Teaching the 2016 Election: A High-Stakes Political Marriage

by Shawn Healy, PhD, Civic Learning Scholar

When we enter the voting booth on November 8 and exercise our choice at the top of the ticket, it will be framed among the leading stand-bearers, Clinton or Trump, or for those seeking none of the above, perhaps Johnson or Stein. But in so doing, we are blessing a marriage to his or her running mates.

Our Constitution made vice presidential selections for the Commander-in-Chief a consolation prize to the second-place finisher. Politics indeed made for interesting bedfellows as the President could be stuck for four years or longer with his opponent lurking a heartbeat away. The 12th Amendment forever altered this construction, acknowledging the growth of political parties with differentiated platforms, and allowing candidates to select running mates with similar stripes.

Historically, vice presidential candidates have been picked to round out the ticket, providing regional, ideological, or experiential balance.
  • Massachusetts Senator John F. Kennedy selected his Texas colleague Lyndon B. Johnson in 1960.
  • In 1980 the movement conservative Ronald Reagan chose the moderate, party establishment rival George H.W. Bush.
  • More recently, both George W. Bush and Barack Obama went with experienced Washington hands in Dick Cheney and Joe Biden respectively to mesh with their statehouse credentials.
Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton doubled down on Southern centrists with Tennessee Senator Al Gore in 1992, and in winning, instituted a governing partnership since replicated in succeeding administrations with Cheney and Biden. In sum, the vice presidency is now worth more than a “bucket of warm spit.”

In 2016, given the unpopularity of the two major party nominees, their vice presidential picks arguably take on additional importance.
  • Trump chose Indiana Governor Mike Pence in an apparent attempt to consolidate the conservative base of the GOP and provide a steady hand opposite a political neophyte.
  • Clinton’s selection of Virginia Senator Tim Kaine heeded Rule #1 of the Veepstakes: “Do no harm.” Not only is he proudly vanilla-flavored (honest and earnest), but he also presumably delivers his purple home state.
Pence provided a workman-like speech at last week’s Republican National Convention last weeks and it’s Kaine’s turn tonight. In announcing their engagement to assembled delegates and a national television audience, they seek the blessing of the broader electorate. Only one couple will survive come morning on November 9.

Teaching the 2016 Election: In Search of a Sorting Hat for Political Houses

by Barb Laimins, Teacher Mentor Liaison


An apt analogy for the four political parties who are holding conventions and nominating candidates this election cycle just might be found in the popular Harry Potter books.

"Try me on and I will tell you/ Where you ought to be"
    – J.K. Rowling, "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone"

A magical sorting hat assigns all the students of Hogwarts to the appropriate house at the start of every school year. Once the hat is placed on the student’s head, it is able to match the student to the house that aligns with the beliefs that each student values. Slytherin and Gryffindor are the major houses of Hogwarts and garner the most attention. The two other houses of Hogwarts, Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff, beliefs and values are often overlooked.

Similarly, the Democratic and Republican nominating conventions are given full coverage in the media but two other parties, Green Party and Libertarian Party, often go unnoticed. Both parties offer voters candidates for national/state offices and develop platforms that contain their ideology and vision for the future, but they struggle to gain visibility through the mainstream media.

The Libertarian Party has published their party platform and have chosen their candidates, Gary Johnson for President and William Weld for Vice President with little fanfare. The Green Party will hold their Annual National Meeting in Houston, Texas August 4-7 where they will nominate their candidates for President and Vice President and approve their platform, the Green New Deal.

Sadly or fortunately, students don’t have the benefit of a “sorting hat” that determines their “political house.” They have to inquire, research and hopefully take action to discover which political party coincides with their beliefs and values. Students can compare the platforms of the four parties to begin their discovery as they answer the compelling question: Do any of the political parties represent me?

This exercise seems particularly important in the context of the 2016 Election given the unpopularity of the two major party candidates, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Young voters have shifted decisively to Democrats in recent cycles and fueled Senator Bernie Sanders’ surprise challenge to Clinton in the Democratic primary. While Sanders will make his case for Clinton in a prime time speech at tonight’s Democratic National Convention, his supporters are reluctant converts. Some may join #NeverTrump Republicans in a dance with third party alternatives, providing further intrigue.

Teaching the 2016 Election: National Party Conventions

by Barb Laimins, Teacher Mentor Liaison, and Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Civic Learning Scholar


Balloons, confetti, speeches, and funny hats combined with delegates, candidates, protestors, and journalists have descended upon Cleveland for the Republican National Convention. Soon Democrats will arrive in Philadelphia for their own weeklong confab.

The road to the conventions has been long and arduous for the candidates as they navigated state primaries and caucuses to win the support of delegates. Candidates did not always have to campaign to obtain the necessary number of delegates to win the party nomination. Political party conventions and their role in nominating candidates has evolved over time. Some say the current primary process makes the conventions merely a ceremonial recognition of the party nominee.

