Classroom Resources for News Literacy

by Mary Ellen Daneels, Lead Teacher Mentor

A recent report from the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) highlights the importance of news literacy as a complementary stream to the proven practices of civic education embraced by the civic education requirement for graduation in the state of Illinois.

Kei Kawashima Ginsberg and Peter Levine, co-authors of the report titled, The Republic is (Still) at Risk- and Civics is Part of the Solution, explain that, “young people are increasingly empowered to influence the topics and stories that are widely shared. At the same time, they are deluged with unreliable information and actual propaganda, and research shows that most young people perform poorly at distinguishing fake news from reliable news. This skill can be taught effectively in schools, and students can learn to be effective producers of news.”

The proven practice of current and controversial issue discussions in the classroom has explicit ties to the need for students to acquire the knowledge, dispositions and skills associated with media literacy. In addition, the new Illinois Social Studies standards requires students be healthy “consumers” of information as they evaluate sources and use evidence to address essential questions facing their communities. The inquiry arc of the new standards ends with students communicating conclusions and taking informed action with an authentic audience in mind, creating the need for helping students be wise producers of information.

In a previous blog post, Shawn Healy remarked that, “daily integration of these (media literacy) practices into our classrooms, will help to rebuild trust in and consumption of the high-quality journalism that is arguably more abundant than ever before. If successful, we will better inoculate ourselves and our students against the competing misinformation campaigns that are truly fake.” There are a number of resources that can help teachers empower students with media literacy practices.
  • The News Literacy Project has lesson plans, archived webinars and a digital platform called Checkology that can be used one to many or in one to one classrooms. Don’t forget to subscribe to their weekly newsletter called The Sift for weekly updates on “teachable moments” related to news literacy.
  • The Center for News Literacy at Stony Brook University has a Digital Resource Center that teachers can sign up for to curate resources for classroom use.
  • Newseum ED has wonderful infographics for classroom use as well as lessons plans.
  • Facing History and Ourselves partnered with the News Literacy Project to create a timely unit on media literacy called “Facing Ferguson” that is appropriate for high school students.
  • The American Press Institute has activities and lesson plans for all ages.
  • This link from Edutopia has vetted a 5-minute film festival with nine videos on news literacy.
  • LAMP, or Learning about Multimedia Project, has materials that shine a light to “challenge stereotypes, fake news and more.”
  • While we many schools recently celebrated Media Literacy Week, the National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE), sponsors of the event, celebrate information literacy year round.

Do you have a favorite resource tied to media literacy? Please comment and share below. Together, we can prepare students for college, career and civic life.

Media Literacy Week Highlights Importance of Healthy News Diets

by Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Democracy Program Director

A modern definition of informed and engaged citizenship includes media and news literacy. I write today in honor of Media Literacy Week, sponsored by our partners at the National Association of Media Literacy Education (NAMLE). NAMLE hosted its conference in Chicago last summer, and the McCormick Foundation is proud to support and collaborate with a number of its members, including the News Literacy Project and the Center for News Literacy.

Like civic learning, media literacy must live across the curriculum. When I began my teaching career two decades ago, the daily newspaper served as my textbook. Media diets have since evolved, but the currency of news for democratic discourse and participation has only appreciated. While our students are indeed digital natives and often more adept than us with their devices, it is wrong to asssume that they possess the skills and dispositions to be media literate.

Media literacy is fostered by inculcating daily news habits. In the company of many of you, I mourn the pending extinction of print newspapers delivered to my doorstep, but we must not allow this technological transition to stand as the death knell for news consumption more broadly. The reality is that the digital revolution has placed more news and information at our finger tips than ever before, some of it very high quality, and our role as educators is to develop the news attentiveness of our students as they navigate emerging information flows.

Identifying reputable sources for news is a gateway skill. Encourage students to follow both news outlets and individual reporters on Facebook and Twitter, sign up for daily news digests like Politco’s Illinois Playbook or the Chicago Tribune’s Morning Spin, and subscribe to podcasts like NPR’s “1A” or CNN’s “The Axe Files.”


