Understanding the Illinois Civics Mandates

by Mary Ellen Daneels, Civics Instructional Specialist

This fall, middle schools will join their colleagues in high school in requiring at least a semester of civics for students in the curriculum. The mandate goes beyond “what” to teach, but also “how” to teach using the proven practices of civic education. We kicked off our online summer professional development series on Wednesday, May 27 to support the implementation of the civics mandates in grades 6-12.


The Understanding the Illinois Civics Mandates webinar began by asking participants the simple question, “Why teach civics?” Their responses captured in the word cloud above, indicate the need to go beyond the traditional content measured on a constitution or citizenship test but pointed to deeper knowledge of democratic institutions, skills to navigate complex systems and work with others, and dispositions of civic engagement.

Dr. Shawn Healy, Director of the Democracy Program at the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, presented important data about the “what” and “why” of the mandate to support the participants’ vision of civics, including recently published NAEP scores that illustrate the inequities in civic achievement along racial and ethnic lines (left) and the preference of teaching civics as a stand-alone course in middle school to achieve the “why” identified by participants at the outset of the session.

Both the upcoming elections and the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrate the need for continued investment in youth civic development principally through high-quality, school-based civic learning opportunities. IllinoisCivics.org developed a Curriculum Design Tool Kit to help educators enhance their practice and implement the civics legislation with fidelity. Each week, elements will be added to the tool kit that align with the weekly webinar topics. This week, resources to start reviewing the mandate, conduct a civic audit of the current curriculum, and create a civic and reflective classroom space in person or remotely were shared. You can access a recording of the webinar if you missed it.

At the end of each webinar, several Illinois Civics Instructional Coaches share their top strategies and resources for implementation. This week, the coaches shared “just one thing” they would encourage their colleagues to start with if teaching civics for the first time this fall. Here are their suggestions for your consideration.
  • Jason Artman from Mendota likes to use the Student Government Affairs Program Newsletter to support current and societal issue discussions because the “Student Government Affairs Program provides non-partisan background written at a student level and includes statements on both sides of multiple issues.”
  • Alia Bluemlein from Crystal Lake recommends Street Law. “There are a few different resources available for civic simulations — both in-person and online. Street Law requires you to “check out” with the materials — don’t be deterred — it’s free.”
  • Tracy Freeman from Normal asked her students what they would recommend for the classroom. iCivics was the overwhelming favorite. “Civics simulations are so important. iCivics is key!”
  • Patty West from Springfield recommends educators explore ProCon.org. “It has lesson plans, videos, and materials on a wide range of controversial issues presented in a pro-con format.”
  • Matthew Wood from West Chicago likes ListenWise. “Listenwise has clipped episodes of podcasts that can be really useful in getting comfortable with Civics in classrooms. It has pre-built assessments, transcripts of podcasts, speed settings, Lexile scores, and integrates with Google Classroom. A great alternative to Newsela.”
It is not too late to register for the remaining webinars. Each session will take place on Wednesday morning from 9:30-10:30 a.m. Educators can join live to interact with hosts and ask questions or watch a recording of each session. Each webinar is free and participants can elect to earn two PD credits per webinar for completing a post-webinar application activity.

What are you doing to implement the middle and high school civics mandates? Please comment below. Together we can prepare ALL students for college, career, and civic life.

Using Reflection to Support Student Learning During COVID-19

by Byron Terry, Research Intern, Democracy Program

In the blink of an eye, students went from seeing each other and their teachers physically to an online zoom call. Recently, the Democracy Schools Network hosted a check-in call with civic education leaders from different schools in Illinois to discuss some of the thorns and roses since they have made the online transition. Educators expressed a variety of challenges, including:
  • Some of their students now have even more responsibility with younger siblings in the home
  • Students have limited access to devices to do their schoolwork because in some instances multiple people share one device throughout the day
  • Students are leaving home and going to businesses that have free wifi to complete assignments and/or access their virtual classrooms through their phones in the parking lots
  • Students are having trouble expressing their concerns about what is happening in this moment


Due to the outbreak of COVID-19, schools across the nation have been working hard to make the transition from the traditional physical setting to an e-learning platform. Even though educators across the nation have been getting creative to build community, support their students through this change, and provide a quality education, they are still grappling with various pre-existing obstacles that come with e-learning. Additionally, some of the issues they were facing in the physical classroom, such as parent engagement and home/workload balance, have migrated to the online classroom in different forms. In this moment, utilizing reflection, may be the key to addressing some of these issues as this is a skill most teachers and students have had previous experience with.

