To Disclose or Not to Disclose; That is the Question

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


The #CivicsIsBack Campaign completes its Southern Illinois swing today with a stop in Edwardsville. The city sits across the Mississippi River from Ferguson, MO, and its district forbade teachers from discussing the racial unrest that gripped the entire St. Louis region two years ago.

It’s fair to say that this knee-jerk decision was nothing short of educational malpractice, because social studies classrooms are actually the ideal venues for these critical conversations across difference in our democracy.

In embracing the “Political Classroom,” teachers must also weigh the extent to which they should disclose their personal views to students on current and controversial issues.


Early in my career, I promised my students that I would reveal my candidate choice in the 2000 Presidential Election after I voted. Little did I know that the election wouldn’t be officially decided for another 36 days, and I felt that all future classroom conversations about its historic aftermath were tainted once my secret was revealed.

I later subscribed to a position of strict non-disclosure, at the same time asking my students to declare their own party affiliations. Thereafter, I would be perpetually peppered with questions from them about my own political identity. While I kept them guessing, I did play “devil’s advocate” when class discussions appeared one-sided. That said, I found that when I allowed their conversations to flow that diverse perspectives would ultimately surface on their own.


My critical role as a teacher was to create a safe environment where students could shape and articulate their own political beliefs. Research suggests that teachers are free to make the disclosure/ non-disclosure decision based on their personal epistemology. However, in the case of the former, they need to ensure that students are empowered to disagree with them and their peers.

We must “face Ferguson” and teach the 2016 Election, but it takes more than rolling out the proverbial ball. Controversial issues discussions should be based on sound pedagogy, and the decision of whether or not to disclose, and later, how to implement it, is an important starting point.

Our Bridge to Southern Illinois Paved by the Paul Simon Institute

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


Six years ago, I made the long drive from Chicago to Carbondale the visit the leaders of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University. I met former Director Mike Lawrence at the 2009 conference that produced the original Illinois Civic Blueprint, and asked him to organize a lunch meeting with David Yepsen, the new Director.

I asked for their partnership in making our push for the civic mission of schools a statewide effort. While we had made significant inroads at that point in the Chicagoland area, our downstate roots were shallow to non-existent.

We held our first fall workshop with the Simon Institute the following year, and have proceeded to host one for Southern Illinois educators every autumn since. I knew we were on to something when 75 teachers and administrators signed up for our maiden voyage.

Shortly thereafter, we recognized our first downstate Democracy School, Carbondale Community HS, and others have followed in subsequent years (Shawnee Jr.-Sr. HS in 2014 and Marion HS in 2015).


Despite staff turnover, the Simon Institute has maintained its commitment to civic learning, showcasing its resources that include an annual student trip to Springfield and statewide polling data.

Therefore, when we began designing the #CivicsIsBack Campaign to support implementation of the new civics course requirement, we had a model for how institutional partners could help us reach teachers, schools, and districts in every corner of Illinois.

Ten other partners have emerged, but we’re thrilled to be back in Carbondale this week for stop four of our summer tour. More than 50 teachers are joining us today and tomorrow for our “Teaching the 2016 Election and Beyond” workshop, and we’ll be back again this fall for a follow-up training where we do a deeper dive on the content and practices prescribed in the new law.

David Yepsen recently announced his retirement, but we’re lucky to have him with us today to provide an overview of the 2016 Election. And we are deeply indebted to him and the entire Institute for their commitment to youth civic development in the spirit of their namesake.

Building Administrative Buy-In for Civic Learning

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


Three weeks into the #CivicsIsBack summer tour, we have fielded the recurring question from civics teachers on how to build buy-in among school administrators. In a decade-plus of advocating for the civic mission of Illinois schools, I can’t claim that we have completely solved this riddle, but I do have at least a partial answer to this perplexing question and invite readers to help us with the final proof.

Starting from the top, we have built strong relationships with regional superintendents of schools (ROE’s) throughout the state. They serve as important liaisons to local school superintendents and principals, often convening them quarterly or even monthly. I have twice addressed the Illinois Association of Regional Superintendents of Schools and then proceeded to communicate with the group regularly by letter and email. Individual ROE’s helped us distribute the Illinois Civics Teacher Survey last fall, recruit teacher mentors this spring, and a handful are hosting regional workshops this summer.

Several years ago, we worked with the DuPage Regional Office of Education to create a civics-oriented academy for administrators. While it has yet to run, the course can be offered through any ROE in the state and we intend to go back to the well shortly.

