Reflecting on the Spring 2019 Democracy Schools Network Convening

by Scott McGallagher, Research Intern

The Spring 2019 Convening of the Democracy Schools Network brought together many familiar faces, and some new, who hold a stake in the civic development of young people in Illinois. Democracy Schools are high schools recognized for consciously promoting civic engagement by all students, focusing intentionally on fostering participatory citizenship and placing an emphasis on helping students understand how the fundamental ideals and principles of our democratic society relate to important current problems, opportunities, and controversies. Since 2006, 74 high schools have been recognized throughout Illinois for making this commitment to schoolwide civic learning.

The theme for this year’s convening revolved around “Lived Civics in Democracy Schools,” where the day provided opportunities to engage Democracy Schools Network (DSN) team leaders, administrators and Democracy Program partners to engage in this topic and reflect on Lived Civics principles as a foundation for Democracy Schools. Program Officer Sonia Mathew presented new indicators of civic efficacy that embed a Lived Civics framework and launched a new Democracy Schools assessment process to those gathered. Democracy Program Director Shawn Healyrounded out the day by energizing Network stakeholders with an overview of the Middle School Civics Bill, which is now heading to Governor Pritzker’s desk for signing!

The morning started with a warm welcome that set the context for Lived Civics with brief remarks from Chief Education Officer LaTanya McDade from Chicago Public Schools. Afterwards, a panel discussion moderated by Jessica Marshall, PhD candidate from Northwestern University (and one of the co-authors of “Let’s Go There: Making the Case for Race, Ethnicity, and a Lived Civics Approach to Civic Education”), included panelists Michele Morales, CEO of Mikva Challenge; Courtney Barnes, UIC Graduate Student and Lindblom Math and Science Academy Alumni; Homero PeƱuelas, Assistant Principal of Curie Metro High School; and Jason Janczak, Social Studies Department Chair at Grayslake Central High School. Panelists were asked to reflect on the Lived Civics framework and how it affected their work.


Student voice and its relationship to identity and lived experiences was a key takeaway from our panelists. The panelists also reaffirmed that it is an educator’s duty to teach students how to listen with empathy, value everyone’s point of view, and be more comfortable with being uncomfortable. Another takeaway that not only spoke to me, but was shared with so many others, is that so many schools and educators are struggling with similar obstacles and that the pursuit of equity is an ongoing, yet worthwhile, battle. We need to recognize that biases and prejudices exist even in more inclusive and diverse schools, so continuously holding ourselves accountable is a must.

Breakout sessions after the morning panel discussion split the administrators, teachers, and partners into various groups where each explored Lived Civics at a deeper level and tasked the groups to identify strengths and opportunities of their respective schools or organizations. In synthesizing the evaluations from the convening, some teachers expressed that knowing their students is not the same thing as truly understanding them. If teachers are to build a more meaningful connection with their students, the intentionality should be coupled with time and resources to devote to individual students.

Administrators shared a similar sentiment with teachers in that practicing intentionality will help lead to more meaningful student-teacher relationships. Also, some administrators shared one idea of including students more in the school decision-making process by inviting students to interdepartmental meetings.


Partners expressed that they were exposed to civic engagement opportunities that had been previously shrouded to them. One made a point to say that we — educators and practitioners alike — are not “frenemies,” we are all on the same path together.

The overarching goal of the day, and arguably the Lived Civics framework, was to give those gathered the tools of knowing “what to do next.” Educators and practitioners understand the “how” and the “why” of Lived Civics, now the framework gives them tools for action. Sharing the tools and approaches acquired with colleagues is not only a step that many ascribed to taking, but also sharing this with decision-makers above them. Others recognized the need to couple Lived Civics practices with social-emotional learning in classrooms, both supporting each other. Lastly, but certainly not least, many expressed the desire to be the catalysts in sparking constructive conversations in their work environments around issues of power, privilege, race, and lived experiences.