The various elements of Democracy Schools all embed reflection as a key component of the civic learning practice. With Discussion of Current and Controversial Issues, teachers are providing opportunities across disciplines for students to take an active role in deliberating current issues and creating time for reflection and processing so that students can consider changes in viewpoint and use of evidence. With Simulations, teachers provide opportunities for students to participate in role-playing activities, problem solving, consideration of dilemmas, interactive case studies and scenarios, and online games while also creating time for reflection and processing to understand the concepts and application of simulations. Lastly, with Informed Action/Service-Learning, teachers provide opportunities for all students regardless of academic skill or ability, to engage in civic action by using knowledge and skills to address genuine community needs on multi-levels through preparation, action, and reflection.

As teachers may be exploring how they can use reflection, there are a number of online resources that can provide effective strategies and context for showing the effectiveness of reflection.
  • Washington State University provides information on the components of reflection
  • Gateway Technical College provides a Service Learning Reflection Toolkit that not only outlines essential components, but provides suggestions for activities for students
  • UTM Experiential Education Office provides a toolkit that goes into detail on reflective writing really and how to write reflectively vs academically
Creating assignments where students can reflect on all they are facing during this current moment might be the key to supporting students, understanding issues of access, and building community. Allowing students to reflect on what is going on in small groups and/or group discussions can allow students to build a connection with students that are going through similar circumstances and give teachers a sense of what students need.

For example, teachers can ask students to reflect on their computer access over the past few weeks. This may give teachers insight to what is manageable for students to accomplish from home. Other reflection questions can address whether a family member or friend have been affected by the virus or what media is telling them about COVID-19. It is important for educators to ask students about how their lives have changed due to COVID-19, understand their outlook on the current pandemic, and what supports educators can offer to assist students through these changes. Additionally, there is opportunity to get feedback from students on their experiences with e-learning allowing students to voice their expectations or ideals on how effective e-learning looks. Student Voice, especially with these key opportunities for reflection, can support educators in creating the best path forward for their students.

Does the Graduated Income Tax Amendment “Add Up” for Illinois?

by Mary Ellen Daneels, Civics Instructional Specialist

One of the more consequential questions on this fall’s ballot in Illinois is largely flying under the radar in the minds of most voters. Voters in the Land of Lincoln will weigh in on a measure to repeal the state’s constitutional requirement that personal state income taxes remain flat. The referendum would allow the state to enact legislation for a graduated income tax (see image below).


This ballot question provides #CivicsInTheMiddle classrooms an opportunity to engage in current and societal issue discussions around the essential question, “Is equal always fair?” This is a complicated, but important issue to address that combines both political and economic disciplinary content.

We curated a number of sources in our IllinoisCivics.org Election 2020 Toolkit to help you unpack this issue and other topics related to the November General Election. Below are resources explicitly tied to the Graduated Income Tax question.



We hope you will join us this summer for our Civics In The Middle webinar series to support middle and high school civics implementation. The webinars are free. Registration links are available on the IllinoisCivics.org Professional Development calendar. Participants can earn two professional development credits through the DuPage Regional Office of Education for completing an extension assignment. Prior registration is required and details are available on the registration links.



IllinoisCivics.org is co-hosting a free 5-week micro-credential course in our Guardians of Democracy program on Current and Controversial Discussions with our colleagues from the Lou Frey Institute at the University of Central Florida. Participants can elect to earn professional development credits and graduate credits through the University of St. Francis for an additional fee.

What resources are you using to prepare your students for #Election2020? Please comment below. Together, we can prepare students for college, career, and civic life.

Civic Learning Vital to Local and National COVID-19 Relief, Recovery, and Reform Efforts

by Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Democracy Program Director

The COVID-19 pandemic demonstrates the need for continued investment in youth civic development principally through high-quality, school-based civic learning opportunities. However, the tremendous progress of the civic learning movement over the last decade is threatened in Illinois and nationally.

