Civics IS the Plate!

by Mary Ellen Daneels, Lead Teacher Mentor


Sometimes as a teacher, I get inundated with initiatives that make me feel like I am drowning in alphabet soup. First it was NCLB, AYP, and RTI. We also have to keep in mind students that are AP, LEP, ELL, or have IEPs. We have to work on our SIP’s in our LC’s and document CPDU’s for the ISBE. Sometimes it can make a person want to say OMG, I am ready to go AWOL ASAP!

While the mention of another state mandate often makes me cringe, I am excited that Illinois joined 40 other states by implementing a civic education requirement for high school graduation guided by new social studies standards. The civics course requirement is unique because there are directions for not only “what” that should be taught with content standards, but also “how” it should be taught, citing proven practices in civic education.

It has been said that “luck” is a matter of opportunity meeting preparation. “The Land of Lincoln” IS prepared for this moment. Illinois teachers are lucky as there is a plethora of civic education organizations that are ready to help. The menu of resources and strategies provided by each group illustrates that the civics is not “something else to add to the plate”, but IS the plate to “serve up” common core and 21st century proficiencies while empowering young people to take informed action as members of their community.

Teachers can get connected with these organizations and other civic practitioners this summer in FREE two day workshops throughout the state that offer CPDU’s and, in some cases, graduate credit for participants. Most importantly, teachers will become part of a cohort of individuals led by regional mentors dedicated to preparing students for college, career and civic life. Participants will walk away with ready to use curriculum and methodologies tied to the 2016 election and beyond.

Do you have any resources to share to help facilitate the new civic education requirement? Please send your suggestions to MDaneels@illinoiscivics.org. Together, we can prepare Illinois students for college, career and civic life.

Support the Speech Rights of Student Journalists Act

by Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Civic Learning Scholar, Robert R. McCormick Foundation


Student voice, and First Amendment freedoms more broadly, are all too often shut out at the schoolhouse gate. As we seek to foster students’ civic development through the new high school civics course requirement and revised state social science standards, we must also confront the reality that democracy is rarely practiced in the hallways and corridors beyond the civics classroom. This is itself is a lesson in democracy, albeit a damaging one.

Fortunately, we have another opportunity to reverse this trajectory by advocating on behalf of the Speech Rights of Student Journalists Act (HB-5902) in the Illinois General Assembly. The legislation passed the House unanimously and awaits consideration in the Senate Judiciary Committee as early as tomorrow (Tuesday May 24).

Some of you might ask why a civic learning advocate is supporting a scholastic journalism bill. The answer is simple: a free press is essential for democratic governance, and our public schools are government institutions charged with preparing young people for their roles as lifelong participants in our democracy.

Moreover, this legislation, and the harmful Supreme Court decision it attempts to overturn (Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier), transcends student media. The Hazelwood decision empowered administrators to censor student speech through school-sponsored channels (publications, plays, commencement ceremonies, etc.) for “legitimate pedagogical purposes.”

This invitation to censor has been wielded irresponsibly in too many cases, stifling student voice and simultaneously weakening their democratic agency.

Indeed, the Association for Education in Journalism & Mass Communication (AEJMC) passed the following resolution on the 25th anniversary of the Hazelwood decision in 2013:

The Board of Directors of AEJMC declares that no legitimate pedagogical purpose is served by the censorship of student journalism even if it reflects unflatteringly on school policies and programs, candidly discusses sensitive social and political issues, or voices opinions challenging to majority views on matters of public concern. The censorship of such speech is detrimental to effective learning and teaching, and it cannot be justified by reference to “pedagogical concerns.”

The Speech Rights of Student Journalists Act maintains limitations for speech that presents a “material and substantial disruption” to the school environment, including libel, obscenity, and invasion of privacy.

Similar laws already exist in ten states and the District of Columbia, and concerns raised by opponents in Illinois and elsewhere never surfaced in spite of 170-plus combined years under this middle-ground standard.