I want to leave us with some questions that the groups from the convening posed as what comes next and how we should approach it. These questions will hopefully help guide us in how we can professionally and personally strive towards molding communities that are equitable, just, and responsive.
  • How do we use Lived Civics to get white students on board with truly grasping students of color’s lived experiences? How do we tackle “white fragility” with both young people and adults?
  • What does Lived Civics look like in different schools/communities around the state of Illinois?
  • What will Lived Civics look like in classes outside the social sciences? How will we create “buy-in” at an interdisciplinary level?
  • How can we increase school-community partnerships in environments that are perceived as “polarizing” or not open to change?
  • Where are there opportunities to bring young people from across the state (urban, suburban, and rural) together for these conversations?

Constructing Curriculum with Essential Questions

by Mary Ellen Daneels, Lead Teacher Mentor
As the school year comes to a close, construction season descends. While most of people equate “construction season” with road delays, orange cones, and detours, many educators embark on their own season of construction with curriculum design. Summer is the time to reflect on the successes and challenges of the previous school year and redesign curriculum to better meet student needs.

The new Illinois Social Science Standards require that curricular design be guided by inquiry which is grounded in essential questions. So, what makes a great essential question? Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins, in their book Essential Questions, provide the following considerations in curating essential questions to construct curriculum.
  1. Is open-ended; that is, it typically will not have a single, final, and correct answer.
  2. Is thought-provoking and intellectually engaging, often sparking discussion and debate.
  3. Calls for higher-order thinking, such as analysis, inference, evaluation, prediction. It cannot be effectively answered by recall alone.
  4. Points toward important, transferable ideas within (and sometimes across) disciplines.
  5. Raises additional questions and sparks further inquiry.
  6. Requires support and justification, not just an answer.
  7. Recurs over time; that is, the question can and should be revisited again and again.
The standards are not prescriptive how many essential questions should be used in curriculum design, but the prompts should guide how students will communicate conclusions in the summative assessment. Further, the BEST essential questions provide a platform for taking informed action or engaging in the civic proven practice of service learning.

The C3 Framework from the National Council for the Social Studies makes reference to “compelling questions” for inquiry design. C3Teachers maintains that compelling questions must meet two requirements.
  • First, they have to be intellectually meaty. That means that a compelling question needs to reflect an enduring issue, concern, or debate in social studies and it has to draw on multiple disciplines. For example, “Was the American Revolution revolutionary?” works as a compelling question because it signals a continuing argument about how to interpret the results of the Revolution.
  • The second condition defining a compelling question is the need to be student-friendly. By student-friendly, I mean a question that reflects some quality or condition that teachers know students care about and that honors and respects students’ intellectual efforts. The American Revolution question above seems to fit these qualifications as well: It brings students into an authentic debate and it offers the possibility that adults may be confused—how could the American Revolution not be revolutionary? The latter is a condition that students tend to find especially fascinating.
The summary of compelling questions from S.G. Grant points to a key distinction between compelling questions and essential questions that Illinois educators wrestle with in curriculum design. While all essential questions are compelling, not all compelling questions are essential. Compelling questions are open ended and debatable, but often they are contextualized. “Was the American Revolution revolutionary?” applies only to the American Revolution, it does not meet McTighe and Wiggins consideration of a prompt that recurs over time.
I have found that Essential Questions lead more easily to the informed action of service learning. I am not sure how a student would take informed action on the question, “Was the American Revolution revolutionary?” However, if I gave that question a bit of a “makeover” to really define the “why” or the enduring understanding of this unit of inquiry on the American Revolution, I might craft a question that is both compelling and essential. Some examples might include:
  • What makes an idea “revolutionary?”
  • What principles are worth fighting for?
  • When does a “moment” become a “movement?”
  • When should one question authority?
  • Is conflict inevitable?
  • Can one person make a difference?
  • To what extent have we lived up to the ideals of the American Revolution?
You can see how these questions meet the requirements of a compelling question, but also recur over time in multiple contexts, making them essential as well. The queries also point to possible informed action. Students can communicate their conclusions to the question using the curriculum content and go a step further and engage in meaningful service learning to apply their conclusions to take informed action in the community, local or global.

