was inspired to use Adobe Spark to help my students share their stories of impact at the end of the quarter. The course also involves the Geo-Inquiry Process — my students are having to learn the questions they need to ask, the data they need to collect, how they can visualize their work (the storytelling aspect), and the creation of their project. That’s a big part of the Geo-Inquiry Process: How do you act on it? In this case, they are acting by doing their projects and by sharing their storytelling videos with calls to action. The Geo-Inquiry Process goes great with service learning. 

My students are younger and there’s a portion of the course where they need to be contacting community leaders. My challenge is stepping back and letting them develop these skills on their own. Another challenge is when students face dead ends; while they were brainstorming ideas, I knew there would be some they couldn’t do. For example, one group wanted to volunteer at a soup kitchen, but that can’t happen in the time of COVID-19. I didn’t tell them no but told them to keep digging — they had to call and find out on their own that the soup kitchen wasn’t accepting volunteers. Last year, a group volunteered at a nursing home to teach residents technology, but this year they have to be more creative to make it adaptable to our situation. And my students are calling and finding ways to make it work. The soup kitchen team instead chose to donate food, and are going through the process and being leaders.

Here’s an example of a project my students have been working on this quarter:

Last year, my students made Christmas ornaments and sold them; they took the money and gave it to the Tuscaloosa Metro Animal Shelter. This fall, the shelter wanted to promote adoption for the pets, and we were going to host a “Happy Hour” where community members could take the animals for a walk. We also were going to do a photoshoot with the dogs and use social media to help get them adopted. Because of COVID-19, we couldn’t do that, but the animals are still stuck in the shelter. So my students made gourmet dog treats for them and brought them to the shelter. The shelter employees took videos of the dogs eating the treats and how it brightened them up. My students then made a video to encourage others to reach out and help the shelter; you can watch their video below:

For other educators interested in forming their own National Geographic-inspired course, I recommend starting as a club. Some schools let you hold clubs during the school period and this is instruction you could do virtually — students could be doing the Geo-Inquiry Process at home, making phone calls, etc. National Geographic already has the tools you need: the Geo-Inquiry Process and the Service-Learning Toolkit. All you need to determine is how you are going to organize the course or club and your time-frame. Or even if you can’t start a club, you can include more Geo-Inquiry or service-learning in your classroom to get started. 

Through this elective, I have seen a positive impact on my students’ skills including teamwork, development of leadership skills, creativity in selecting projects, empathy to others, and practicing their storytelling skills. 



Jaclyn Foster is a National Geographic Education Certification Facilitator and Community Leader. She has taken many National Geographic Education courses, including Social Media, Public Speaking, Storytelling for Impact in the Classroom, Integrating Service with Learning goals, How to Deliver Phase one of Educator Certification, Mapping as a Visualization and Communication Tool, and the Geo-Inquiry Process.

Feature image by Melissa Watkins Lang