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Urban Case Study: Renewal in Melrose Commons

Rural Case Study: Investing in the Keweenaw's Future

Criteria for Analysis


Civil Society and Sustainable Communities Curriculum

Grade Level: 10 - 12

These adapted activities were designed for the YWCA of the U.S. by the Sustainability Education Center of the American Forum. Printed versions of the entire module will be available from the YWCA and The American Forum and will include numerous case studies and activities designed to focus students/participants on the elements of sustainable community initiatives and on how to apply them to their own local communities.


The following activities have been designed to focus students on actual case studies of sustainable community initiatives. The first activity guides the students in a discussion about the terms "civil society" and "sustainable community" to understand how the two terms are related. In the second activity two case studies (one urban and one rural) are looked at to see how the ideas discussed in the first activity are applied to real-life situations.

Teacher Background

National attention has increasingly focused on the topic of civil society. Many voluntary initiatives which aim to strengthen society and build communities are being created across the United States. These initiatives involve holistic thinking and integrated community actions by citizens. Their agendas all are determined locally.

The renewal of civil society often means that a new paradigm is needed which is both global and local. In many communities today this paradigm has been found in the idea of sustainabilitv.

In describing a sustainable community, Steve Viederman, President of the Jessie Smith Noyes Foundation, New York, NY says, "a healthy, sustainable community begins with a participatory process that creates and pursues a vision of community that respects and makes prudent use of all its assets-natural, human, human-created, social, cultural, scientific, etc. The goal is to ensure, so far as possible, that present generations attain a high degree of economic security and can realize democracy and popular participation in control of their communities, while maintaining the integrity of the ecological systems upon which all life and all production depends. In the process, healthy and sustainable communities will assume responsibility to future generations to provide them with the wherewith-all for their vision, hoping that they have the wisdom and intelligence to use what is provided in an appropriate manner."



In order for students to look at case studies of sustainable community initiatives it is helpful to focus on the terms being used. This warm-up activity is designed to start the students thinking about the types of ideas they associate with "civil society" and "sustainable community." Remember, there are no "correct" answers here.

Learning Objectives

Students will be able to:

  • define the terms "civil society" and "sustainable communities" and
  • describe the relationship between civil society and sustainable community.


Time Frame: 45 minutes

This first activity uses a semantic map as the strategy designed to "tap prior knowledge."

  1. Draw two circles on the board/easel paper. In the first circle write the term "Civil Society." In the second circle write the term "Sustainable Communities."
  2. Ask the students to think silently for two minutes, jotting down any ideas or thoughts that come to mind which could contribute to a definition of each term.
  3. The activity is then opened to the group to share their notes and brainstorm with one another in the large group. The teacher records the ideas on the board/easel paper. CAUTIONARY NOTE #1: If your group is considerably larger than twenty, ask them to assemble in their groups of 3 or 4 which you have pre-assigned to them. Ask each group to assign a recorder, a time keeper and a spokesperson who is willing and best suited for presenting the work of the small group. Then ask the students to share their ideas first in their small groups and record their responses. They can consolidate similar responses, but consensus is not necessary at this point. After they have had a chance to share in their small groups, ask the spokespersons to share the work of their small groups.
  4. A map or web of ideas is developed. When all the ideas are recorded the teacher can solicit the participation of the group in sequencing, prioritizing or grouping the ideas so that the large group can come to consensus on their definitions and understanding of the two terms. CAUTIONARY NOTE #2: As teacher it is very important that this process moves quickly and is fun tor the students. The point here is not to develop the "Be All and End All" definitions. If you feel the group getting bogged down with minutia tell the group that for the purpose of this activity perfection is not necessary. THERE IS NO RIGHT ANSWER HERE!
  5. The final step in this activity is to discuss the relationship between the two terms "Civil Society" and "Sustainable Communities." This should come fairly quickly and one main idea that you as teacher can help to illuminate is that: The members of civil society are the actors and sustainable communities, the desired condition.

NOTE: Some students may begin to complain that all this sounds very "utopian," but that they are dealing with "real life." If this happens, it will provide a useful segue to the next activity which involves case studies of "real life" examples of sustainable community initiatives.


Learning Objectives

Students will be able to identity, compare and contrast, and analyze the elements of a sustainable community initiative.

This activity is designed to give students "real life" examples of some sustainable community initiatives around the U.S. The small group work is modeled after a cooperative learning strategy whereby students interact and depend upon themselves and one another in order to complete a task.

Time Frame: Two class periods


  1. One case study (either urban or rural) for each participant. (Make sure that the members of each small group are given the same case study on which to work.)
  2. large paper and markers
  3. tape
  4. one "Criteria for Analysis" handout per participant

Procedure Day I

  1. Give the members of each small group a case study and the questions hand-out.
  2. Assign a recorder in each group if one has not already been identified. Give the recorder in each group a large piece of paper, a marker and some tape. Ask each recorder to title the page with the name of the community case study with which they are about to work, to note the type of study (urban or rural), and to record the answers to the questions on handout on the paper.
  3. Ask each participant to read the case study you have handed out to them.
  4. When everyone has indicated that they are finished reading, ask the members of each small group to identify a recorder, a time keeper and a spokesperson.
  5. Ask the small groups to discuss what they have read and to refer to the set of questions on the "Criteria for Analysis" handout. Let them know that they should address all the questions on the handout, but are not limited to them if time permits them to ask other questions of the case study.

Procedure Day 2

  1. Ask all students to review the notes that the recorder has made on the large paper and to make sure there is agreement that the notes adequately reflect the previous day's discussion.
  2. When agreement has been achieved, ask all the spokespersons to put up their large pieces of paper around the room and to stand by them.
  3. When all papers are posted, ask one spokesperson at a time (call on them according to contexts--i.e., all rural contexts one after the other--then all urban contexts) to describe their sustainable community case study verbally. (Note: If the group is considerably larger than twenty students, just pick one group from each context to make a presentation. Other groups can add their comments when it comes time to look at common elements in terms of strategies and processes that were used by the people in their case studies-- if the ones used in their case studies have not been presented in the large group yet.)
  4. When you know that all have had a chance to hear/see the work that is up, go to your board or easel and begin to facilitate a discussion about the similarities and differences between the case studies in each context and between contexts that the students can identify. Ask them for any patterns that they see emerging. Record their comments on the board.
  5. Categorize the common elements in terms of strategies, processes and patterns with the students in the large group so that by the end of the activity the group has produced a coherent list of common practices between and among the case studies and their contexts. Example: "The case studies described inclusive participation by a wide range of citizens and groups"; "In every case the people realized their concerns and problems were inextricably linked to the concerns and problems of others--and so were the solutions..."; "many cases involved building consensus among diverse participants and opinions."
  6. Make note too of any significant differences that seem to emerge as patterns if they seem to be relevant to the discussion.

Further Discussion

  1. Ask the students to identify the members of civil society that were represented across the case study sites. Why were they involved? Ask the question, "Do any/some/all of these groups exist in your community?" Facilitate a discussion about the actors in these cases.
  2. Ask the students, "who was not there?" Why?
  3. Ask the question, "how are these initiatives similar or different to projects and programs that are being carried out in your community?"
  4. Then ask the students to comment on what they think makes these cases examples of sustainable community initiatives as opposed to other community initiatives with which they may be familiar or about which they have heard. Record their comments on another sheet entitled, "Sustainable Community Initiatives."
  5. The final question in this activity is, "Can you imagine one of these types of initiatives being successful in your community?"



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