When embarking on constructing your own essential questions to construct inquiry, here are resources I have found helpful.
What are some of the essential questions you are using in curriculum design? What are your favorite resources to support this work? Please comment below! Together, we can prepare ALL students for college, career and civic life.

I'll Jump First

by Mary Ellen Daneels, Lead Teacher Mentor

Podcasts are an integral part of my continuing professional development. Through podcasts, I can keep on top of current events, learn from other educators, delve deep into social studies related content as well as pursue other interests outside of the classroom.

Imagine my delight when I was asked to be a guest on the Park Ridge-Niles District 64 Podcast, I’ll Jump First! The podcast is produced “by teachers for teachers”. The topic of our conversation was Questioning in the Classroom, more specifically engaging student voice in inquiry.

The 30+ minute conversation with District 64 Technology Instructional Coaches Megan Preis, Kevin Michael, and Mary Jane Warden delved into the opportunities and challenges of supporting K-12 classrooms in questioning. We also shared a bevy of resources that can be used by teachers to scaffold instructional shifts around the new Illinois Social Science standards and civic education requirement.

I hope you will give the episode a listen and follow these amazing educators on social media. District 64 is a leader in meaningful integration of technology to support student inquiry leading to informed action.

If you are looking for some resources to help you “jump” into engaging student voice in questioning, here are some of the resources we shared in our conversation — but you will have to listen to catch them all!
What strategies have you used to support student inquiry and questioning in the classroom? Please comment below. Together, we can support ALL students in college, career and civic life success.

A Veteran Civics Teacher’s Case for #CivicsInTheMiddle

by Mary Ellen Daneels, Lead Teacher Mentor

The Election of 2018 has often been called a “Sputnik” moment for civic education. No matter where you fall on the political spectrum, both sides of the aisle have been increasingly alarmed by the effects of political polarization on our republic. One of the unintended consequences of educational initiatives related to STEM and No Child Left Behind is that social studies has been increasingly marginalized in grades K-8. By passing HB 2265 on Tuesday, the Illinois Senate Education Committee took a positive step towards returning to the civic mission of schools and putting “civics in the middle” through legislation requiring a least a semester of civics within grades 6, 7, and 8.

While the Illinois civics standards and school code requirements clearly describe knowledge needed to prepare students for civic engagement (content) — HB 2265 is needed to further define the skills and dispositions educators need to build in students through the use of direct instruction on government institutions, current and societal issue discussions, simulations of democratic processes, and service learning (proven pedagogical practices).

Why are these proven practices so powerful? When we engage students in:
  • Direct instruction of government institutions, young people learn about our federal system of government. They learn how local, state and federal governments divide power for efficiency and efficacy. Young people understand that they are important members of society with rights and responsibilities that they can exercise NOW to make their community a better place.
  • Simulations of democratic process, young people learn how government institutions work and how to navigate networks related to voting, jury service, the legislative process, criminal justice, and other complex systems. Students build an appreciation for the service of elected officials and participatory citizenship.
  • Current and societal issue discussions, students build important literacy skills related to reading, writing, speaking and listening. Students learn how to curate complex information and build media literacy capacities. Dispositions related to critical thinking, communication, creativity, collaboration, and compassion for others are employed and used as they work together to understand and address issues related to equity, identity, justice, power, and liberty.
  • Service learning, we are not waiting for students to turn 18 to practice citizenship — we provide an opportunity for them to take real world action in a safe environment NOW through investigation, planning, preparation, action, reflection, and demonstration of learning.


