Strategies to Support Struggling Readers in Civic Inquiry by Mary Ellen Daneels

by Mary Ellen Daneels, Lead Teacher Mentor


In recent blog posts, Shawn highlighted compelling data analyzing the impact the #CivicsIsBack initiative has had on bridging the civic empowerment gap in the state of Illinois. While the results are encouraging, there are still important questions to tackle in order to meet the need of ALL learners in the civic classroom. One of these questions is, What are some strategies or resources that can be used to support students of varying reading levels in conducting research and building background knowledge to participate in civic inquiry?

In an article documenting a study of the literacy challenges faced by students and teachers in an advanced, project-based version of the US Government and Politics course, Dr. Walter Parker and Dr. Shelia Valencia from the University of Washington stated that:

Students in this study, when working with course texts, encountered densely constructed textbooks, challenging specialized vocabulary, and lack of teacher support for learning from text. Generally, they could read but not comprehend. Both teachers and students developed strategies to avoid learning from text-based resources. These strategies hindered students’ ability to learn course content and further disadvantaged students who needed more practice and support in learning from text.

My travels throughout the state of Illinois to provide professional development to support educators provides anecdotal evidence that this is not an issue isolated to students in APGOV. I have long believed that civics is best in a diverse classroom with students from varying lived experiences. However, the unintended consequence of having a cross-section of the community in the classroom is the variance of reading abilities.

So, how can we provide equitable opportunities for success in civics for students who need support in learning from texts? Here are some suggestions from Parker and Valencia as well as other resources to explore.
Do you have a favorite strategy to support struggling readers in your civics classroom? Please comment below. Together, we can prepare all students for college, career and civic life.

School Leaders Say Civic Learning Marginalized by Test Pressures in Other Subjects

by Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Democracy Program Director

In June, I recapped an administrator academy that Lead Teacher Mentor Mary Ellen Daneels and I delivered for Springfield (IL) Public Schools. The academy was designed to build greater support for school-based civic learning among administrators, familiarizing them with new state policies impacting civics, but also making the empirical case for doubling down on civic learning.

Education Week has increased its coverage of civic learning in the wake of the 2016 Election and Parkland tragedy earlier this year. This spring and summer, respectively, they conducted and reported on a national survey of school leaders’ views on civic education (n=524). More than half of school leaders (52%) said that their schools provide “too little” civic education. The remaining 48% said there was just the right amount (one administrator said there was “too much”).

These leaders are seemingly well-positioned to support expanded civic learning opportunities for students, so what’s holding their schools’ back? As evident in the chart below, civics does not suffer from a lack of student interest. And contrary to the contention of many educators with whom we work, teacher training opportunities are a challenge in only 16% of cases. Similarly, there are few reported shortages of curricular materials to teach the subject.


Current and controversial issues endemic to high-quality civic learning fail to scare off the vast majority of administrators, and only 15% report challenges making civics a school or district-wide priority.

All of these challenges cast aside, the remaining, glaring obstacle is “pressure to focus on subjects other than civics because they are tested and emphasized.” More than half of school leaders suggested that this is challenging to very challenging (51%), and another 28% considered it somewhat challenging.

These findings are helpful as they allow us to focus our energies on breaking down civics’ marginalization by other prioritized and/ or tested subjects. One strategy centers on district and state policies, as civic learning and the social studies more generally should be treated as core subjects with credit and/ or hours of instruction requirements coequal to math, English language arts, and science.

Some states like Florida have had great success in pairing a civics course requirement with a high-stakes exam. For political and economic reasons, this option was and is not on the table in Illinois, but we must not punt the assessment question. Civic knowledge, skills, attitudes, and behaviors can be measured, and a consortium of states, Illinois included, is currently developing instruments to this end.

A second strategy encompasses both research and communications. There is some empirical evidence that high-quality civic learning opportunities correlate with student success across the board, but more must be done to examine the relationship between civic learning and students’ social and emotional development, related impacts on school climate, and potential links to student attendance, engagement, and graduation.

I’m confident that further research will affirm what we know anecdotally and experientially, and these findings should be paired with an effective communications strategy. We have long made the case for civic learning on the basis of preparing young people for informed, effective participation in the civic life of our communities, state, nation, and world. But reading, math, and science are ascendant because they have been successfully linked to preparation for college and careers. Civic learning has much to add here too in terms of both “hard” and “soft” skills. The field must therefore employ the advocacy skills we teach to elevate civic learning to its rightful place at the center of schools’ missions.