The modern era has also lowered the barriers of entry to journalism. One no longer needs to own a printing press to produce media and journalism. School-based publications are age-old incubators of media literacy regardless of whether student journalists later parlay these experiences into a paycheck. And Chicago has a healthy local youth media ecosystem of its own, working both within and outside of schools to amplify youth voice and teach transferable media literacy skills.

But teachers themselves can integrate news production into civics classrooms as students examine public issues. Encourage students to start their own blog, use an existing or invent a new hash tag, or submit traditional letters to the editor or opinion-editorial pieces. Because of virtually infinite digital capacity, the former often run online with greater frequency nowadays than the space-starved print editions permitted.

I’ve avoided the topic of “fake news” thus far and promise to tackle it in future posts, but buried the proverbial lead because I contend that the phenomenon is a second-level problem. First, we must build healthy news habits and diets. Then, and only then, do we have the luxury of teaching students (and adults) how to better discern good from bad. Indeed, “fake news” is often used as a moniker to disparage news coverage of facts that conflict with our personal political beliefs. My hope is that Media Literacy Week, alongside daily integration of these practices into our classrooms, will help to rebuild trust in and consumption of the high-quality journalism that is arguably more abundant than ever before. If successful, we will better inoculate ourselves and our students against the competing misinformation campaigns that are truly fake.

Propagating Civic Education Practice in Illinois

by Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Democracy Program Director

I’m delighted to share some of the results from the first full year of our civics course implementation efforts. In 2015, Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner signed bi-partisan legislation requiring high school students to complete a semester-long civics course effective with the Class of 2020. The McCormick Foundation, in partnership with other local funders, committed more than $1 million annually to support statewide implementation efforts in the form of intensive teacher professional development opportunities paired with related curriculum and resources.

We have also partnered with the Center for Information Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), based at Tufts University, to evaluate our implementation efforts. By utilizing real-time evaluation data, we have made timely adjustments and adaptations to our programming, and also been able to communicate our progress to key stakeholders, policymakers included.

Through surveys of our Illinois Civics Teacher Mentors, a broader statewide teacher survey, and interviews with partners and advocates, CIRCLE compiled a Year One report on our progress.

Our implementation model is articulated in more detail here, but CIRCLE elegantly summarizes it as follows:

By seeding champions, demonstrating use, and fertilizing judiciously with training, support, resources, and connections, the Illinois civic education efforts seeks policy implementation through a cultural shift in practice germinating from the ground up (see figure 1).


Interest in the new course requirement varies by audience, as mentors and teachers have had the most success in reaching out to social studies coordinators and colleagues in their own buildings, with some traction among principals, other teachers in the region, and superintendents. Local leaders and parents present growth opportunities for future outreach.

CIRCLE did find evidence of civics-oriented relationships forming at all levels as social studies teachers leverage opportunities previously afforded to only math and English Language Arts peers.

The extent to which schools have implemented the civics course requirement varies by practice. Controversial issues discussions are most implemented, and service-learning the least, yet the latter practice is at least two-thirds partially or fully implemented (67% combined; see figure 3).


Yet service-learning is listed as the most challenging practice to implement, far outpacing outreach to school leadership, alignment with the Danielson Framework, and using simulations of democratic processes (see figure 4).


These challenges considered, the #CivicsIsBack Campaign has room for growth as we are well into Year Two and begin planning for 2018-2019. This past summer, we offered eleven regional workshops, with new sites in Bloomington and Rockford, and Lead Mentor Mary Ellen Daneels is on staff full-time during the current school year to deliver customized professional development sessions for regional offices of education, districts, and even individual schools. Mary Ellen and our teacher mentors are designing standards- and course-aligned lesson plans for immediate classroom use, and in partnership with Illinois State University, our mentors have designed and are currently teaching a free online tutorial on the course requirement and embedded practices.

Stay tuned for further reflections on our Year Two programming, and please contact us with feedback on how we can better meet your course implementation needs.

A Practical Guide to Service Learning

by Jennifer Conlon, Regional Teacher Mentor, North Cook County

Jennifer Conlon teaches Government, ESL through AP, at Maine East High School. She serves as the Regional Mentor for North Cook County. A former attorney and Congressional staffer, she enjoys making democracy accessible to all her students and is delighted to help others do the same. Over the past several years, she has worked to include service learning in her classes and to make simulations increasingly authentic. Jennifer has created a booklet to guide her students through a service-learning project. Jennifer introduces this resource below.

