Teachable Moments: Presidential Pardons by Mary Ellen Daneels

by Mary Ellen Daneels, Civics Instructional Specialist

This past Tuesday, President Trump announced a flurry of presidential pardons and commutations. Illinois residents were particularly interested by the president’s decision to commute Rod Blagojevich’s 14-year prison term, releasing the former governor more than four years early and drawing to a close one of the state’s most notorious corruption cases.

Students in #CivicsInTheMiddle classrooms may have questions about the Blagojevich case and the president’s power to pardon. Here are some resources to help.
What resources are you using to help your students understand presidential pardons? Please comment below. Together, we can prepare ALL students for college, career and civic life.

Guest Blog: We Shouldn’t Talk about Voting without Talking about Voter Suppression - Complicating the Ideal of One Person, One Vote

by Bonnie Laughlin-Schultz, Illinois Civics Instructional Coach
Bonnie Laughlin-Schultz taught high school in the St. Louis area prior to earning a PhD in history. She was a James Madison fellow, class of 1999, and graduated from Knox College with a BA in history and secondary education. She is the social science teaching coordinator and an associate professor of history at Eastern Illinois University, where she teaches social studies methods courses as well as the U.S. history survey, women’s history, research methods and writing, and courses in the online MA for teachers. She is the Civics Instructional Coach for Clark, Clay, Coles, Crawford, Cumberland, Douglas, Edgar, Edwards, Gallatin, Hamilton, Hardin, Jasper, Lawrence, Massac, Moultrie, Pope, Richland, Saline, Shelby, Wabash, Wayne & White Counties.
Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash
We are set to mark the centennial of the 19th Amendment, the moment when American women became voters. Coverage of this centennial abounds, and while some of it offers the nuanced, complicated, and sometimes disheartening story of how women fought for and won suffrage, I wonder if our students sometimes just see this as a moment of progress, a metaphorical checkmark next to another group of people who had once been disenfranchised and are now voters. A similar story might be offered about the Voting Rights Act of 1965, often framed as putting an end to the violence and opposition that disenfranchised African American voters despite the 15th and 19th amendments.

As American patriots, we love stories of upward progress, slow and steady work to expand the bounds of our democratic system, to include more and more voices. I love these stories, too. They are comforting, even inspiring. And yet, I don’t believe that this is the story we should be telling about voting rights in American history. While sixteen states have enacted automatic voter registration, other states have passed stricter voter ID laws, made it harder for college students to vote, closed polls, and decreased the early voting period. Prior to the 2016 election, for example, southern states closed down over 800 polling places.

As we discuss the 19th Amendment, of Shelby v. Holder, and of the upcoming Illinois primary and November’s Presidential election, I believe we should frame voting rights as being contested throughout American history, not just in the past but also in the present. The adage of “one person, one vote” may be our vision of what democracy is, but in the United States each adult person does not have equal ability or access to vote. In his recent book, Give Us the Ballot, Ari Berman makes the case that sophisticated tactics aimed at suppressing the vote have been used in the American past and, very importantly, since the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

We know that cases of voter fraud are very rare. Despite that, voter fraud is often used to justify strict voter ID laws (recently struck down by the state Supreme Court in Missouri) and the kind of voter roll purging that recently made headlines in Wisconsin. The Brennan Center produced an extensively researched report arguing that “fraud is very rare, voter impersonation is virtually nonexistent, and many instances of alleged fraud are, in fact, mistakes by voters or administrators.” If we believe this report and other such research, we are doing a disservice to our students if we present an argument about voter ID and the need to combat voter fraud that doesn’t consider voter suppression alongside voting rights.

We are also creating unjust cynicism in our students, who we hope will take voting seriously. As Anya Malley points out in Teaching the Truth About Voter Suppression, “For some folks today, there is a lot standing between them and the polls. When we write off all non-voters as lazy or unengaged, we ignore the impact of voter suppression. Instead of pretending that voting is equally easy for everyone, we should explain to students how voter suppression happens and how it affects election outcomes.”