Closing the Civic Empowerment Gap through the #CivicsIsBack Campaign

by Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Democracy Program Director

In August, we published a three-part series analyzing year two evaluation data of Illinois’ statewide civics course implementation plan provided by the Center for Information Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE). The first piece provided a broad overview of the findings, and the second did a deep dive on the results of our Illinois Civics Teacher Mentor program.

The concluding post further analyzed the student outcomes data derived from more than 3,000 Illinois high school students that completed surveys during the 2018-2019 school year measuring their exposure to proven civic learning practices and a stand-alone civics course, along with related civic dispositions and behaviors.

These students attended schools affiliated with teacher mentors and span from the suburbs of Chicago and St. Louis to rural communities throughout Central and Southern Illinois. And they are broadly representative of the state’s student population, skewing slightly more white (54% white, 24% Latino, 21% Black, 11% multiracial, 3% Asian, and 2% American Indian/ Alaskan Native).

Last month, we published a companion piece disaggregating student participation and performance on the Advanced Placement American Government and Politics Exam by race, revealing deep inequities in terms of both access and outcomes. In a similar vein, we asked CIRCLE for disaggregated student survey data from our civics course implementation evaluation. My analysis of this data follows, which is available in its entirety here.

In terms of access, the results are mixed, as LatinX and Asian American students were less likely and Black students more likely to report taking a civics course (see Figure 1 below). Given that the course is a state mandate, more must be done to ensure equity of implementation across schools and districts statewide.

Figure 1: Did you take a social studies course that was completely about
how the government works and your role in participating in public decisions?

Similarly, while Black and Asian-Pacific Islander students were more likely to participate in extracurricular activities with exposure to a civics course, this distinction had no impact for LatinX students and overall participation in extracurricular activities is cause for concern among with LatinX and Black students (see Figure 2).

Figure 2: Did you participate in a school club, sports team, or other
extracurricular activity during this school year (percent yes)?

These concerns considered, students enrolled in civics courses reported relatively equal access to proven civic learning practices across race (see Figure 3).
Figure 3: This year, in my classes, I have discussed controversial issues (percent agree/strongly agree).

The student survey concluded with a battery of questions assessing students’ civic behaviors and attitudes. While course exposure had a positive effect across races, significant gaps remain, privileging white and Asian-Pacific Islanders over their Black and LatinX peers. Figure 4, which asks students to assess their preparedness for political participation, is illustrative of both course benefits and remaining gaps.

Figure 4: I have the skills and knowledge necessary to participate in
politics and public issues (percent agree/strongly agree).

Course implementation continues in earnest with a quest for racial equity front and center. As these results demonstrate, we must do more to ensure universal access to both a required civics course, but also extracurricular activities critical to students’ social, emotional, and civic development. While access to best practices in civics courses is relatively equal by race, we must dig deeper and search for equity so long as students of color express less confidence in their civic skills and dispositions. In part, this entails a wholesale interrogation of existing curricula in a quest to align classroom instruction with students’ lived experiences. Stay tuned for further details on an emerging “lived civics” agenda.

Teaching Resources to Understand the Kavanaugh Hearings

by Mary Ellen Daneels, Lead Teacher Mentor

In a previous blog post, I shared resources to understand the U.S. Supreme Court confirmation process and earlier this week, Shawn shared why the Kavanaugh hearing is a pivotal moment in our nation’s history, explaining that, “The midterm elections are an important backdrop to the Kavanaugh confirmation process, as Democrats have an outside chance of taking control of the Senate, and with it vetting future presidential nominees. Should Kavanaugh not be confirmed and the Senate falls to Democrats, the clock is running out on Republicans to appoint a like-minded conservative.”

Beyond understanding the importance of the 2018 midterm elections and the system of checks and balances that scaffold the appointment process of federal judges, the Kavanaugh hearings have provided classrooms an opportunity to engage in current and controversial issue discussions related to power, justice and equity.

Navigating these quickly changing events can be challenging for teachers. Below are some resources to help.
How are you helping students make sense of the Kavanaugh Confirmation Hearings? Please comment below. Together, we can prepare ALL students for college, career and civic life.

The Kavanaugh Nomination: A Pivotal Moment in Our Nation's Political Life

by Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Democracy Program Director

A month ago, my colleague Mary Ellen Daneels previewed the U.S. Supreme Court confirmation process for Judge Brett Kavanaugh, sharing a plethora of classroom resources ripe for immediate use. Little did we know of the dramatics that would follow.