For one, the transition to remote learning in K-12 has been highly inequitable as school districts and families navigate access to hardware and broadband, not to mention an overnight upheaval of the way we teach and learn. As I wrote previously, civic education already suffered from inequitable inputs with lasting implications for who participates in our democracy and benefits from related public policy outcomes.

Anecdotally, civic learning, and the social studies more generally, is being further marginalized as schools double down on tested subjects. This concern is particularly acute for grades K-5 where the social studies are already peripheral, but bleeds into the middle grades with the new civics course requirement coming this fall. Moreover, should schools pursue a blended learning approach this fall, will in-person direct instruction be restricted solely to reading and math, with social studies, science, and “specials” relegated to virtual-only environs?

Not on our watch! While social distancing during this pandemic is highly recommended, the social studies, and civic learning specifically, is core to the mission of public education and must be woven throughout the K-12 curriculum, in-person, online, or both.

Our civic education nonprofits have worked admirably to assist educators and parents with the abrupt transition to home schooling at scale (see our compiled “Resources for Continuity of Learning in Civics”), and some are better equipped than others for this purpose as civic knowledge is arguably easier to foster online than informed action or service learning (my colleague, Instructional Specialist Mary Ellen Daneels, wrote this provocative piece on teaching civic engagement during a pandemic). At the same time, our nonprofit partners are struggling financially as spring benefits were cancelled, grants suspended, and individual donations redirected to emergency responses.

These partners have long provided leadership and structure to an underdeveloped and underresourced field. We must ensure they have the resources to survive the pandemic, continue the digital transition already underway, and assist students, teachers, schools, and districts in navigating the recovery to follow.

The CivXNow Coalition, which the McCormick Foundation supports through grant funding and I serve on the steering committee, is calling for a $40 million competitive grant program for civic education nonprofits to navigate these difficult times and the digital transition, particularly those serving students of color and low-income students in urban and rural areas. Take your own informed action by contacting Senators Durbin and Duckworth and your Representative, reference this letter signed by over 550 individuals and nearly 100 organizations, and urge their support of this vital appropriation as Congress formulates its next relief and recovery legislation.

Congress, and Americans more generally, must understand the vital importance of an informed and engaged citizenry now more than ever. My friend and colleague Louise Dube, Executive Director of iCivics and leader of the CivXNow Coalition, argues that the current moment provides evidence of our civic strength as our federal system generates varied responses to the pandemic and the public has largely abided by local guidance. Civil society has also responded through PPE donations, support of food banks, and medical students, and retired doctors and nurses entering and re-entering the frontline health care response.

But cracks in the body politic are also evident as stay-at-home orders are challenged and some protests even invoked anti-Semitic slogans. Our Asian American friends, colleagues, and community members face new discrimination and hate crime threats given the virus’ origin and irresponsible public rhetoric. Civic learning is vital to developing an understanding of identity in youth and the value of diversity, equity, and inclusion, which, when realized, truly make America great. Our colleagues at Facing History and Ourselves curated helpful steps and resources to empower students to combat racism during this pandemic.

Social distancing itself has assumed red and blue political hues on the rush to reopen the economy and even to wear facemasks in public. But longstanding democratic fractures can also be healed through an orientation towards the collective good and stronger social capital, the bedrock of democracy and a source of strength during times of trial. Moreover, during crises, trust in institutions is imperative and can be rebuilt through an informed and engaged citizenry. Civic learning builds positive civic dispositions, strengthens communities, and undergirds institutional trust.

Finally, youth must have a voice in building more equitable systems as the United States shifts from managing the pandemic to economic recovery and preventative measures to ensure that future infectious disease outbreaks are better contained. High-quality, school-based civic learning opportunities, both in-person and online, build our collective capacity, with youth at the center, for relief, recovery, and reform in the difficult weeks, months, and years to follow.