We have also engaged the Illinois Statewide School Management Alliance, twice speaking at their annual conference in Chicago, and recently addressing the Illinois Principals Association in Springfield. While the Alliance opposed the new civics course requirement, we know their partnership moving forward is pivotal to the success of our implementation efforts.

Finally, it goes without saying that our civics teachers in the trenches are the best advocates for the civic mission of their schools. We begin each of our trainings by preaching to the proverbial choir, touting the benefits of civic learning by making an empirical case for our craft. It’s then up to our choir to convert the skeptics, school administrators included.

Giving Voice Back to Our Youth

by Jim Vera, Kendall & Grundy County Teacher Mentor


"Why should I vote?"


That question that every teacher hears, but is often unable to answer. “Because it matters” is the teenage equivalent for “because I said so.” The truth is that many do care, and they have a voice. As a new Democracy School, Oswego East was able to take 52 students to Iowa City to observe the Caucus in February. We saw civics in action for ourselves. This was made possible through the inspiration of the McCormick Foundation, and the support of Mikva Elections. We found the answer to that question, and fortunately so can you this summer, at your local ROE.

Young voices matter, and thanks to the great work of the Illinois Civic Mission Coalition, word is spreading fast. Civics is Back in Illinois and thanks to the new Civics Law, the winds of change are among us. Help is coming: the #CivicsIsBack Summer Tour 2016! Two sessions down and running strong.

I’ve been a teacher for 25 years, but never really knew what I didn’t know. As one of your newest Illinois Democracy Schools, I can honestly say that I had not heard of the great work that was being done by organizations like The Constitutional Rights Foundation of Chicago, Facing History and Ourselves Chicago, and Mikva Challenge. Now, they are part of who we are at Oswego East High School.

We did not know how to help students find their voice, but the truth was actually clear; they know where it is, and what they want. Student Voice is alive and well in our schools. Students don’t need to learn to use their voice, they need to be listened to, and “given the wheel” of American Politics. But don’t just take my word for it, find out for yourself on July 26-27 at the CRFC/Mikva Challenge Summer Institute.

A Common Mission: Democracy Schools and the Illinois Civics Law

by Katie Knopp, Will County Teacher Mentor


“Preparing students to become competent and caring citizens who will actively and critically think, participate and communicate.”

This statement is the cornerstone of what makes my high school, Neuqua Valley, a Democracy School. As a Democracy School we are recognized for providing students with authentic experiences in the rights, responsibilities, and tensions inherent when living in a constitutional democracy. Through these experiences, we strive to equip students with the knowledge, skills, and dispositions necessary for informed, effective engagement in our democracy. As a Democracy School we embrace the Five Common Elements that are important to maintain civic learning throughout the school.

  • Vision and Leadership
  • Curriculum
  • Staff Development
  • School-Community Connections
  • School Climate

As we begin to implement the new civics law, we see how the core components of the law, Foundations, Current and Controversial Issues, Service Learning, and Simulations of the Democratic Process, provide numerous opportunities for students to participate in the democratic process. As a Democracy School, students participate in lively discussions of current issues and democratic simulations such as mock presidential campaigns and deliberations. All of these opportunities not only embrace the tenets of being a democracy school but also compliments the standards within the law. Through both the tenets and the law, students are able to experience first-hand the critical role they can play in shaping their government and society.

Want more information about how to implement the new law? Register for an upcoming Civic Education Workshop! #CivicsIsBack

Interested in becoming a Democracy School?

Current and Controversial Issues in #Election16

by Kelli Tufo, DuPage County Teacher Mentor



“Just because you do not take an interest in politics doesn't mean politics won't take an interest in you.”

Today, the candidates “take an interest in you” by bombarding Americans with their positions, slogans and logos using television, street signs, YouTube ads and, of course, social media.

However, our goal is to have students become - and stay - interested in local, state and national issues. I love teaching civics and government during presidential election years because students have a heightened interest in the campaign and awareness of the issues. As it result, it provides teachers a natural opportunity to implement or extend the proven teaching practice of Current and Controversial Issues Discussions.