The time to add Illinois to the mix of states that respect student voice and respect vibrant and free scholastic journalism is now. To learn more on how you can help advance HB-5902, search for the “New Voices Illinois” Facebook page, follow @ILNewVoices via Twitter, and visit the Illinois Journalism Association’s website, IJEA.org.

We Build the Car, but YOU Have to Drive it: Simulations by Mary Ellen Daneels, Lead Teacher Mentor

by Mary Ellen Daneels, Lead Teacher Mentor


Justice Sandra Day O’Connor states, “Knowledge of our system of government and rights and responsibilities as citizens is not passed down through the gene pool, it must be taught.” The new IL civics requirement elevates the use of simulations to this end. Simulations allow students to practice the knowledge, skills and dispositions of effective civic engagement as they meet the new inquiry-based standards for civics.

Seniors at West Chicago Community High School engage in a semester long legislative simulation. With administrative support and investment of external resources, what began over twenty years ago as a one week “committee hearing experience,” has evolved into nationally recognized program that meets content standards and utilizes literacy skills that promote college, career and civic success.



I often tell my students, “We build the car, but you have to drive it.” While direct instruction can teach the “rules of the road”; it is when students “take the wheel” and make decisions about policy, build coalitions and harness their own voice that the abstract becomes real. As one student shared, “I think it (the simulation) has made me more aware of different issues, and has made me more confident in discussing issues with people I wouldn’t have even thought of before.”

There are many resources for simulations of democratic practices that teachers can incorporate into their practice. Here are several to start with.

  • Street Law has a robust resource library that features ready-to-go mock trials.
  • The Constitutional Rights Foundation Civic Action Project has several simulations where students emulate local governments.
  • The Constitutional Rights Foundation-Chicago has resources that touch all three branches of government to help students simulate democratic practices.
  • The Foundation for Teaching Economics has several simulations that marry financial literacy with public policy. Linked is a simulation of a land use hearing.
  • Under the leadership of Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, icivics.org leverages gaming to simulate democratic practices related to foundational concepts such as federalism, limited government, and checks and balances.
  • The Redistricting Game is an online platform created by the USC Annenberg Center for Communications. Students experience how redistricting and gerrymandering can manipulate election results and why many are calling for reform.
Do you have any resources related to simulations in the civics classroom? Please send your suggestions to MDaneels@illinoiscivics.org. Together, we can prepare Illinois students for college, career and civic life.

Parsing Proven Civic Learning Practices, Part IV: Simulations

by Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Civic Learning Scholar, Robert R. McCormick Foundation


Throughout my career as a high school teacher and more recently as a college professor, I have successfully employed simulations of democratic processes into my classrooms and lecture halls. I placed a premium on authenticity with a deep-seated belief that students learn by doing and build knowledge cooperatively.

Whether it was simulating the 2000 Presidential Election through a school-wide Electoral College (which proved to be incredibly timely for obvious reasons) or a semester-long legislative simulation, students role played citizens and politicians alike in preparation for real world rights and responsibilities.

Although my own research suggests that simulations help build students’ civic knowledge and skills when employed occasionally, nearly two-thirds of students report never experiencing them (see pp. 154-160).

Student Scores on the 2010 NAEP Civics Assessment by Frequency of Exposure to Simulations (Role-Playing, Mock Trials, or Dramas)


Let’s be clear about what makes an effective simulation.

First, students should practice citizenship through role-playing, scenario consideration, or problem-based case solutions. This can take place in person or virtually, as several civic-oriented games fit this description. Regardless of format, student participation must be active.

Second, simulations should be of sufficient duration for students to learn challenging skills and concepts. This may entail several days, weeks, or even an entire semester (stay tuned for Mary Ellen’s post on Wednesday).

Third, like service learning, simulations should have a reflective component. Students should discuss what they learned in the simulation and apply it to other contexts, including the local community.

Finally simulations are underappreciated as an assessment tool. They can be used formatively to gauge student understanding of democratic processes and practices, or summatively to measure mastery of these concepts.

