Teach like our democracy depends on it — because it does: #NCSS18 recap

by Mary Ellen Daneels, Lead Teacher Mentor

Earlier this fall, I was part of a conference put on by Dr. Diana Hess, the Dean of Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The conference t-shirts read, “Teach like our democracy depends on it — because it does.” The recent 98th Annual National Council for the Social Studies conference held in Chicago highlighted this message throughout.

IllinoisCivics.org and the Department of Social Science and Civic Engagement at Chicago Public Schools hosted a special strand of Illinois programming around “Inquiry as Engagement: Connecting Across Differences” had the message, <strong>“Engage students like our democracy depends on it — because it does.”</strong> Session attendees learned how deliberation, student voice, and informed action can be leveraged to connect classrooms across cultural, geographic, and socioeconomic differences in this diverse state to promote culturally sustainable teaching.

The day concluded with the first ever Better Arguments Project sponsored by Allstate, the Aspen Institute, and Facing History and Ourselves. Eric Liu from Citizen University led the Better Arguments workshop and modeled classroom tools teachers can use to engage students in critical conversations around compelling questions that face our communities.


#CivicsIsBack teachers had a plethora of workshop sessions to choose from at #ncss18. If you were unable to attend, visit the NCSS Conference web site where members can access materials from conference presentations. Here are a few to start with:
Were you at #ncss18 this year? What were your favorite sessions? What did you learn? Please comment below. Together, we can prepare students for college, career and civic life.

Scholastic Journalism Endangered in Chicago and Other Underresourced Districts

by Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Democracy Program Director

On November 1-4, 2018, the Journalism Education Association hosted its semiannual convention in Chicago. More than 6,000 student journalists and their advisers attended, including a cohort of Chicago Public Schools students and teachers sponsored by the Chicago Scholastic Press Association, an affiliate of Roosevelt University and longtime McCormick Foundation grantee. Sessions were standing room only and enlivened by enthusiastic student journalists. However, the lack of racial diversity among conference attendees was stunning, especially in a city where students of color compose 90% of CPS’ enrollment, not to mention a majority of K-12 students statewide.

Scholastic journalism is vital to the civic mission of our schools and serves as an important pipeline into the journalism profession, where people of color are also vastly underrepresented. The 2011 Scholastic Journalism Census produced by the Center for Scholastic Journalism at Kent State (OH) University found that schools with student media had an average minority population of 35%, while those without media programs are majority nonwhite (average of 56% students of color; see below). Similar inequities surface for schools serving a majority of students receiving free or reduced price lunch.


Kent State intends to replicate the study in 2019, and I fear that scholastic journalism has lost further ground in the intervening decade, particularly in urban schools. My analysis of CPS’ course enrollment numbers for journalism courses reveals that only 30.1% (28 of 93) district high schools offer a course in journalism, print and/ or broadcast. When yearbook is added, the percentage jumps to 39.8% (37 of 93 schools). Yet only 1,038 students enrolled in these courses during the 2017-2018 school year, less than 1% of CPS’ high school student body of 107,352.

It’s likely that some CPS schools offer student media as an extracurricular-only option. This is of course better than nothing, but there is significant drop-off in the percentage of students that participate in extracurricular activities. Participation is also highly inequitable by race, where white and Asian students are much more likely to participate in extracurricular activities than their Black and Latinx peers.

