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.

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