What might this look like in classroom practice? Consider Matthew Arends from Gemini Junior High in Niles. This past fall, his class engaged in an examination of the current and societal issue of school safety after preparation by Matthew through direct instruction. After engaging in a Structured Academic Controversy on arming teachers, students used a simulation of democratic processes to deliberate the issue. To communicate their conclusions, students took informed action through service learning, polling their peers and other stakeholders. Students shared the results with a school board member to inform his vote on a pending resolution regarding arming teachers.

Matthew’s students provide a snapshot of the work many middle schools have embarked on with the new Illinois Social Science Standards through inquiry leading to informed action. HB 2265 will ensure that ALL students in the state have equitable opportunities to build and use civic knowledge no matter their race, socioeconomic status, or geographic location.

In the past few years, the #CivicsIsBack team has worked with over 2000 middle school teachers throughout the state of Illinois. We have found that with no state mandated social science coursework requirements, some schools choose to “cover social studies” in double periods of Language Arts classes through the periodic use of historical texts taught as pieces of literature, but not necessarily in their historical context. In other schools, there is no explicit instruction of civics beyond a week of preparation for a multiple choice exam on the U.S. and Illinois Constitution. These realities are not an indictment, rather the consequence of social studies being squeezed out as a result of other initiatives. This is a disservice to the youngest citizens to our communities. ALL students deserve access to the knowledge and skills needed to navigate our political institutions and an opportunity to explore their rights and responsibilities in this republic.

The McCormick Foundation is taking the lead and using the successes of the high school course implementation to support middle school teachers, schools, and districts to incorporate civics in 6th, 7th, or 8th grade. This will be done through a three-year, privately funded plan in which $1 million dollars with be invested annually to support professional development and the development of resources for #CivicsInTheMiddle.

How can you support the equitable preparation of ALL Illinois students for civic engagement?
  • Contact your state senator and urge him or her to vote “yes” for HB 2265.
  • If you are a middle school educator, please take this online survey to assess needs for implementation.
  • If you are a high school educator, please take this online survey to assess the implementation of high school civics — this information will further guide our work in this space and in middle school.
  • Subscribe to our #CivicsIsBack newsletter to get connected to resources and updates on policy related to civics in the classroom.

Past is Prologue for Presumptive Implementation of Middle School Civics

by Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Democracy Program Director

As legislation to require a semester of civics in middle school moves to the Illinois Senate, this post will further elaborate on the McCormick Foundation’s presumptive plan to support statewide implementation. Like the high school course, we propose a three-year plan to help middle school teachers, schools, and districts incorporate a civics course in grades 6, 7, or 8.

The past three years provide a prologue for middle school implementation. I’ve written previously about the impact of high school civics implementation, from the fidelity by which teachers, schools, and districts have implemented the law to student civic engagement outcomes. I have also addressed the value provided by more than 1,300 hours of professional development (PD) to 10,000-plus teachers since October 2015.

Dr. Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, Director of the Center for Information Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tufts University, offered some additional, high-level take-aways from our multi-year implementation efforts during a presentation at the 2018 National Council for the Social Studies Annual Conference. Kei’s conclusions were published last month in the Success in High-Needs Schools Journal in an article co-authored by Lead Teacher Mentor Mary Ellen Daneels and me (beginning on page 58).