Kavanaugh was a fairly conventional nominee for a Republican President that vowed to select individuals vetted by the conservative Federalist Society. He did have a significant paper trail given his previous service as a lawyer in the Bush Administration, but twelve years on the federal bench and an Ivy League education placed him on par with his presumptive peers on both sides of the ideological spectrum.

However, history suggests that some of the most contentious nominations center on the ideological positioning of the Justice being replaced in relation to the nominee. In this case, Justice Anthony Kennedy, the swing vote on an otherwise evenly divided Court, decided to retire in June, opening the door for his former law clerk, a conservative more in the mold of the late Justice Antonin Scalia. Kavanaugh’s ascension to the Court could place precedents that progressives hold near and dear to their heart in jeopardy, including those related to affirmative action, same-sex marriage, and abortion.

The Senate is empowered to confirm judicial nominees, and we are in the midst of the vetting process. Historically, the bar was whether a nominee was qualified to serve a lifetime appointment in the Court, but as symptomatic of our increasingly polarized politics, ideology entered the fray with Reagan’s failed nomination of Judge Robert Bork in 1987.

Recent allegations of sexual abuse against Judge Kavanaugh bring us back to 1991 when President George H.W. Bush nominated conservative Judge Clarence Thomas to replace civil rights icon Thurgood Marshall. An all-male Judiciary Committee arguably provided cover for Thomas against sexual harassment allegations from his former colleague Anita Hill.

Thomas survived a narrow confirmation vote, but 1992 became known as the “Year of the Woman” when many female candidates were motivated to enter the arena of electoral politics, and a number of candidates found success, including ranking minority member of the Judiciary Committee Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and former Illinois Senator Carol Moseley Braun.

Four women now sit on the Senate Judiciary Committee, but each of them are Democrats. All eleven Republican committee members are Republican, and two of them (Senators Grassley and Hatch) were there in 1991.

Women are still vastly underrepresented in Congress, and only four have ever served on the Supreme Court. More female candidates than ever before are pursuing elected office at the state and national levels this November, so a second coming of the “Year of the Woman” may not be far behind.

The midterm elections are an important backdrop to the Kavanaugh confirmation process, as Democrats have an outside chance of taking control of the Senate, and with it vetting future presidential nominees. Should Kavanaugh not be confirmed and the Senate falls to Democrats, the clock is running out on Republicans to appoint a like-minded conservative.

In this scenario, it’s not difficult to imagine the Kennedy vacancy remaining open through the 2020 Election. Indeed Republicans did the same to President Obama during his final year in office.

Turning back to Kavanaugh, the FBI is currently in the throes of an investigation called for by Senator Jeff Flake (R-AZ), but also endorsed by two of his colleagues, Senators Susan Collins (R-ME) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK). Assuming a strict party line vote outside of these three Senators, they hold the balance of power in a body controlled 51-49 by Republicans with Vice President Pence poised to break any tie. Recall that the filibuster was neutralized for Supreme Court nominees last year.

As we await the results of this investigation, the background provided above is critical to advance students’ understanding of how we arrived at this juncture. It goes without saying that we should also underline that what happens in high school and college follows us throughout our lives, impacting our careers and families.

Face and Embrace Conference

by Sonia Mathew, Civic Learning Manager

On August 15th and 16th, nearly 300 teachers came together for the Chicago Public Schools (CPS), “Face and Embrace: Waking up to Racial Equity in Education” conference at North Grand High School, sponsored by the CPS Social Science and Civic Engagement Department.

Guiding principles for this conference included the opportunity to:
  • Reflect on our own awareness and relationship to race
  • Build knowledge, skills, and conviction
  • Engage in building equity to make strategic and informed decisions
Throughout the two-day conference participants, speakers, and presenters worked to answer these guiding questions:



Presenters created sessions that connected to the essential questions, which provided a great framing for attendees as well as questions for educators to reflect on their practice as it relates to building racial equity in education.

I presented a session on Racial Equity in Democracy Schools, where teachers had the opportunity to analyze the civic empowerment gap in recent cohorts of Democracy Schools and discuss how teachers can address issues on inequity as it relates to civic learning and engagement. The first breakout session I attended was titled, “Trauma and Resilience: Tools for Educators,” presented by Laura Ramirez, Executive Director of the Chicago Freedom School. There was an emphasis on how teachers can work to move towards “Radical Healing,” a concept framed by Shawn Ginwright. Attendees also examined how educators can utilize “Transformative Healing” in the classroom through an analysis of:
  • Culture: My identity
  • Agency: Individual and collective ability to act, create, and affect change
  • Relationships: Capacity to create and sustain healthy relationships
  • Meaning: Profound discovery of who we are
  • Aspirations: Explorations of possibilities for the future
I also attended a session titled, “Breaking Silence: Unpacking Power, Perception and Bias,” presented by Jarret King and Stacey Mann from Unsilence. Their framework explores institutional silencing, cultural silencing, and personal silencing as they uncover hidden stories of human rights. As they “unsilence” these stories, they create learning experiences and provide leadership training that includes opportunities for reflection, building empathy and healing. In this session, they highlighted the work of artists Garland Martin Taylor and Julie Green, exploring how artistic expression can be used to address controversial topics and promote civil dialogue.

