Happy Constitution Day!

by Mary Ellen Daneels, Lead Teacher Mentor

On September 17, 1789, thirty-nine delegates to the Constitutional Convention signed the completed U.S. Constitution. This momentous occasion has been marked by various holidays throughout the years. While many previously celebrated this anniversary as “Citizenship Day”, an amendment to an omnibus bill in 2004 by Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia, officially designated September 17th as Constitution Day. As September 17th falls on a Sunday in 2017, according to the National Constitution Center, September 18th is the official day schools and federal institutions are to dedicate to learning more about this foundational document of the United States.

Washington Constitutional Convention 1787

One of the proven practices of civic education mandated by the Illinois Civics requirement is direct instruction on government institutions. Knowledge of the U.S. Constitution and the framework it established to protect the rights and freedoms that “We the People” enjoy today is key to civic education. There are numerous resources that can help classroom teachers in this very important work on Constitution Day and throughout the year.
How do you celebrate Constitution Day? We would welcome your best practices in the comment section of the blog to help others with ideas to prepare students for civic life.

September 11th Echoes Continue to Shape American Politics

by Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Democracy Program Director

Today marks the 16th anniversary of the September 11th attacks on the United States. Like many veteran teachers, I spent that fateful morning and the weeks that followed making sense of these tragic events with my students. For Millennials, Sept 11th was the defining event as the Challenger explosion had been for mine and the Kennedy assassination for my parents.

More recently, as I’ve written here on the blog, November 8, 2016, has a similar feel for today’s students, and its connection to the events of September 11, 2001, is closer than you might think.

The political debates of sixteen years ago were centered on what to do with federal budget surpluses that emerged during the technology boom and end of the Cold War. Democrats argued for further investment in the social safety net, while Republicans pushed for supply side tax cuts.

A Republican President, George W. Bush, facing his own legitimacy challenges given his loss of the popular vote and Electoral College victory secured by Supreme Court decision, positioned himself as a “compassionate conservative.” This entailed, for example, support for comprehensive immigration reform, including a path to citizenship for the ten million-plus undocumented individuals residing in the country at the time.

Twin Towers-NYC

The events of September 11th changed the course of the Bush presidency and history itself. It placed the country on a war footing, with entanglements in first Afghanistan, and later Iraq, which continue to this day. An outright defense of civil liberties took a backseat to homeland security, yielding a Cabinet-level agency in this name and the infamous U.S. PATRIOT Act. Entitlement and immigration reform took a back seat to prosecuting the War on Terror at home and abroad.

The 2004 and 2008 presidential elections were essentially fought on this terrain. In 2004, Bush, benefiting from residual support as a wartime leader, proved that he was tougher on terrorism (in the eyes of voters) than his Democratic opponent John Kerry. Four years later, then-Senator Obama based the premise of his campaign on ending the now unpopular Iraq War, and successfully tied his challenger, Senator John McCain, to the toxic incumbent president.

Many political biographies of the aftermath of September 11 end with Obama’s victory and pivot towards addressing the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. His re-election in 2012 highlighted these Herculean rescue efforts, but also his order to have 9/11 mastermind Osama Bin Laden assassinated by U.S. Navy Seals.

President Obama campaigned twice on the promise of comprehensive immigration reform, but never built sufficient support or found enough willing partners in Congress. Republicans moved decisively to the right on this and other issues, with 2012 nominee Mitt Romney calling for “self-deportation,” and Donald Trump’s signature promise in 2016 and beyond to “build a wall” along the entirety of the Mexico-U.S. border. Trump also called for, and attempted to institute a Muslim ban. Echoes of 9/11 reverberate.

Funds for the wall have yet to be appropriated, and the Muslim ban is tied up in our federal courts, but last week’s announcement that President Obama’s DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) executive order would be rescinded after six months unless Congress fails to act in the interim sent chills down the spines of the vast majority of Americans. Optimistic signs of bi-partisan compromise have since emerged, and Trump’s potential signing of any form of progressive immigration reform would be the historical equivalent of Nixon going to China.

Regardless, the implications of the September 11th attacks remain with us today, and the Trump presidency is a natural culmination of the reaction and counter-reaction to this fateful day.