We must do more to strengthen, resuscitate, and/ or reimagine student media in urban and underresourced schools. Some promising efforts already underway include:
  • McCormick youth media grantees Free Spirit Media and Yollocalli Arts Reach partner with teachers at CPS schools and offer channels for public dissemination of student journalism.
  • Loyola University’s School of Communications works with Senn and Sullivan High Schools on Chicago’s North Side to operate a storefront news bureau reporting on hyper-local news in Rogers Park and Edgewater.
  • And Medill Media Teens brings together Northwestern undergraduate journalism majors and CPS high school students every Saturday at Medill’s downtown campus for a distinctive mentoring experience that focuses on journalism production and media awareness. Students receive extensive training on writing, reporting, and multimedia storytelling.
These pockets of excellence, alongside the 28 CPS schools with journalism courses, offer promise. The task before us is to achieve districtwide scale parallel to the success of CPS’ civic engagement initiative, and we have found a willing partner in the Office of Social Science and Civic Engagement. We’ll be sure to keep you apprised of our progress, and invite your support as we simultaneously seek to promote equitable youth civic development and a healthy, representative local media ecosystem.

Celebrating Novinquiry with #sschat

by Mary Ellen Daneels, Lead Teacher Mentor

Every Monday from 6-7 p.m., social studies teachers from across the nation gather on Twitter to deliberate essential questions related to their craft on #sschat. The #sschat facilitators have declared this month “Novinquiry” as all discussions are designed to support student centered inquiry in the classroom.

IllinoisCivics.org joined Facing History and Ourselves and Chicago Public Schools Social Science and Civic Engagement Department to kick off Novinquiry hosting a chat on the topic of “Inquiry as Engagement: Connecting Across Differences” The seven questions that scaffolded the discussion were:
  1. What does a great current and controversial issue discussion that engages students across differences look like, feel like and sound like?
  2. What are your “go to” resources for inquiry that prepares students for these conversations?
  3. What do we gain from difference in the classroom? What do we lose without it?
  4. What would you say to a teacher that avoids controversies in the classroom because they fear being perceived as being too political?
  5. How do you move students towards better arguments: From arguing to win, to deliberating for a shared, better understanding?
  6. How do we find opportunities for difference in our classrooms when we are geographically and politically polarized?
  7. How do we honor students’ identities and lived experiences within the inquiry process?
As an educator, I value the opportunity to use #sschat to enhance my own practice with candid discourse around the opportunities and challenges of being a social studies teacher in the 21st century. The exchange to the right is just a snippet of the conversations and connections that occur each week. Participants share wonderings, successes, struggles, and most importantly, strategies and resources—the best kind of PD!

You can visit an archive of the chat to learn more and see the responses to the questions.

You can continue celebrating “Novinquiry” at the National Council of the Social Studies Annual Conference at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Chicago November 30th-December 2nd. There is a special strand of programming on November 30th designed to support K-12 educators in implementing the new Illinois Social Science Standards and high school civic education requirement.

The day will begin with and opening plenary hosted by Dr. Diana Hess to address the opportunities and challenges in engaging students in dialogue in an era of political polarization. Workshop sessions that follow will highlight how deliberation, student voice and informed action can be leveraged to connect classrooms across cultural, geographic, and socio-economic differences to promote culturally sustainable teaching. The day will conclude with Eric Liu from Citizen’s University hosting the first ever Better Arguments Project in conjunction with Facing History and Ourselves and the Aspen Institute. For more information on this strand of learning, visit the online guidebook.

How are you celebrating “Novinquiry?” Please comment below. Together, we can prepare all students for college, career and civic life.

Review: Why Learn History (When It's Already on Your Phone)

by Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Democracy Program Director

For the last four years, the McCormick Foundation has been privileged to partner with Sam Wineburg and his colleagues at the Stanford History Education Group (SHEG) to develop “critical online literacy” assessments. An offshoot of the category-leading work SHEG has done with “Reading Like a Historian” and its related assessments, the critical online literacy research attracted significant national attention in the aftermath of the 2016 Election and rise of the now ubiquitous term “fake news.”

Wineburg recounts this work within a larger, book-length narrative about the current challenges of teaching history titled Why Learn History (When It’s Already on Your Phone) [University of Chicago, 2018]. He begins by documenting century-long concerns about the lack of historical knowledge among our youth and the population as a whole. In modern times, the sporadic National Assessment of Education Progress in History reveals low levels of historical proficiency among students, results designed by modern tests to produce a predictable distribution of results.