The conventions do provide an opportunity for the party members to vote on their platforms which are a formal set of party goals and beliefs. The planks of the platform are the specific components of the platform which are presented to the national stage. The platforms and nominating conventions are a perfect starting point for students to understand candidate positions and the basic tenets of the political parties.

A comparison of the Republican and Democratic platform helps students determine where they fall on the political spectrum and the agendas the candidates would pursue if elected.

The candidacy of Republican presidential nominee presents a challenge to traditional Republican orthodoxy and is in many ways at odds with the party platform and his running mate, Indiana Governor Mike Pence. To what extent does the nominee define his or her party, and how does the issue positions he or she takes shape its eventual policy agenda?

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders’ insurgent campaign drove presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton decisively to the left. He withheld his endorsement for 36 days after Clinton clinched the requisite number of delegates, presumably to use his leverage to shape the party platform. Not only were his supporters well represented on the platform committee, but Clinton’s endorsement of free tuition at public universities is an early indication of Sanders’ success.

Long after the confetti is swept from the convention floors, the party platforms, and the policy agendas they establish, influence voters’ decisions. Elections have consequences, first and foremost providing a blueprint for governance.

Teacher Licensure and the New Civics Course Requirement

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


Early in each of our #CivicsIsBack regional workshops, lead teacher mentor Mary Ellen Daneels guides participants through a Question Formulation Technique (QFT) exercise on the new civics course requirement. This generates an extensive list of questions that we attempt to address over the course of the two days. While some of the material is embedded in the content of our workshops, others aren’t fully addressed and stand as important topics for future statewide professional development endeavors.

Last week in Charleston we were asked about teacher licensure and specifically what qualifications educators must have in order to the required high school civics course. According to the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE), the state does not have a civics endorsement, so prospective social studies teachers should seek a political science endorsement instead.

In order to receive the political science endorsement, applicants must complete the following:
  • 32 semester hours in social science
  • 12 of the hours in political science
  • Coursework in 2 other social science designations
  • Social Science Political Science test
Current teachers are qualified to teach a general civics course under any of the social science endorsements issued after July 1, 2004. However, those seeking to teach Advanced Placement or Honors courses must have the political science endorsement. A number of teachers certified prior to 2004 have endorsements in history or other discrete subjects and are only authorized to teach in the content area held.

We are aware of at least one school district in Illinois that planned to address the new civics course requirement in the context of a consumer education course. This violates both the letter and spirit of the law, and ISBE has said definitively that only social studies teachers are qualified to teach the course.

Finally, ISBE suggests that those seeking input on certification for the civics course should submit proposed changes to its Educator Licensure Department. In turn, they will consider these sentiments during future rule-making processes.

Making Sure that Everyone has a Voice

by MaryEllen Daneels, Lead Teacher Mentor, and Barb Laimins, Mentor Liaison


National Voter Registration Day will be held on September 27th. A network of volunteers, schools and community organizations throughout the nation will be providing voter registration opportunities to celebrate a basic right of our democracy. With election day, November 7th, right around the corner it is a good time to for students, their families and communities to get ready.

Participation in National Voter Registration Day can easily become a significant civic service learning opportunity for students as they generate questions, gather and evaluate data, communicate conclusions and take informed action. What is the age group with the lowest voter turnout? Who votes the most? Why don’t people register to vote? What contributes to voter apathy? These and other questions allow students to research patterns, draw conclusions on how best to take action and concentrate voter registration efforts. Parent Open House, Homecoming rallies/games and other back to school events are perfect opportunities for voter registration efforts. Students could create posters, public service announcements, or create twitter blasts to advertise a voter registration drive or the importance of voting. The possibilities are endless. The National Voter Registration Day organization has created a downloadable toolkit that contains press releases, talking points, social media posts and a planning guide to make organizing a registration event simple and effective.


The Illinois State Board of Elections web site provides answers to a variety of questions concerning voter registration and procedures. Illinois allows future voters to register in a variety of ways. An eligible voter can register by mail or online. Students could have copies of the mail registration forms available or computers set up at a registration event. Local Leagues of Women Voters and Illinois branches of the American Association of University Women are two groups that provide volunteers for registration events upon request. Faculty can be appointed Deputy Voter Registrars if the Principal or their designee writes to the local election authority on school letter head requesting their appointment.

Studying voter trends and voter registration drives can be a valuable lesson for students with powerful results as they encourage others to become active participants in our democracy.

Institutional Partners are the Pillars of Statewide Campaign

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


The #CivicsIsBack summer tour visits Central Illinois this week and next with stops in Macomb (Western Illinois University), Charleston (Eastern Illinois University), and Bloomington-Normal (Illinois State University).