Teaching With Controversy: Using Questions to Promote Dialogue

by Mary Ellen Daneels, Lead Teacher Mentor

This past summer, my colleague Barbara Laimins and I embarked on what we dubbed the LOL Tour- LOL deriving from Land of Lincoln. Our charge was to coordinate with 38 regional mentors throughout Illinois to provide free professional development to facilitate implementation of the new Illinois Social Studies standards and civics requirement. While we were impressed with many of the roadside attractions the state had to offer (think the Muffler Man on Route 66), what most impressed us was the deep commitment educators in every corner of the state have to preparing students for civic life despite challenges in the form of time, resources and support.


As Barb and I traveled the state, most teachers lamented that they were experiencing more difficulties than ever before in facilitating current and controversial issue discussions, one of the proven practices elevated in the new civics requirement in Illinois. Teachers were unsure how to begin such deliberations and once initiated, provide a safe environment for students to address compelling questions. In a previous blog, I cited a number of organizations that provide resources to support “courageous conversations.” Beyond these resources, there is also a need to elevate student voice in the selection of questions to consider when it comes to current and controversial issues.

According to the Civic Mission of Schools, “Giving students more opportunities to participate in the management of their classrooms and schools builds their civic skills and attitudes.” One indicator of critical thinking, defined by the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, is the “ability to identify and ask significant questions that clarify various points of view and lead to better solutions.” The College, Career and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies State Standards, from the National Council of the Social Studies asserts, “Central to a rich social studies experience is the capability for developing questions that can frame and advance an inquiry.”

The Illinois Social Studies standards took their inspiration from the C3 Framework and promote the explicit teaching of questioning skills (SS.IS.1-3. 9-12). Here are some resources to help students develop questions to guide teaching with controversy.
  • The Question Formulation Technique (QFT) from the Right Question Institute is a simple protocol for helping students design good questions. Teachers can register for their Educator Network for free and have access to training in the QFT and classroom resources.
  • C3 Teachers has produced a short video overview introducing the importance of questioning.
  • The 5 Whys Technique attributed to Toyota founder Sakichi Toyoda, has students probe deeper into compelling questions by asking “why” to seek out root causes and underlying issues.
  • Questionstorming is an iteration of brainstorming in which students generate questions and then zero in on “the best question we need to answer right now.”
  • The Q-Matrix developed by Kagan Cooperative Learning is a wonderful protocol I have used to differentiate and scaffold question formulation. Use your favorite search engine to generate different versions of this strategy.
  • Illinois’ own Dan Fouts has started a new blog called Socrates Questions: Teach Different with Big Questions. Check it out for inspiration for using “Big Questions” in your classroom.

Teaching with Controversy: From Charlottesville to Chicago

by Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Democracy Program Director

Mary Ellen and I have posted twice on teaching the events of Charlottesville earlier this month and its aftermath. This piece attempts to localize several of the issues that surfaced there and throughout the country as we collectively make sense of both the past and present in our civics classrooms this fall.

The Illinois high school civics course requirement embeds discussion of current and controversial issues, a pedagogy we have also written about at great length. My initial post on the subject emphasized the importance of issue select when bringing controversy into the classroom. Issues include “…meaningful and timely questions about public problems that deserve both students’ and the public’s attention.”

Charlottesville clearly meets this test, and the issues emanating from these events have local dimensions.
Please contact us and share how you are localizing the events of Charlottesville in your own classrooms.

Courageous Conversations

by Mary Ellen Daneels, Lead Teacher Mentor

In last week’s blog entry, Dr. Shawn Healy stressed “the importance of preparing young people for democracy in a racially and ethnically heterogeneous republic.” This task can be daunting for the classroom teacher at the start of the school year but current events demand that classroom teachers respond so that we can empower our youngest citizens to be, in the words of Healy, “upstanders for fellow citizens and residents of this country.”

The new IL Civics requirement & Social Studies standards compel students to engage in current and controversial issue discussions in which they communicate their conclusions concerning essential questions using multiple sources. It is important for teachers to create a safe environment for such deliberations that establish clear norms of interaction that promote active listening, understanding and respect.