  1. Show Not Tell: Professional development should let teachers experience what the new pedagogy feels like as learners. Our mentor-led PD combines civic content and pedagogy and models their integration into teachers’ classrooms.
  2. Be a Yoga Master: Not all teachers are the same--show ways to adapt lessons. As Mary Ellen is wont to say: “Good teachers are mixers.” As PD providers, it is our duty to share suggested “ingredients” and allow participants to “season” to their liking.
  3. Teachers are Partners: Take teacher inputs seriously--they need voice before they can give voice. Teachers are central to our grass roots implementation efforts and have shaped our plans from start to finish.
  4. Words Matter: How you describe a practice can make or break the adoption. For example, the service learning component of the course requirement terrified many teachers at the outset. Mary Ellen wisely reframed it to “taking informed action” in alignment with the new Illinois K-12 social studies standards and offered a variety of means to pursue this end with students, lowering the collective blood pressure of civics teachers instantly.
  5. Use Other Assets: Know the broad educational landscape in the state and use other leverage points. The Danielson Framework is one example. Adopting the course requirement with fidelity indirectly affects teacher performance because the framework overlaps with civics pedagogy.
We currently have a survey in the field that we strongly encourage middle school social studies teachers and administrators to complete by May 15 to inform presumptive implementation plans. These findings, combined with our high school experience and evaluation results, will further shape our middle school implementation plans. Current highlights include:
  • Ongoing teacher professional development opportunities, both in person and online, are pivotal to our proposed effort. They will be offered in partnership with civic education nonprofits and institutional partners, including universities and regional offices of education.
  • We are especially excited about a new partnership with the Lou Frey Institute at the University of Central Florida to develop high-production learning modules for teachers centered on the proven civic learning practices: discussion, service learning, and simulations, respectively. Participating teachers will earn microcredentials in each practice, and our goal, through a combination of in-person and online professional development opportunities, is to reach teachers or instructional coaches in each Illinois school and/ or district serving students in grades 6-8. We anticipate the first module, focused on discussion of current and controversial issues, to launch this fall.
  • Illinois Civics Teacher Mentors have been central to our high school course implementation efforts, and we intend to continue the program with modifications to account for lessons learned and the unique needs of middle schools.
  • As was true of our high school efforts, we will partner with CIRCLE to evaluate the impact of our teacher professional development offerings and, reciprocally, the fidelity of middle school course implementation. At the end of the implementation period, we will also assess the impact the course has on student civic development, measuring growth in knowledge, skills, attitudes, and behaviors.
  • In addition to the McCormick Foundation’s ongoing investments in youth civic education and engagement in Illinois ($4.2 million in grants in 2018), our course implementation efforts have an annual operating budget of $1 million. We pledge to contribute an additional $400,000 to this effort each year and are working to raise the balance through local philanthropic partners.

Middle School Leaders Claim Civic Learning Marginalized in Their Buildings

by Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Democracy Program Director

As legislation to require middle school civics (House Bill 2265) moves through the Illinois General Assembly, the Illinois Civics team is partnering with the Center for Information Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tufts University to determine the presumptive implementation needs of teachers, schools, and districts through a survey distributed earlier this month. We encourage middle school social studies teachers and administrators to weigh in and complete the survey by mid-May.

The need for middle school civics is profound. Only 23% of 8th graders demonstrated proficiency in civics on the 2014 National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), with a stark civic achievement gap evident along racial and ethnic lines (see below). This coincides with a report from the Council of Chief State School Officers that 44% of school districts have reduced time spent on social studies since the advent of No Child Left Behind in 2001.


School leaders concur that the social studies, and civic learning specifically, have been unfairly and dangerously marginalized in an era where what is tested is taught. Last spring, Education Week surveyed 524 school leaders nationally about the state of civic learning in their districts. Fifty-seven percent of middle school leaders contended that their schools spend too little time on civic learning (not a single respondent said “too much”). And only 23% of middle school leaders reported that their schools offer a stand-along course in civics.

House Bill 2265 prescribes a mix of teacher-led and student-centered civic learning practices including direct instruction, discussion, service learning, and simulations of democratic processes in alignment with what school leaders consider most important. According to the Education Week survey, K-12 school leaders prefer current events discussions, instruction on the Constitution and related civil liberties, and modeling civic participation and voting.

Given the value that K-12 school leaders place on civic learning, they rank the pressure to focus on other tested subjects as the greatest challenge. The intensity of this pressure is most pronounced in middle and elementary schools.