Resources for Teaching about Voting and Voter Suppression

Resources for the State of the Union Address

by Mary Ellen Daneels, Civics Instructional Specialist

This week is a cornucopia of “teachable moments” for #CivicsInTheMiddle classrooms. The week begins with the Iowa Caucuses. Next, a vote in the Senate to conclude the impeachment proceedings against President Trump is expected midweek. A Democratic Debate in New Hampshire rounds out the week on Friday.

Tuesday will be marked by a Presidential address to the nation on the State of the Union. If you are looking for resources to help students understand the history and significance of the State of the Union address, here are a few resources to start with.
What are you doing to use the State of the Union address in your classroom? Please comment below. Together, we can prepare all students for college, career and civic life.

Rethinking the "Both Sides" Reflex

by Dr. Bonnie Laughlin-Schultz, Illinois Civics Instructional Coach

How often do we in American life talk about the need to represent both sides? I saw an intriguing interview last week in which a Congressperson complained to a member of the media that they were being unfair by not presenting “both sides.” We critique headlines, we talk of the silos in which we receive our news, and we discuss the importance of preparing our students to be smart consumers of media. But I confess, even with our good intentions I think at times we are led astray into thinking that presenting “both sides” is the best path towards objectivity and better news habits.

One example concerns the discussion of Confederate monuments. It might be tempting to set up an exercise in which students debate if monuments should be removed, with a reading representing “remain” and another posturing “remove.”

This feels neutral; we choose readings from two sides, structure student reading, and help them reach informed decisions, right? But are these both sides we as social studies teachers should represent? Or do we need to attend to nuance in this discussion, making sure to provide readings that accurately present the history of monument building and, moreover, to take into account the many possibilities that exist if monuments are removed?

A few years ago I read a memoir by Mitch Landrieu, former mayor of New Orleans who oversaw the removal of four monuments there. He spent a book outlining his and the nation’s history and thinking about the background and presence of the monuments in his city. His thinking is nuanced as well as a great example for students of how to mull and arrive at an informed opinion. He gave a famous speech on the topic, too, and that could be great to use. This is not to imply that his is the only right position; rather, it is to say that his is a position steeped in an understanding of the history of the monuments and thoughtful in consideration of their place in American life today.

Isn’t this what we really want our students to be doing? Asking students to carefully examine his opinion alongside three pieces: a news article about the specific sides in New Orleans, a progressive mayor calling for monuments to stand, and a writer highlighting African American protest against them takes thinking about “both sides” up a notch and is at the heart of an Illinois Civics lesson plan.

Note that an uninformed, knee-jerk “keep them” position is not reflected here, nor is this a Fox-versus-MSNBC-and-you-decide approach. Though some of the pieces offer compelling arguments of why they should stay, they are all nuanced in their reflection, deep in consideration of the issues involved in thoughtful consideration of the place of monuments in the United States, past and present.

In our classrooms, we are not just battling against fake news. We are fighting for nuance and careful attention to facts. I love the News Literacy Project’s bumper sticker: “Facts are democracy’s seat belt.” But it’s not just “facts” alone, it is nuanced consideration of issues in American life.
Bonnie Laughlin-Schultz taught high school in the St. Louis area prior to earning a PhD in history. She was a James Madison fellow, class of 1999, and graduated from Knox College with a BA in history and secondary education. She is the social science teaching coordinator and an associate professor of history at Eastern Illinois University, where she teaches social studies methods courses as well as the U.S. history survey, women’s history, research methods and writing, and courses in the online MA for teachers. She is the Civics Instructional Coach for Clark, Clay, Coles, Crawford, Cumberland, Douglas, Edgar, Edwards, Gallatin, Hamilton, Hardin, Jasper, Lawrence, Massac, Moultrie, Pope, Richland, Saline, Shelby, Wabash, Wayne & White Counties.