These tests, and our obsession with declarative knowledge about history and civics, distract us from more meaningful ways to teach and learn about history. It’s true that the modern textbook, while more inclusive than in the past, provides superficial, even inaccurate, accounts of history, and it remains central to many current classrooms. Some teachers have experimented with alternative accounts of history like Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States (Harper & Row, 1980), but Wineburg is sharp in his critique of Zinn’s own one-sided and empirically-thin tome.

The key, according to Wineburg, isn’t to seek truth through a plethora of ideological and superficial sources, but instead engage students in the process of historical thinking and debate through examination of primary documents and accounts of pivotal events. SHEG has gained incredible traction among social studies teachers using this approach, and the pivot to critical online literacy is natural given that history (and seemingly everything that is knowable) is “Googled.”

The challenge of teaching history in the Information Age centers on discerning the accuracy of sources accessible in a millisecond at the command of our fingertips. It’s true that students are digital natives and have mastered the intuitive features of their handheld devices. The natural reaction of teachers who are a generation or two older is admiration and delegation. But we mistakenly conflate students’ digital prowess with their ability to scrutinize the sources they are encountering.

SHEG’s critical online literacy assessments are helpful to this end and have since been integrated into the work of media literacy organizations like the Center for News Literacy in partnership with Maine East High School in Park Ridge, IL. SHEG is also busy designing a curriculum to assist teachers with classroom instruction called MediaWise. It will be tested in partnership with the Poynter Institute in classrooms across the country in the coming months.

Teacher professional development has long been central to the McCormick Foundation’s work in Illinois to strengthen school-based civic learning, and we plan to recommend a grant to SHEG in February to develop online teacher professional development modules for dissemination of the MediaWise curriculum.

Wineburg’s book is a must-read for social studies teachers and other educators seeking to integrate media literacy across the curriculum. The parallel work he oversees at SHEG is also of utmost importance and should be immediately considered for classroom adoption. Perhaps ironically, historians have a great deal to offer in helping to navigate the Information Age. Tried and true tactics of multiple, primary source scrutiny translate incredibly well to the digital domain.

Civic Renewal Transcends Two Parties, Takes Root in Local Communities

by Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Democracy Program Director

At the conclusion of the most divisive midterm election in memory, “Blue America” is riding a state of ballot-driven euphoria, while “Red America” licks its wounds and prepares for its next battle in two years. Election 2018, like those of the previous quarter century, falls into the fractured paradigm framed by Mark Gerzon in his 2016 book The Reunited States of America, where “liberals are right, and if elected, will strengthen America.” The 1994, 2000, 2004, 2010, 2014, and 2016 elections reversed this tired narrative, substituting “conservative” for “liberal.”

These winner-solves-all mantras have instead produced policy paralysis and political polarization at levels unseen since the Civil War. For 2018 to represent a departure, Tuesday’s victors and all citizens must instead embrace the precept that “Americans can work together with people different than (them)selves to find common ground that can strengthen the country we all love.”

The Illinois #CivicsIsBack Campaign and our long-standing Democracy Schools Initiative have embraced this latter promise through offering students equitable exposure to best practices in civic learning, including current and controversial issues discussions and simulated democratic processes. Mary Ellen wrote just last week about civics classrooms as the local for conversations on how we live together.

Early returns for students taking the new required civics course offer strong evidence that students embrace Gerzon’s preferred third path. Across racial and ethnic groups, a strong majority of students surveyed last spring agreed or strongly agreed with the notion that by working with others in the community, they could affect positive change (see Figure 1 below).