Thermometers to Thermostats: Service Learning

by Mary Ellen Daneels, Lead Teacher Mentor


My math colleagues teach mathematical principles and concepts and then students practice what they have learned and “do math.” Language Arts provides instruction on reading, writing, speaking and listening, and then students “do language arts.” In science, students engage in lab experiments to “do science”; applying disciplinary content they have learned in class through scientific inquiry. In civics, rich concepts such as liberty, equality, freedom, justice, and tolerance are explored and then…students take a Constitution Test? How do we allow students to “do civics” and practice the knowledge, skills and habits of effective civic engagement? How can we help students use inquiry to address the compelling questions that face society?

The new Illinois civics course requirement and social studies standards embrace the need for students to communicate conclusions and take informed action in a safe environment. One of the most proven practices to this end is the use of service learning. Service Learning gives students an authentic platform to practice literacy skills as they address real world issues through the use interdisciplinary content, aptitudes and evidence, developing partnerships with institutions in their community as they work for improvement and sustainability. Students go beyond being “thermometers” taking the temperature of their environment, learning how they can be the “thermostats” that can change the climate of their community. They become agents of change.

Many of our schools do a wonderful job helping students become involved in civil society through community service projects. Service learning, however, is informed action EXPLICILTY tied to the curriculum; it is a natural extension and application of the knowledge and skills being explored in the classroom. Best practice in service learning engages student voice in choosing, planning and implementing the endeavor with meaningful reflection throughout.

Service learning can take many forms including direct action, indirect action, research and advocacy. Students can communicate their conclusions and take informed action both inside and outside of the classroom.

There are a number of organizations and resources that will provide inspiration, structure and resources for successful service learning projects.
Do you have any resources to share to help facilitate service-learning in the civics classroom? Please send your suggestions to MDaneels@illinoiscivics.org. Together, we can prepare Illinois students for college, career and civic life.

Parsing Proven Civic Learning Practices, Part III: Service Learning

by Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Civic Learning Scholar, Robert R. McCormick Foundation


Throughout my career, I’ve enjoyed opportunities working in and with high schools throughout Illinois, and I can say with complete confidence that community service is abundant. From school wide food drives to extracurricular fundraisers to serving in local soup kitchens, our state’s students are deeply embedded in their surrounding communities, and the benefits are certainly reciprocal.

However, true service learning is relatively rare, and the new high school civics course requires it. This has caused a great deal of anxiety among teachers, schools, and districts, and it’s my hope that this post and the one that follows from Mary Ellen on Wednesday begin to quell these fears.

The benefits of service learning are widely documented (see pages 134-146), and my own research shows that school-based volunteerism builds students’ civic knowledge and skills to the same degree as individual or family-inspired volunteerism.



The biggest challenge in converting community service or volunteerism into service learning is connecting it to the classroom. The National Youth Leadership Council (NYLC) defines service learning as “…an approach to teaching and learning in which students use academic knowledge and skills to address genuine community needs.”

NYLC publishes standards for quality practice in service learning, and a few warrant discussion here. It begins with a “link to the curriculum,” where “service learning is used as an instructional strategy to meet learning goals and/ or content standards.”

Reflection is also critical and should occur in service learning’s multiple stages (see below). Students should have a voice in planning, implementing, and evaluating their service learning experience, and partnerships are pivotal. They should be “collaborative, mutually beneficial, and address community needs.” Finally, service projects should be long and intense enough to meet these needs.

Service learning takes place in five stages:
  1. Students identify a need in the community and analyze the underlying problem.
  2. They prepare and plan for their project, often in a group setting with specialized roles and responsibilities.
  3. Students take action in a “safe environment to learn, to make mistakes, and to succeed.”
  4. Students reflect on their experience through role plays, discussion, and/ or journaling, placing it in a broader context and receiving feedback from teachers, partners, and recipients.
  5. Students publically demonstrate what they have learned through reports, articles, presentations, and/ or performances.
This brief service learning primer will make more sense with the resources highlighted in Mary Ellen’s post later this week. Moreover, teachers throughout Illinois are encouraged to sign up for our 2016 summer workshops where service learning and the other practices prescribed by the new civics course requirement will be staples.