Classroom Resources to #Teach2020

by Mary Ellen Daneels, Civics Instructional Specialist

Last week, Dr. Shawn Healy, Director of the Robert R. McCormick Foundation's Democracy Program, hosted the third in a series of spring webinars designed to connect educators with content and resources to #teach2020. Among the topics Dr. Healy addressed were a retrospective of the Illinois primary, remaining primaries and caucuses, the coming veepstakes, and various electoral college scenarios in November. Did you miss it? Educators are welcome to access a recording of the one hour webinar.

Registration is now open for our next webinar on May 12th from 3:45-4:30 will examine, “Does the Progressive Tax Add Up for Illinois?” In this session, Dr. Healy will examine the referendum on the Illinois Fair Tax, an amendment to the Illinois Constitution that would change the state income tax system from a flat tax to a graduated income tax.


Throughout our #Teach2020 series, we concluded each webinar with resources and ideas for teachers to use in their classroom to support the proven practices of civic education in this teachable moment. We collected these ideas in our new Election 2020 Toolkit which provides classrooms with content to help understand:
  • Why Vote?
  • Why Engage Students in Voting and Elections?
  • The Nomination Process
  • The General Election and Electoral College
  • Initiatives and Referendums
  • Information Literacy Related to Elections
  • Researching Candidates
  • Historical Contexts of Elections
  • The Impact of COVID-19 on Elections
There are also a plethora of ideas and strategies in the toolkit to support the use of current and societal issue discussions, simulations of democratic processes, and service-learning during the election season.

What are you doing to #Teach2020? Please comment below. Together, we can prepare students for college, career, and civic life.

What Kind of Citizen during a Pandemic?

by Mary Ellen Daneels, Civics Instructional Specialist

Last week, I had the privilege of talking about putting civics in the middle with some of the hosts of #sschat on the Talking Social Studies podcast. Our brief conversation was wide-ranging but ultimately led to how we can foster student civic engagement, even during a pandemic.

Using the paradigm outlined in What Kind of Citizen? by Joe Kahne and Joel Westheimer, we discussed the three descriptions of the “good” citizen” — personally responsible, participatory, and justice-oriented citizens outlined in the journal article and what they might look like for students in a pandemic to foster authentic civic action.

To review the main ideas of Kahne and Westheimer’s work:
  • Many schools foster the personally responsible citizen through Character Counts and community service initiatives. Students are given opportunities to be personally responsible as an individual by recycling, donating items to the school food drive, or donating blood to name a few examples.
  • Other schools go a step further and foster participatory citizenship. Students have opportunities to be active members of civil society through clubs or class efforts and engage with their school and local communities by organizing collective efforts. These are the students who run the blood drive, receive and deliver items from the holiday food drive, and collect and sort the recycling from classrooms.
  • Justice-oriented citizenship is rare, but powerful. In this realm, as part of civic inquiry around essential questions in the classroom, students critically analyze problems to identify “root causes,” as well as seek out and address areas of injustice to effect systemic change. In the midst of a food drive, these students take a step back and ask, “Why are people hungry in our community? What civic action can we take to address the root causes of hunger?”


Each type of citizen is important to the functioning of our republic. We need to feed people while we address the root causes of hunger. But to elevate one type of citizen to the exclusion of the others is a political choice with political consequences.

During this pandemic, there are a plethora of resources available to help students explore the impact of COVID-19. However, the danger of solely having students “take the temperature” of the world around them to identify current and societal issues is that it only raises awareness. As educators, we must help them build efficacy to be personally responsible and participate with their community to “change the temperature.” As I shared with the Talking Social Studies hosts, we must help students go beyond being a thermometer that takes the temperature, providing opportunities for them to be thermostats to change the temperature, fostering the proven practice of service learning through informed action.