The challenge is that our students have varying degrees of knowledge and interest about public policies. To begin engaging students with the issues and build interest you could have your students...
Lombard #CivicsIsBack workshop attendees identify the leading issues in the 2016 Election
To conduct a “deeper dive” into these important issues, consider having students participate in a role play or simulation. Formats such as a legislative committee hearing, town meeting, executive task force or blue ribbon committee all lend themselves to the discussion of both sides of current and controversial issues and increase student interaction. I have found a lot of success with a Presidential Campaign Simulation in which students create their own political party, platforms and propaganda in an effort to win votes.
Whatever vehicle you choose, there are many great resources to help students prepare for an issues role play or simulation:
Want more engaging ideas, lessons and instructional resources for teaching civics? Register for an upcoming Civic Education Workshop! #CivicsIsBack

Illinois Civics Mentor Institute Recap: Days 3 and 4

by Barb Laimins, Illinois Democracy School Mentor


Presentations by Mikva Challenge and the Constitutional Rights Foundation proved that civic education can provide students engaging, fun, and crystalizing experiences on day three and four of the Democracy Mentor Training. Service learning activities and simulations demonstrated by both organizations are truly valuable methods in a teacher’s tool box that allow students to develop schemas of life long civic dispositions and engagement.

The Constitutional Rights Foundation (CRFC) has developed multiple simulations of hearings, town hall meetings and moot court scenarios that challenge students to think about issues from multiple perspectives in order to draw informed conclusions and raise thinking to a new level of understanding. The CRFC has an extensive library of free lessons that allow the terms in a text book come to life and multiple opportunities for professional development.


Everyone gained a deeper understanding of Service Learning through the presentation by Mikva Challenge. While volunteerism is valuable to both the community and students, Civic engagement through service learning allows students to utilize their academic skills and knowledge to address issues in their school and community. The process of inquiry, action and reflection transforms students into participatory citizens who advocate for change. Project Soap Box and the Root Cause Activity are part of the Issues to Action curriculum that encourages students to tap into their passions on topics that are relevant to them.

Mentors left at the conclusion of the training invigorated and energized to spread the word that “Civics is Back” at future civic professional development opportunities throughout the state.

Illinois Civics Mentor Institute Recap: Days 1 and 2

by Sonia Mathew, Civic Learning Manager


The Illinois Civics Mentor Institute launched this week in Bloomington-Normal, Illinois with 33 Illinois Civics Mentors learning strategies for supporting teachers across the state to implement the new civics course requirement.

Day One started with some community building – mentors shared civic learning successes along with their reasons for why civic education matters for our democracy. Jennifer Conlon, a mentor from Maine East High School stated, “The goal of civic education is to help students appreciate their common humanity”- a central theme to approaching our work with students.

Shawn Healy, Civic Learning Scholar at the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, made the case for civic learning and laid the groundwork that provided context for why the civics course was passed. Mary Ellen Daneels, the lead teacher mentor, introduced mentors to the Question Formulation Technique (QFT), a step-by-step process that is designed to help students ask their own questions and build off their peers’ questions. Teachers then used the QFT to brainstorm questions about the new civics law.


Healy reviewed the specifics of the civics course and Mary Ellen Daneels addressed the desired outcomes and connections to the new social studies standards, emphasizing how this course really helps our students “do social studies,” putting into practice the many ideals that we are teaching our students. Teacher mentors were then able to experience a lesson that highlighted current and controversial issues, a simulation and the standards through a deliberation of whether or not teachers should be armed.

Healy also shared key headlines that were relevant for teaching the 2016 Election, especially in knowing that presidential cycle elections offer so many teachable moments for students. He then presented data from a statewide survey that was taken by Illinois civics teachers in the Fall of 2015 that provided an analysis of supports that would be needed for implementation of the statewide civics course.

Barb Laimins, Democracy School mentor for the Democracy Schools Initiative, presented information on what it means to be a mentor. Mentors often wear many hats and the Civics mentors need to be intentional about creating good mentoring relationships with teachers in their region. This involves developing trust, allowing for open communication, and practicing active listening skills.

Day One ended with each region focusing on regional teacher capacity needs and a brainstorm of potential resources in the region to address those needs.