What to Look for in the Early Caucuses and Primaries

by Mary Ellen Daneels, Civics Instructional Specialist

The new year brings an opportunity to use the upcoming elections to engage students in the proven practices of civic education outlined in 6-12th grade civic course mandates. IllinoisCivics.org will provide a plethora of resources and lesson plans to support this important work.

Last week, Dr. Shawn Healy, Director of the Democracy Program at the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, hosted our first #Election2020 after school webinar that examined the candidates, polling data, the mechanics of caucuses and primaries in delegate selection, and what to look for with your students in early 2020. If you missed the 45-minute webinar, you can access a recording.

Register today for our next after school webinar on Tuesday, February 18th from 3:45 to 4:30 p.m. on Super Tuesday and the Illinois Primary. Those who register can join live or receive a link to view the recorded presentation and accompanying resources.

Each webinar concludes with classroom resources you can use with your students to engage them in current and societal issue discussions, simulations of democratic processes, and service learning during this election year. Here are some of the resources shared in the last webinar:
  • There are Iowa Caucus classroom simulations from the Iowa Secretary of State, one for Democrats and another for Republicans.
  • A brief video from Why Tuesday? illustrates how the Iowa Caucuses work.
  • PBS Learning Media has a lesson that explores the history of the Iowa Caucus and the benefits of being “first in the nation.”
  • PBS NewsHour Extra has a lesson called “What are Primaries and Caucuses?”
  • The Bill of Rights Institute has resources for “The Iowa Caucus and Beyond.”
  • iCivics has a curricular unit on Politics and Public Policy that includes a lesson on the election process.
  • Civics 101 has an episode devoted to explaining primaries and caucuses.
  • The Five Thirty-Eight podcast has launched a special series called The Primary Project. Its first episode features the 1968 Convention in Chicago and its impact on current events.
  • Stranglehold from New Hampshire Public Radio explores the history, personalities, and challenges of being the site of the first in the nation primary election.
  • Caucus Land from Iowa Public Radio explores, “Where the road to the White House begins!”
What resources are you using to engage your student in #Election2020? Please comment below. Together, we can prepare ALL students for college, career and civic life.

Guest Blog: Needing New Lesson Plans for the New Year? Check out Street Law

by Jane Hicks, Edwardsville High School

On New Year’s Eve 2019, Chief Justice John Roberts issued a warning in his year-end statement when he observed, “We have come to take democracy for granted and civic education has fallen by the wayside.” Many civics teachers across the country heartily agree. Thankfully the State of Illinois now requires both middle school and high school civics education. More social studies departments across the state are re-examining the importance of teaching about government and seeking ideas to help their students. In addition to Illinois Civics, what is another great resource for political science teachers? Where can they find numerous lesson plans that help teach democratic simulations and controversial topics? Street Law.

While attending Street Law’s Supreme Court Summer Institute in 2019, I gained incredible insight on the workings of the Court, met teachers from across the U.S., and walked away with meaningful activities for my students. Street Law’s mission, since 1972, has been to provide teachers of the law and government free materials in order to help students with these difficult topics. Their materials are easily accessible to anyone on their website. Their shopping cart format might initially give the impression that you have to pay. But do not worry, most materials have a price of $0.00. The cart system helps keep track of the lesson plans that are of interest to educators.

Two activities that really stood out for me were the moot courts and deliberations. A moot court is a simulation of an appellate court. It is not a mock trial. Students act as attorneys making oral arguments in front of the Supreme Court for a real case. The classroom should be divided into three groups: the petitioners bringing the case, the respondents defending the previous ruling, and the justices asking questions of each. The Street Law website has numerous and step by step instructions. Full moot courts may take a few class periods, but their mini-moot courts might only take a day.

Street Law’s 2019 Summer Institute practicing a moot court in a Georgetown Law classroom.