Teachers repeatedly indicate that service learning is the requirement of the new state civics statute they find most difficult to implement. There is a lot of helpful literature about this, too, from a taxonomy of participants to suggestions for service. Teachers want to give students agency and an authentic, reflective experience without overwhelming them. Like everyone else, I have been on a service learning journey and here is the result to date. Thanks to conferences, colleagues in my department and my district, and students in my classes, this is the most recent iteration. It's very simple. Students are grouped by topics for which they have expressed a preference. They develop a team name. They consider their issue, make a root cause tree, ask questions and research, then they plan for observations, civic participation, and political action to help resolve the problem. They make connections to curriculum and reflect on the process. They record all this in a booklet. When they turn it in completed, it is worth a set number of points. They like what it does for their grade and the sense of satisfaction it gives them. We like that it gets them engaged. I hope this works well for you.


To access Jennifer’s booklet to scaffold service learning, please visit the Lesson Plan resource page at illinoiscivics.org. Please post comments about what you find useful in this resource and any other materials you use to support service learning in your classroom.

In Search of Oases in Civic Deserts

by Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Democracy Program Director

Last week, I had the honor in participating in the National Conference on Citizenship in Washington, D.C. For the past decade-plus, the congressionally-chartered organization has published annual reports on the nation’s civic health. The McCormick Foundation has been a proud local partner, producing state and local civic health reports of our own, and also providing funding for this year’s national publication, Civic Deserts: America’s Civic Health Challenge.

Civic deserts are defined as “communities without opportunities for civic engagement” and are increasingly common in rural and urban areas alike. More broadly, our nation’s civic health is in a continued state of decline, posing existential threats to “our prosperity, safety, and democracy.”
  • A little more than a quarter of us (28%) belong to a group led by individuals we consider accountable and inclusive.
  • Large-scale civic institutions like political parties, labor unions, metropolitan daily newspapers (see Chart 9 below), and religious congregations continue to shrink. They formerly mobilized communities for civic and political purposes.
  • Declines in newspaper readership are coupled with plummeting trust in all forms of news media.
  • Volunteering rates have fallen from already low percentages, dropping from 30% in 2005 to 25% in 2015.

Per recent trends, this report places part of the blame for our civic deficits on the marginalization of civic learning in P-20 education. The authors (Matthew Atwell, John Bridgeland, and Peter Levine) point to the decline of civics course offerings, specifically problems of democracy classes, and recipient waning student performance on sporadic administrations of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in Civics. Even among the upper echelon of high school students, the percentage taking AP U.S. Government and Politics has declined precipitously over the last quarter century.


I encourage you to read the report in full for a comprehensive view of our contemporary civic health crisis, but will conclude by riffing from the “paths to civic renewal” provided by the authors, in particular their call to “increase access to and the quality of American history and civics education in the United States.”

This includes adoption of “rigorous state standards” as we have in Illinois, “meaningful assessments” (still work to do here), and coursework that features discussions of current and controversial issues and service learning (see our new high schools civics course requirement). Federal funding is also key, including the revival of the Teaching American History grant program, increased frequency of the NAEP Civics Assessment, and “disaggregated or state level data of the results.” The final recommendation parallels our own Democracy Schools Initiative, where schools that demonstrate deep commitments to civic learning and American history would receive “blue ribbon” federal recognition.

Embracing Diversity

by Mary Ellen Daneels, Lead Teacher Mentor

A few years ago, students in my class participated in Project Soapbox, a program sponsored by the Mikva Challenge in which students give a two to three minute speech in response to the prompt, “What is the biggest issue facing your community?” We heard heartfelt pleas to end bullying, respond to racial and religious discrimination, address the gender gap, and promote acceptance of the LGBTQ community. Each speech ended with a “call to action” that implored the audience to address the essential question, “How should we live together?”