Day Two featured Wayde Grinstead from Facing History and Ourselves. Teacher mentors explored aspects of their own identities and discussed how to create a civic space that supports engagement with current and controversial issues. This space can be created by:
  • Establishing ground rules for expectations/creating a community contract
  • Setting up a physical space that is conducive to discussion
  • Teachers modeling the behavior that is expected
  • Identifying ways for all students to participate
  • Using teachable moments to address comments by students
  • Scaffolding the intensity of topics that are addressed
Next, mentors explored aspects of the Choices in Little Rock curriculum. Participants were given information about how to best address dehumanizing language from history. As participants examined primary resources related to the Little Rock Nine, teachers explored ways to teach students that citizens influence their leaders and shape events in a wide variety of ways and how ordinary people have shaped abstract ideas about the balance of power and federalism. In connecting this with more current and controversial issues, participants were also introduced to Facing Ferguson: Citizen Watchdogs and the News. An anticipation guide gauged varying responses to participant ideas about current events, news literacy, and the power of social media as an act of civic participation. Teachers also explored strategies to confront confirmation bias, which is our subconscious tendency to seek and interpret information and other evidence in ways that affirm our existing beliefs, ideas, expectations, and hypotheses.

The day closed with additional insights from Shawn Healy on research, resources and best practices with current and controversial issues and Mary Ellen Daneels sharing information on West Chicago Community High School’s legislative simulation. Regional teams then met to review school course requirement data and strategized on outreach efforts to their regions.

It has been an informative two days and we are looking forward to continuing to build our mentor community with additional best practices from Constitutional Rights Foundation Chicago on Wednesday and the Mikva Challenge on Thursday.

The #CivicsIsBack Summer Tour Launches Today

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


This morning, our inaugural Illinois Civics Teacher Mentor cohort comes together for the first time in Normal, IL, for a four-day training. Our mentor cohort is 34 teachers strong and is led by Mary Ellen Daneels of Community High School in West Chicago, IL. Our mentors hail from every region of the state and boast impressive experience in the classroom and beyond. Click here to read their bios.

Today, we’ll lay out the parameters of the new law and emerging state social science standards, our course implementation plans, background on teaching the 2016 Election, and what it means to be a mentor. Each day will include planning time for regional mentor teams (ten in total).


Days two through four dive deeply into three civic learning practices emphasized in the new course requirement: discussion, simulations, and service learning. The trainings will be primarily led by our civic education partners: Facing History and Ourselves, Constitutional Rights Foundation Chicago, and Mikva Challenge.

We’re also joined by several of our institutional partners and summer regional workshop hosts, including Eastern Illinois University, Illinois State University, Regional Office of Education #47 (Dixon), and Western Illinois University. And we’re delighted to have representatives of the Illinois State Board of Education on hand each day.

It’s also important to mention that we’ll be evaluating the impact of all of our teacher training efforts in partnership with the Center for Information Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tufts University. The CIRCLE team will provide real time feedback to McCormick Foundation staff and teacher mentors, allowing us to respond to local needs of teachers, schools, and districts this year and beyond.

Stay tuned for recaps and highlights of our mentor training, followed by reports from the regional trainings that begin next week in Lombard, IL (there’s still time to register).

Assessing Students' Civic Development

by Emily Barry and Shawn Healy


Now that we’ve covered four proven civic learning practices and addressed why civic learning matters, let’s turn to the impact of high-quality civic learning experiences. What does a graduate of a strong civic learning program look like? Good civic learning provides students with the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to be active participants in our democracy.

How can we assess these outcomes? Civic assessment has puzzled many experts in the field, but emerging curricula articulate three distinct areas of civic assessment: knowledge, skills, and dispositions.

A student with civic knowledge understands the basic organization of government, key historical themes, and the principles and ideals of democracy. A student with a mastery of civic skills can identify powerholders, navigate different government institutions, and interact effectively with government to create change. A student with positive civic dispositions about democracy believes that their participation in government affects their community, and believes in the shared destiny of denizens.

It is difficult to measure each of these civic learning outcomes through a single assessment instrument. While multiple choice questions or short essays may accurately measure civic knowledge (see the National Assessment of Educational Progress in Civics), civic skills certainly cannot be gleaned from bubbling answers. In this latter case, a student portfolio or final project may be more appropriate. The State of Tennessee has done some enterprising work in this area.

Civic dispositions, or the important attitudes necessary for full civic participation, are even more difficult to measure. Classroom observations and student journals may provide some insights to student attitudes about civic life and participation in democracy.

These attitudes can also be measured through self-assessments of students’ current and prospective civic engagement. Aspiring Illinois Democracy Schools capture this information from a sample of their student bodies.

Civic assessment will be an important and evolving piece of Illinois’ implementation of the civics course requirement and a topic addressed in our ambitious summer tour coming to every region of the state.