One key to productive discourse is to provide depth. In an interview with NPR cited by Chalkbeat, Dr. Diana Hess, Dean of the School of Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW) cautions teachers to not start conversations by simply asking student reaction to political events that are often unfolding, but rather, to prepare students for deeper conversations about political issues. Hess cautions, “There's a big difference in talking about, ‘What do you think happened?’ and talking about a policy issue like ‘Should police officers be required to wear video cameras?’”

Dr. Diana Hess (left) and Dr. Paula McAvoy (right)

Another way to scaffold productive deliberations is to provide context. In the same NPR interview, Hess’ colleague, Dr. Paula McAvoy from the UW Center for Ethics and Education, explains the need to build curriculum to promote understanding, “Young people need to see these as moments within their historical context – need to understand some of the history.”

A recent article in the Washington Post titled, “The first thing teachers should do when school starts is talk about hatred in America. Here’s help” explained that to meet the demond for resources surrounding Charlottesville, educators have been sharing resources through various platforms under #CharlottesvilleCurriculum. Listed below are several I have found helpful.
  • A recent #sschat hosted by Teaching Tolerance is archived and provides rich conversation and materials including resources from the Southern Poverty Law Center
  • Facing History and Ourselves has numerous curriculum resources and strategies to help establish safe spaces for classroom conversations as well as curriculum that provides context & depth for deliberations.
  • The Constitutional Rights Foundation of Chicago provides strategies to engage in civil conversations as well as resources that provide multiple perspectives on compelling political issues.
  • Deliberating in a Democracy also offers numerous Structured Academic Controversies to facilitate the use of multiple sources and evidence in student engagement.
  • A recent TedEd blog provides “10 Tips for Talking about the News and Current Events in Schools.”
  • National Public Radio shared a list of “Resources for Educators to Use in the Wake of Charlottesville.”
  • For those interested in a “deeper dive” into best practices surrounding the use of current and controversial Issues discussions in the classroom may want to read the award winning book, The Political Classroom by Hess and McAvoy
Do you have any resources to share to help facilitate current and controversial issue discussions in the civics classroom? Please send your suggestions to MDaneels@illinoiscivics.org. Together, we can prepare Illinois students for college, career and civic life.

Teach Our Children Well

by Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Democracy Program Director

If anyone ever questioned the value of civics and the importance of preparing young people for democracy in a racially and ethnically heterogeneous republic, these detractors learned a harsh lesson last weekend in our perpetual quest to build a more perfect union. Saturday’s tragic and deeply unsettling events in Charlottesville should challenge our collective conscience and force us to reflect on our failure to educate the (mostly) young men that invoked historic symbols of hatred to terrorize those confronting their deeply offensive rhetoric and actions through constitutionally-protected channels.


Civic education has many benefits, but at its core is a goal to develop the capacity, connections, and commitments necessary for informed, effective, and lifelong engagement in our democracy. This includes the obvious norms of voting, volunteering, contacting public officials, and paying attention to the news, but also a shared sense of community and commitment to a common destiny for an America that has forever promised the “golden door” to the “tired,” “poor,” and “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

The truth is that we have too often failed to deliver on this promise in a nation that marginalized and virtually exterminated Native Americans, enslaved millions of African-Americans, excluded and detained Asian-Americans, and abused and made second-class citizens of Latino-Americans. These narratives, and the legacies of our original sins, haunt us and our nonwhite brothers and sisters to this day.

But we must follow in the footsteps of Martin Luther King, Jr. and bend the arc of history towards justice. This begins by confronting historic and contemporary racial and ethnic discrimination in our classrooms. Once this powerful evidence is burned deeply into the minds of our youth, we move next to not mere tolerance of difference, but an outright embrace of its social and democratic value. These are among the dispositions essential to the survival of the American experiment.

Citizenship in this country conventionally ends with norms of personal responsibility: paying the bills, taking out the garbage, and casting a ballot in presidential election years. Civic education frequently pushes further and injects participatory norms like volunteering on a campaign, contacting an elected official, and writing a letter to the editor of a local newspaper. These actions are valuable, but still minimalistic during times like these that test our democratic institutions and try the souls of our nation.

What’s missing is a commitment to social justice, particularly among Caucasian Americans that have long benefited from the privilege of their skin color. The events of the past weekend and the election of President Trump last November stand as existential threats to our black and brown family members, friends, students, co-workers, and fellow citizens. And the rise of the so-called alt-right also terrorizes Jewish-Americans as they wield symbols and salutes that society vowed to never surface again.

