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.

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