The final breakout I attended was “Confronting Discipline Disparities,” presented by Claire Schu, the former Tier 1 SEL Manager with Chicago Public Schools. This session examined the disparities that exist with school discipline policies and strategies for participants to address this. To reduce racial bias in discipline, teacher can work to humanize relationships, recognize cultural orientation and bias, and build a classroom environment and learning structure that match students and accelerate their learning.

The conference ended with a dynamic closing panel moderated by Jessica Marshall, the former Director of Social Science and Civic Engagement. Panelists included Dr. Cathy Cohen, the David and Mary Winton Green Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago; Mayra Almarez, CPS Educator; Elizabeth Todd-Breland, Assistant Professor of History at UIC; and Terry Keleher, Director of Strategic Innovations for Race Forward.

The panel addressed how we need to re-imagine how we interrogate forms of political knowledge in the classroom. Additionally, there needs to be a systems approach to equity. For educators, Teaching Tolerance has social justice standards that can be helpful for grounding this work. Ultimately there needs to be a shift in power in our classrooms and educators are doing work that may make them uncomfortable, especially when addressing issues related to race.

The CPS Social Science and Civic Engagement Team did a fantastic job with this event, surfacing an important conversation about racial equity in education. The event closed with an On the Table discussion about racial equity and opportunities for participants to share learnings from how they were able to Reflect, Build and Engage during the conference. We look forward to seeing how they build on this work, supporting teachers in CPS, as well as being a model for other districts across Illinois on building racial equity in education.

Confronting Civic Inequities

by Mary Ellen Daneels, Lead Teacher Mentor

In his most recent blog post, Shawn Healy illustrated how APGOV scores in Illinois raise important questions about “deep inequities along racial and ethnic lines.” This data is not an isolated incident. The evidence of inequity and a civic empowerment gap has been well documented by researchers and has been referenced in previous blog posts. While measurements documenting the impact of the new Illinois civics requirement are encouraging, there is work still to be done in the area of equity. Mandating an equal opportunity for students to have civic instruction is a start but it does not guarantee equity. I do not have all of the answers concerning this important issue, but I am willing to engage in the conversation and collaborate with you to affect change.

Illustration courtesy of Interaction Institute for Social Change | Artist: Angus Maguire

I recently had the opportunity to “start the conversation” at a conference hosted by Dr. Diana Hess at the University of Wisconsin- Madison that engaged teachers who used the Legislative Semester to guide civic instruction in their respective schools. This pedagogy embraces the proven practice of current and controversial issue discussions as well as simulations of democratic processes to facilitate students in acquiring the knowledge, skills and dispositions of effective civic engagement. Dr. Hess and her colleague, Dr. Paula McAvoy have documented the opportunities and challenges of the simulation in their award winning book, “The Political Classroom”.


The teachers at this conference came from various regions of the country, each with unique challenges and opportunities. One segment of the workshop was devoted to “Meeting the Needs of All Learners: Promoting Equity in the Legislative Semester”. The following questions framed our discussions and perhaps would be helpful to you as you start conversation in your own building.
  • What are some strategies or resources you use to support students of varying reading levels in conducting research and building background knowledge to participate in civic inquiry?
  • What are some resources and tools you use to help students with communication challenges (ELL or speech limitations) in advocating their position in and out of the classroom?
  • Students from various racial, SES and naturalization backgrounds might have a very different experience with civic institutions from others. What are some ways teachers might be more culturally relevant to embrace and address these experiences the classroom?
  • If a teacher has a homogeneous classroom with a majority of caucasian students with relatively few challenges, how can they build awareness of equity issues in other classrooms or in the larger society?
My blog posts over the next weeks will address each of these questions and share resources I gleaned from participants at the conference as well as other experts in the field. But I am curious, how would you respond to these essential questions around the civic empowerment gap and equity? Please comment below. Together, we can prepare students for college, career and civic life.