Figure 1: By working with others in the community, we can help make things better 
(percent agree/ strongly agree)


While dysfunction and stalemate characterize the policy environment in Washington and many state capitals, Springfield included, signs of democratic revival spring eternal at the local level. James and Deborah Fallows penned a marvelous tome titled Our Towns that documents their four-year journey to cities across the fruited plain. In places as geographically and politically polar as Burlington, VT, and Greenville, SC, they find common elements of a better future that disavows our toxic national political discourse and instead embraces our founding creed of e pluribus unum.

These local revitalization efforts are led by local champions the Fallows label “patriots", a plethora of public-private partnerships that embody the best elements of progressive and conservative positions relative to these two sectors, and a common local narrative of civic revival. These cities have revitalized downtowns, are often home to research universities and/ or community colleges and innovative K-12 schools, are welcoming to new residents, and have big plans for continued evolution and growth. Deborah Fallows also surfaces the centrality of local libraries to these communities, modernized hubs of civic energy welcome to all residents.

Outside of Columbus, OH, Pittsburgh, PA, and Louisville, KY, the Fallows visited and profiled medium-to-small towns, so the translation of their findings to a city the size of Chicago may be more difficult, yet there are elements of universality. Moreover, although they did not touch down in the Land of Lincoln, they did mention both Batavia and Moline as future sites for exploration. I would add the Bloomington-Normal and Champaign-Urbana areas to their itinerary.

Are you a “patriot” for your local community? Do you know its civic narrative? And how can you and your students transcend the dueling zero sum national narratives of the left of right to contribute to democratic revival from the bottom up?

Empowering Students to Take a Stand at the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center

by Amy Corey, Grayslake Middle School, Grayslake, Illinois, and Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center Educator Advisory Committee Member

On September 27, 2018, I had the privilege and opportunity to attend a workshop at the Illinois Holocaust Museum in Skokie entitled “Inquiry as Engagement: Empowering Students to Take a Stand,” which was facilitated by Mary Ellen Daneels of the Robert R. McCormick Foundation. This workshop was great for many reasons, from the topic and presentations being interesting, to finally having some ideas on how to incorporate the new Illinois Civics standards into my teaching, it was three of the best hours of PD I have had in a while!

The new Civics standards that the state of Illinois has begun to mandate have felt rather overwhelming when teaching 8th grade due to them being written in such an open manner without a lot of specific focus in many cases. Having that much leeway is the same as having too many good food options on a restaurant menu because it makes it so difficult to know which option is the best. Mary Ellen Daneels did a great job of making me feel far more comfortable with what the standards are really looking for and giving approachable ways to deal with the standards.


We had the opportunity to work in small groups to look at what makes a good essential question and what does not. We also learned about organizations such as the Robert R. McCormick Foundation and illinoiscivics.org to help with resources and planning for seamlessly bringing the standards to our students in a meaningful and useful way.

Also, as part of the PD, we had the chance to spend time with Amanda Friedman of the Illinois Holocaust Museum on a tour of the Take a Stand Center within the Museum. The exhibit allows for teachers to bring students through several different sections to learn what people of all ages, races, genders, nationalities, religions, ethnicities, and abilities have done to make the world a better place. All of the sections are designed to be interactive and hands on to keep the kids engaged in the learning. Furthermore, this exhibit is inspiring and encouraging to those students who feel motivated to make a change to make the world a better place. It helps to show them that they are not alone in wanting to do this.

If you ever have the chance to work with either of these amazing organizations I would strongly encourage you to do so as I was able to learn so much in such a short amount of time!

For educators interested in the Take a Stand Center and other materials from the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center (IHMEC), consider attending this year’s National Council for the Social Studies Annual Conference. There will be a NCSS pre-conference clinic, “Take a Stand: From Civics Learning to Civic Engagement,” on November 29. Museum staff will also present a “Vital Issues Session” on November 30 at 11:30, “Lessons of the Holocaust: The Experiences of Survivors,” and a workshop on December 2 at 8:30, “From Tongue-Tied to Responsive: Navigating Difficult Questions” about the Holocaust.