Another Street Law activity that I brought into my civics class is a deliberation. A deliberation helps students to grapple with controversial topics by examining various points of view. The concluding piece is to come to a consensus. At the summer institute, we deliberated a federal ban on assault weapons. We were given readings to sift through and then applied quotes from the readings to both sides of the argument. My group had a very engaging conversation and we were provided time afterward for individual reflection. In the end, I was surprised to realize I had slightly altered my own long-held opinion on this topic.

As our society grows in complexity, so the job of the social studies teacher becomes increasingly more challenging. Thankfully there are many professional development resources like Street Law and Illinois Civics to help educators wrestle with the times and help students to do so also.

2019 Was a Very Good Year for Civic Learning in Illinois

by Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Democracy Program Director

With Winter Break in sight and the books on 2019 about to close, this year-end retrospective recaps what was a very good year for civic learning in Illinois.

2019 began with the promise of a renewed push for middle school civics, culminating in the #CivicsInTheMiddle Campaign. Representative Camille Lilly (D-Oak Park) sponsored legislation to require a semester of civics in middle school beginning with the 2020-2021 school year, embedding proven civic learning practices (direct instruction, discussion, service learning, and simulations).

The legislation sailed through the House by Spring Break, gaining a bi-partisan supermajority, and moved to the Senate under Senator Jacqueline Collins (D-Chicago). The formula repeated itself in the upper chamber, although the Senate committee hearing was more contentious, but by May 23, middle school civics cleared the Illinois General Assembly, once more with a filibuster-proof, bi-partisan vote. Teachers and students provided critical outreach to undecided legislators down the stretch.

Governor Pritzker signed Public Act 101-0254 on August 9th, and the Illinois State Board of Education followed with guidance for teachers, schools, and districts, permitting desired flexibility in implementation.

Simultaneously, the Illinois Civic Mission Coalition (ICMC), convened by the McCormick Foundation, launched a three-year implementation plan informed by both its previous experiences with the high school course requirement and survey data gathered from middle school teachers and administrators. Highlights include in-person and online teacher professional development, complementary unit and lesson plans, instructional coaching by region, and support from civic learning partners. Online professional development will take the form of content-specific webinars and a three-course microcredential course series centered on proven civic learning practices, titled “Guardians of Democracy.”

It should also be noted that high school course implementation concluded in 2019. Since October 2015, nearly 9,000 teachers attended ICMC workshops, and McCormick staff and teacher mentors provided more than 1,300 hours of professional development. The aforementioned middle school interventions are not exclusive, but rather intended to support middle and high school civics teachers, providing supports to sustain the latter implementation effort.

Beyond the middle school breakthrough, the Democracy Schools Initiative successfully piloted new assessment instruments, still measuring civic learning opportunities and school culture, but through a racial equity framework. Eleven Network schools reupped their commitment to the equitable pursuit of their civic mission, with a larger group set to do the same in 2020, including prospective new members. The Democracy Schools Network currently numbers 74 high schools reflective of the state’s geographic and demographic diversity.

Finally, the McCormick Foundation hosted a convening this fall on the state of student discipline and restorative justice in Illinois schools. In 2015, Illinois passed a law (Senate Bill 100) limiting exclusionary discipline practices in schools; requiring districts to track suspensions, expulsions, and alternative placements by race, gender, and grade; and recommending use of restorative practices in their stead.

While exclusionary discipline declined modestly, stark racial disparities remain, and restorative practices are rarely employed. Our convening identified both barriers to implementation, but also opportunities, and we intend to leverage them through a series of 2020 grants and continued convening of the Transforming School Discipline Collaborative, among other partnerships.

To our trusted teachers and administive colleagues in the trenches, please take a bow at the end of a banner year for civic learning in Illinois. While much work remains, we have emerged as a national leader and have much to be proud of. It is the honor of my lifetime to work by your side to transform the civic trajectory of the Land of Lincoln. Our long-term salvation rests in the hearts and minds of the students you touch every day.