What might these civic opportunities to move students from thermometers to thermostats look like in a remote learning environment? Here are some ideas.
  • If you are encouraging students to follow CDC guidelines to help #flattenthe curve, you are helping foster personally responsible citizens. It will take all of us to practice social distancing and healthy habits to bring an end to COVID-19. Our Illinois Civics Continuity of Learning tool kit shares best practices in distance resources that you can share with both students and their families to be personally responsible citizens.
  • As an educator, you can foster participatory citizenship by putting Maslow before Bloom in your interactions with students. Create a safe space for students to process current events together. Prioritize and foster civic dispositions like empathy, commitment to the common good, and community involvement during this pandemic. Much of this work is related to Social Emotional Learning competencies. Alia Blumelein, an Illinois Civics regional civics instructional coach, has SEL e-learning every Friday with her students with opportunities for them to interact with civil society in positive ways.
  • In a recent #CivicsInTheMiddle newsletter, I shared how to engage student voice through journaling for informed action. You and your students are living through history right now. Consider having them keep a journal of their observations, questions, experiences, and challenges. Students can express their lived experiences in words, images, or another medium. They are writing the history others will learn from. In the short run, this can be an important formative assessment tool for you to use to calibrate your teaching. In the long run, these lived experiences can help your students be justice-oriented citizens and take informed action to inform civil society and policymakers in adjusting protocols. This Root Cause Tree tool shared by the Teaching Channels’ Educating for Democracy in a Digital Age can be used to process student observations to plan for justice-oriented civic action.
What kind of citizen are you promoting through distance learning in the pandemic? Please comment below. Together, we can prepare students for college, career, and civic life.

Red State, Blue State: From Midwestern Firewalls to Sunbelt Horizons

by Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Democracy Program Director

Having reviewed Illinois’ March primary results and presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s Veepstakes in the previous two posts, today’s topic is the November General Election and various Electoral College scenarios that will determine whether President Trump earns a second term. It goes without saying that electoral math makes for some great cross-curricular civic learning connections.

Article II, Section I of the Constitution establishes an Electoral College to select presidents, balancing the will of the people with state interests. It allocates two Electoral Votes to each state with an additional vote per congressional district, thus a minimum of three, and via the 23rd Amendment, also awarding three Electoral Votes to the District of Columbia. Combined, 50 states and DC yield 538 Electoral Votes, with 270 constituting a majority.

Two of the past five presidential elections (2000 and 2016) produced Electoral College winners at odds with the popular vote, in both cases benefiting the Republican candidate (Bush 43 and Trump, respectively). Republicans’ dominance in rural, less-populated states produces an Electoral College advantage, not to mention Democrats’ concentration on the two coasts and urban areas. In the case of large states like California and New York, Democrats “waste votes” in the sense that the Electoral College is winner-takes-all by state, so any votes beyond a plurality only pad the meaningless popular vote. This leaves a handful of battleground states where the overall contest is ultimately decided, and the 2020 Election will likely heed to this decades-long patterns.

Drawing from combined rankings of leading election prognosticators, 270toWin offers a consensus map below with six toss-up states (Arizona, Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Florida) and one toss-up district (the 2nd) in Nebraska. Maine and Nebraska award Electoral Votes by congressional district with a two-vote bonus for the statewide winner.


Note that President Trump won these states and Nebraska-2 in 2016 en route to a 304-227 Electoral Vote margin (seven “faithless” electors voted for other candidates) as Democrats’ Midwestern “blue wall” crumbled. Should former Vice President Biden rebuild it, a narrow path to victory emerges via the revised map below.


Click the map to create your own at 270toWin.com

Biden also has a Sunbelt option should he reclaim Florida and North Carolina for Democrats (Obama won the former in both 2008 and 2012 and the latter in 2008) or pick up Arizona as Clinton did in 1992 and 1996 and pair it with Florida (see below).


Click the map to create your own at 270toWin.com

Should Biden replicate the Sunbelt magic he enjoyed with his former running mate, President Trump can offset these gains with pick-ups in Minnesota and possibly New Hampshire, two states he lost by less than a percentage point in 2016, assuming he also holds Arizona.


Click the map to create your own at 270toWin.com

Finally, in the ultimate teachable moment for civics teachers, there are plausible paths to an Electoral College tie, 269-269, as exemplified below.


Click the map to create your own at 270toWin.com

Consulting Article II of the Constitution once more, the contest would be sent to the House of Representatives, with state delegations all afforded a single vote. Since Republicans have a majority in 26 state delegations to 22 for Democrats with two split (Michigan and Pennsylvania), assuming party unity, President Trump would be reelected.

For further discussion of these Electoral College scenarios and more, please join us tomorrow afternoon from 3:45-4:30pm for our April 21 webinar on Election 2020 titled “End Game.”