We must teach our children that there is no moral equivalence between those that intend to discriminate and invoke harm on the basis of race, ethnicity, or religion and those that confront hatred, bigotry, and deeply-seeded racism. That tolerance of diversity is insufficient, as the entrenched impact of centuries of overt and implicit racism must be extracted by the root. That times like these compel us to be “upstanders” for fellow citizens and residents of this country.

Moments like the present are our reason for being as civic educators. Our ranks are disproportionately white in a state where a majority of our K-12 students are black and brown. All of our students are watching what’s transpiring in this country, and they will look to you to help them make sense of it all. Educate them on historic and contemporary racism, empower them to confront it through words and actions, and join them in our perpetual quest to make America live up to its founding creed, that “all men (and women) are created equal.”

In Search of a Symbiotic Relationship Between Parents and Teachers in Supporting Youth Civic Development

by Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Democracy Program Director

As a young boy, I developed an early interest in politics, thanks in part to the influence of my parents and grandparents. I recall my father bringing me along to the voting booth, my paternal grandmother taking two newspapers each day and faithfully watching gavel-to-gavel coverage of the party conventions, and my maternal grandmother meeting with her alderman at the kitchen table.

Now, with two kids of my own, I’ve tried my very best to pass the torch, modeling these same behaviors and demonstrating my daily commitment to strengthening democracy in Illinois through my work at the McCormick Foundation, teaching at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and service on a number of nonprofit boards.


Last week, as part of the 2017 Summer Convening of the Action Civics Initiative in Philadelphia, I was asked to participate in a Facebook Live session sponsored by Pearson to discuss how parents can support the diffusion of action civics principles (read the summary article here). They center upon student voice; deliberative discussion; real world interaction with local leaders, officials, and systems; and support for teachers and instructors through professional development opportunities, materials, and favorable policies.

The Guardian of Democracy report published by the Campaign for the Civic Mission of schools recommends that “parents…encourage their children to develop an interest in keeping themselves informed about current events; encourage their children to take an interest in and volunteer in their community; and help their children develop civic knowledge, skills, and habits.”

Guardian of Democracy also encourages parents to “…review civic learning opportunities in children’s schools,” a practice we’ve institutionalized at the McCormick Foundation through the Illinois Democracy Schools Initiative. Through a school-wide civic assessment process, students, teachers, administrators, community partners, and parents are asked to weigh in on their support for students’ civic learning opportunities and sense of the organizational culture at the school undergirding them.

Nationally, too many high school civics teachers (one in four according to the Center for Information Research on Civic Learning and Engagement) believe that parents or community members would object if political issues were discussed in their classrooms. When it comes to teaching about elections, only 28% of these educators feel that parents would provide strong support for this practice. This support is critical because teachers that have it are more likely to have open classroom environments and deploy deliberative practices.

According to researchers Michael McDevitt and Mary Caton-Rosser, “High school students…seem to thrive when teachers do feel they have enough community support to allow for (these types) of interaction.” Parents and teachers both clearly have a role to play in fostering students’ civic development and it should be seem as a “symbiotic,” not adversarial, relationship. The authors suggest that “…teachers…become more proactive in finding ways to enlist parents as partners in democratic education.”

To this end, McDevitt and Spiro Kiousis, in two separate articles, examine the interplay of students, parents, and schools in the political socialization process. In asking students to discuss elections-related news with parents, the authors find that "…Student-initiated conversation seems to awaken the civic parent in an adult, a role identity that might otherwise remain dormant…”

In sum, “The civic parenting phenomenon can be thought of as a mirror reflection of trickle up influence as the flow of influence moves in the opposite direction, from families to schools, with the child once again acting as a conduit for interpersonal political communication between the two parties."

More specifically, “Student-parent discussion appears to elevate the social utility or social value of paying attention to news media, and this increased motivation is not simply a fleeting effect.”

Thus, this symbiotic relationship between parents and school-based civic learning has mutual benefits for student and parent alike. It bears nurturing beyond teaching about elections and deliberative discussion, encompassing all of the action civics principles discussed above.