How do you empower students to take a stand? Please comment below. Together we can prepare the youngest members of our community for college, career and civic life.

Improving School Climate to Support Student Success

by Sonia Mathew, Civic Learning Manager

The Learning Policy Institute recently published a research brief in September 2018, titled “Educating the Whole Child: Improving School Climate to Support Student Success,” by Linda Darling-Hammond and Channa M. Cook-Harvey. As a key element of Democracy Schools is “school climate,” I was excited to read more about their findings and connect their ideas to strengthening civic learning in schools.

The research brief examines, “how schools can use effective, research-based practices to create settings in which students’ healthy growth and development are central to the design of classrooms and the school as a whole.” The report explores findings related to the science of learning and development, school practices that should come from this science, and policy strategies that can support this work on a wider scale.

Related to the science of learning and development, a key finding from the report that connects to our work in civic learning is that “human relationships are the essential ingredient that catalyzes healthy development and learning.” How do schools cultivate those relationships between students and teachers? What builds teachers’ awareness, empathy, and cultural competence to appreciate and understand their students’ needs and experiences?


Teaching Tolerance has a number of resources and professional development opportunities related to this. Addressing teacher capacity in these areas is essential to promoting the civic development and efficacy in our students.

Darling-Hammond and Cook-Harvey also assert that an implication of the science of learning and development for schools is that there needs to be “supportive environmental conditions that create a positive school climate and foster strong relationships and community.” Schools must work to strengthen relational trust among educators and families. How can families be integrated into the school community? What assets do community members have that can be leveraged in classrooms? Engaging these stakeholders and valuing their expertise can strengthen school and community connections, which is another key element of Democracy Schools.

Additionally, Darling-Hammond and Cook-Harvey recommend that schools become “’identity safe’- i.e. places where all students feel competent and supported in all classroom.” Strategies for promoting identity-safe classrooms include teaching that promotes understanding and developing student voice, responsibility, and belonging in classroom communities. The connection to student voice provides another parallel to the work in Democracy Schools, as our schools strive to find ways for student decision-making to be impactful at various levels of the school community.

A second strategy includes, “Cultivating diversity as a resource for teaching through culturally responsive materials, ideas, and teaching activities, along with high expectations for all students.” Related to this work is addressing racial bias that often exists in schools. Kathleen Osta and LaShawn Route Chatmon from the National Equity Project discuss additional strategies related to this in “Five Steps to Liberating Public Education from its Deep Racial Bias.”

Schools also must prioritize social and emotional learning (SEL) that foster skills, habits, and dispositions that allow for academic growth and development. Developing social and emotional skills helps to cultivate the civic dispositions that we want in our students, so they can be further engaged in their communities.

Darling-Hammond and Cook-Harvey state, “Many schools also infuse social-emotional learning through the curriculum- for example, through curricula focused on perspective-taking and empathy in history and English language arts, and on community and social problem solving in social studies, mathematics, and science. Such efforts produce positive outcomes for student engagement, attachment to school, achievement, attainment, and behavior, including strong collaboration and support of peers, resilience, a growth mindset, and helpfulness toward others.”

These are all qualities we need in our young people to support the strengthening of our democracy and emphasize how a cross-curricular approach can strengthen civic learning.

A final area that connects to our work from this study connects with instructional strategies that support student motivation and efficacy. Inquiry is featured as an important learning strategy and one that the new Illinois Learning Standards for Social Science prioritizes.

Democracy Schools teachers design curriculum and utilize democratic teaching strategies by complementing the curriculum and assessments with civic learning that incorporates student-created essential and supporting questions as well as sustained inquiry. Creating these questions develops opportunities for deeper student engagement and learning.

Recommendations from the report include focusing the system on developmental supports for young people, designing schools to provide settings for healthy development, and ensuring educator learning for developmentally-supportive education. Overall, this emphasizes an alignment between the benefits of civic learning and positive school climate supporting effective learning in schools.