A related challenge is that civic learning is not a district or school priority. A lack of civic learning resources and the political, controversial elements of civics present lesser challenges. Student interest, and somewhat surprisingly, teacher training, are deemed the least challenging among the survey options listed.

As demonstrated in my January post on the Civic Education System Map published by the CivXNow Coalition, the way civics is taught can help change public perceptions about its importance. In turn, public support drives state and district policies and related prioritization. The curricular mix embedded in House Bill 2265 will help propel a virtuous cycle, directly addressing the challenges surfaced by K-12 school leaders in the Education Week survey.

Overall, these findings underline the need to drive high-quality civic learning opportunities down to the earlier grades. We look forward to collecting the analyzing the Illinois-specific data from our middle school civics survey currently in the field in the months ahead to design an implementation plan responsive to the needs of teachers, schools, and districts in our demographically and geographically diverse state.

Social-Emotional Learning and Civics: What are the Connections?

by Scott McGallagher, Democracy Program Research Intern

“Social-emotional learning is not frou-frou, it matters.” This impassioned statement from Desmond Blackburn, and many others like it from his colleagues, impressed upon their audience the importance of supporting social and emotional learning (SEL) in our schools. Mr. Blackburn, the Chief Executive Officer of New Teacher Center (NTC) was a panelist, along with Dr. Elaine Allensworth the Director of the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research (hereafter the Consortium) and LaTanya McDade the Chief Education Officer of Chicago Public Schools (CPS), at the Forefront and W. Clement & Jessie V. Stone Foundation discussion of “Supporting Social, Emotional, & Academic Development: Research Implications for Educators” on Thursday, March 21st, 2019.

The essential question driving the discussion for the day was: how do we close the gap between “pockets” of SEL excellence and “systems” of SEL excellence? Dr. Allensworth early on established with her colleagues and the audience that student engagement—amongst their peers and with teachers—is the most imperative element of fostering emotional and social growth among young people. Behavioral, emotional, and cognitive engagement that the Consortium highlights draws connections to a “lived civics” framework of civics education that challenges students and teachers to create intentional and inclusive classrooms where all students’ knowledge, experiences, and voices are heard.

Civics curricula that is emotionally and socially responsive to the students who are growing from it should challenge students not only to learn more about their own identities, but about how they learn about the world and others around them. This central focus sets up students to be able to practice empathy in the classroom in how they relate their experiences to those of their other classmates.

In turn, students equipped with this skill can venture out into the world and have productive and respectful civic and political deliberations with those they encounter. At the heart of SEL is the bond between students and teachers, much like there is a bond in generational partnerships in civic spaces where community members share their knowledge and collaborate towards action.

One of the most profound takeaways from Dr. Allensworth’s research was that teachers who take the time to really get to know their students address interventions through alleviation rather than aggravation. This may sound simple, but surprisingly many of the panelists and educators in the audience said that this is unfortunately not the norm.

In a Civics classroom, fostering students who are emotionally and socially competent relies upon incorporating space for critically positioning the intersections of power, privilege, race, and lived experiences. As Mr. Blackburn referenced regularly throughout the event, resources should not just be allocated to develop students, but also teachers, as students cannot gain these critical perspectives without a teacher equipped to guide students through this journey. We must get to a point in classrooms—and not just in Civics classrooms—where all young peoples’ knowledge and experiences are valued and recognized for how they not only shape their lives, but when sharing their stories, shape how others view life from varying perspectives.

Some questions that circled around in my head at the conclusion of the presentation include the “how” of involving parents/guardians and other adults in these conversations, and how young people can engage in these practices with their parents/guardians at home. As well, I was left wondering when talking about establishing best practices of SEL across the curriculum, how are educators mindful of translating these practices to classrooms’ specific contexts?

Additional resources on SEL across the curriculum:

The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL)

University of Chicago Consortium on School Research (October 2018). Supporting Social, Emotional, & Academic Development: Research Implications for Educators.