Harnessing the Power of Dialogue: Current and Controversial Issues Discussions

by Mary Ellen Daneels, Lead Teacher Mentor


In my first year of teaching, one of my students was killed in a tragic car accident. I turned to my mentor for advice. Should I go on with the lesson plan, avoid the situation and provide the students an escape from the tragedy? Should I address this difficult event in class, and if I so, how do I support my students?

He counseled me to address the circumstances and create a safe environment for the kids to express their own thoughts and emotions. It was a heartbreaking class- painful but cathartic. We knew that we were not alone in our feelings of grief, confusion and uncertainty about the future. I learned an important lesson about the power of dialogue and how discussion can bring people together and promote respect and understanding.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs teaches us that people do not learn (self-actualize) until their need for safety is met. As a teacher, it is my responsibility to provide a safe environment for students to deliberate issues facing our communities. My students have questions and I do NOT have all the answers, but I can provide the structure and opportunity for inquiry, investigation and deliberation of such issues as justice, equality, freedom, liberty, tolerance and the like.

The new Illinois Social Studies Standards and civics course requirement elevates the discussion of current and controversial issues. Civil discourse is an authentic platform to practice literacy skills as students use disciplinary content to inquire into compelling questions facing our democratic republic- using evidence to communicate conclusions and take informed action.

There are a number of resources devoted to supporting teachers seeking to integrate the proven practice of current and controversial issue discussions.
  • Facing History and Ourselves has a number of teaching strategies that promote literacy and create a safe classroom climate for controversial topics. Their instruction on how to run a Socratic Seminar is very thorough.
  • The Constitutional Rights Foundation of Chicago has several lesson plans that promote deliberation of current issues.
  • Diana Hess and Paula McAvoy’s The Political Classroom is a website named after their award winning book. There are links to additional resources to support teachers in the classroom.
  • Teaching with Primary Sources has a quick tutorial on how to create and use a Structured Academic Controversy. While this is geared towards historical questions, it can be used for civic inquiries as well.
  • Deliberating in a Democracy has inquires framed around questions with resources reflecting diverse opinions. There are also some bilingual materials.
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.

Parsing Proven Civic Learning Practices, Part II: Discussion

by Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Civic Learning Scholar, Robert R. McCormick Foundation


I first weighed in on the “teachable moment” that Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump’s campaign presents shortly after his canceled rally in Chicago two months ago. Since then, civics teachers have grappled with the challenge of embracing “the political classroom” in an election year laden with vitriol.

A recent article in The Atlantic claims that “…schools in the United States don’t teach the country’s future citizens how to engage respectfully across their political differences.”

This is far from a universal truth, but teachers face many barriers to bringing controversy in the classroom in spite of its proven benefits to students’ civic development (see pages 118-133). They include a lack of administrative and/ or parental support (or fears of backlash), lack of time, and reservations about their preparation in leading these delicate discussions.

We simply must overcome these barriers because the perils of failing to hold dialogue across difference have led directly to the scorched earth status quo. According to Teaching Tolerance, the current campaign has raised fears and anxieties among students of color and inflamed racial and ethnic tensions in the classroom.

Thankfully, civics teachers are taking a stand, none more powerful than this “Open Letter to Donald Trump.”

The truth is that even with persistent residential segregation, public schools are among the most heterogeneous institutions any of us will ever affiliate with. Moreover, students’ ideological views are still forming and not as entrenched as their deeply polarized adult counterparts. Finally, teachers have (or can develop) the capacity to lead structured discussions of controversial issues. Schools are thus the ideal venues for these conversations.

While I encourage you to review our complete list of current and controversial discussions indicators, I’ll highlight two points in particular.

One, teachers need not refrain from disclosing their political views and/ or candidate preferences with students. However, they must make it clear that students are welcome to disagree with them, nurturing a “…climate of respect and civility in which all responsible perspectives are taken seriously.”

Two, issue selection is critical. Issues include “…meaningful and timely questions about public problems that deserve both students’ and the public’s attention.”

Presidential elections and the candidate platforms they elevate certainly register, as does the real work of government that follows.