The students and I invited administrators, police resource officers, school board members and county officials who worked with at-risk teens to listen and provide feedback to the speeches. The adults in the room valued the passionate, heartfelt pleas for change and encouraged the students to present their findings to the school board. The students did some further investigation and presented a six-point plan of action at a school board meeting. This resulted in policy changes, the development of a more comprehensive plan to address bullying and a new school touchstone created by the students to articulate what kind of school climate they wanted. The touchstone was created through student body input and now hangs in every classroom as a foundation of how all members of our school are to conduct themselves, in short, how we as school community should “live together.”

In crafting the school touchstone, the most animated conversation involved how we should respond to our “deepest differences”- the very topics that were highlighted in the Soapbox Speeches. Students considered using the word tolerance until one student exclaimed, “Well, I would not feel very good if someone told me they ‘tolerated’ what made me unique, I want them to EMBRACE DIVERSITY!”


The Illinois Civics requirement promotes the proven practice of current and controversial issue discussions in part to “embrace diversity.” It is only when we dialogue about our deepest differences that we can (as Shawn stated in a previous blog), “seek to understand the values that underlie often deeply personal contrasting beliefs through deliberative dialogue, with a commitment to identifying areas of agreement.”

There are many resources available to teachers to help students understand multiple perspectives on the most compelling questions facing our communities and promote purposeful discourse.
  • AllSides.com provides current events articles from multiple sources on the political spectrum.
  • ProCon.org provides lesson plans and primary sources related to controversial issues.
  • Deliberating in a Democracy provides Structured Academic Controversies on a multitude of issues, local to global. Many are in multiple languages.
  • The New York Times Upfront Magazine provides current and controversial deliberations monthly.
  • Teachers can sign up for the Student Government Affairs Program newsletter that curates a current events issue each month that culminates in proposed “informed action” that students can take.
Do you have any resources to share to help facilitate current and controversial issue discussions in the civics classroom? Please leave a comment to this blog. Together, we can prepare Illinois students for college, career and civic life.

Political Polarization No Longer the Sole Province of Elites

by Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Democracy Program Director

A decade ago, political scientists were deep in the throes of a debate over the extent to which political polarization was elite driven, or also represented throughout the population. The former argument acknowledged that the two political parties in Congress moved more decisively to the left and right, respectively, leaving a largely centrist public to choose between two polar choices.

Indeed, a young Illinois Senate candidate named Barack Obama dismissed the artificial divisions of “red” and “blue America” in the 2004 keynote at the Democratic National Convention in Boston.

Elected president four years later, Obama soon came to grips with conservative Republican opposition committed to limiting him to a single term in office. And this opposition was backed by the grass roots activism of the Tea Party. The left had its own counterpunch in the form of Occupy Wall Street, and the elite-only political polarization hypothesis has since been disproven.

Earlier this month, the Pew Research Center released a report that challenged age-old assumptions of the forces that shape our political views. Education and income were once decisive predictors, and a decade ago religiosity, or the frequency by which we worship, was correlated with partisan choice. More recently, race has been at the forefront of political debates with perhaps the second coming of the Civil Rights Movement paired with the politics of resentment of the white working class.

While these variables partly predict our political views, our party affiliation stands first and foremost.


This conclusion is a product of a survey capturing partisan views on ten selected economic and social issues.


Over the course of a 23-year period, significant, yet comparatively shallow partisan divides have become cavernous. Even on issues like the value of immigration to the country and tolerance for homosexuality where overall views have trended progressive, the gap between Democrats and Republicans have widened. And Republicans mistrust of government as a partner in resolving societal problems stands in stark contrast with Democrats’ more optimistic view.

These alarming data points affirm what many of us witness in daily debates that smack of tribalism. The question is where we go from here. We’ll have more to say about this in future posts, but it underlines once more the critical roles that teachers and schools play in students’ civic development.

As a citizenry we must understand where our beliefs lie on the political spectrum and the values that underlie them. We must also avoid caricatures of our “opponents,” seeking to understand the values that underlie often deeply personal contrasting beliefs. This can be achieved through deliberative dialogue, with a commitment to identifying areas of agreement. The latter can be the basis of seemingly elusive political compromise. Nothing less than the future of our republic depends on it.