Through our decade-long involvement with the Democracy Schools Initiative, we have made deep inroads in Chicago, its surrounding suburbs, the Metro East region across the Mississippi from St. Louis, and Southern Illinois. Central Illinois is thus virgin territory for the state’s civic learning community, and we’re eager to plant seeds here and let them take root over the next several years.

We’re grateful to have wonderful partners at each of the institutions listed above, beginning with Barry Witten, a curriculum and instruction professor at Western Illinois. Barry has rolled out the red carpet for us in Macomb and recruited an impressive cohort of 32 teachers for our two-day workshop beginning today.

As with Barry, I’ve had the great pleasure of serving on the Illinois Council for the Social Studies Board of Directors with Cindy Rich of Eastern Illinois University. Cindy has long challenged me to adapt our civic learning programming for teachers in rural settings, and this summer we’re finally answering her call and are eager to deliver in Charleston later this week.

Cindy is part of the Teaching with Primary Sources program sponsored by the Library of Congress, and Rick Satchwell of Illinois State University oversees the eleven partners based in Illinois and others in surrounding Midwestern States. Rick is our Bloomington-Normal host and the TPS program not only connects well with the teaching of government institutions component of the new course requirement, but is tailor made for the emerging Illinois Social Science Standards.

It goes without saying that these institutional partners and eight others are pillars of our course implementation plans. They are allowing us to touch every region of the state and ensure that teachers have access to face-to-face professional development opportunities within a one-hour drive. The harvest comes this fall when students throughout Illinois experience proven civic learning practices that facilitate lifelong engagement in our democracy.

Mikva Proved that Nobodies Are Somebodies

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


The civic learning community in Illinois mourns the passing of Abner Mikva (1926-2016), a devoted public servant who co-founded the Mikva Challenge with his wife Zoe. The organization capped a half century career that touched state and national government, and all three branches of the latter. It’s work engaging young people in the political processes, both elections and public policy, allowed Ab to pass the baton to the next generation, and what a legacy he leaves.


The McCormick Foundation has proudly supported the work of the Mikva Challenge for the past 13 years. The organization played a key role in the expansion of civic learning both in Chicago and throughout Illinois, including the current #CivicsIsBack Campaign.


Whether it’s engaging students in campaigns on both sides of the aisle, training them to serve as election judges, or elevating youth voice through citywide and school based youth councils and committees, Mikva Challenge proved time and again that young people are not nobodies, but instead somebodies set at their own devices.

The work of the Mikva Challenge now transcends the City of Chicago, encompassing the suburbs, downstate, and even Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles. Their “secret sauce” centers on “action civics,” a form of student-centered learning where students learn about the political process by serving as change agents themselves.

Action civics dovetails perfectly with the new civics course requirement in Illinois, specifically learning about government institutions, discussions of current and controversial issues, and service learning.

It’s fitting that Ab bid his earthly confines farewell on the nation’s 240th birthday. He served his state and country admirably and left us with the tools to form a more perfect union. We must accept this perpetual challenge with passion and integrity in the spirit of Abner Mikva.


Teaching the Principles of Patriotism

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


As the #CivicsIsBack summer tour crisscrosses the state, we have begun each workshop with a segment on the new civics course requirement and emerging state social studies standards. Both complement existing segments of the Illinois School Code, including instruction of the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. and Illinois Constitution, methods of voting, including the Australian Ballot, the proper display use of the American Flag, and the mandatory daily recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance.

As I write on the 240th birthday of this great nation, I remember being challenged as a high school teacher to meet this mandate, but at the same time not contribute to an empty transfer of patriotism from one generation to the next. This summer, several workshop participants have pointed to the same dilemma, asking for example, how to teach the Flag Code in an authentic way?


My colleague Mary Ellen Daneels answers in the form of a structured academy controversy centering on the 1989 U.S. Supreme Court decision Texas v. Johnson, the infamous “flag burning” case. In a lesson produced by the McCormick Foundation a decade ago, students encounter an unlikely opinion from one of the Court’s most liberal members, Justice John Paul Stevens, who concludes that the First Amendment freedom of expression does not protect flag burning. His frequent ally on the left, the late Justice William Brennan, wrote a robust defense of the right to burn our sacred national symbol (and was joined in the majority by arch conservative Antonin Scalia).

Ultimately, students are asked to have a vigorous debate over this “burning” issue, but to ultimately craft a consensus position.

I often engaged my own students in a debate over whether students should stand and recite the Pledge of Allegiance. The Supreme Court has said of course that it’s optional, but according to my students at the time, several teachers were oblivious to this precedent. It was set during World War II when the Court first ruled that the Pledge’s recitation was mandatory, even for those whose faith forbade the saluting of graven objects. The opinion led to waves of student civil disobedience and a violent backlash against it, forcing the Supreme Court to reverse itself a mere three years later in West Virginia v. Barnette.

Justice Robert Jackson, in his majority opinion, articulated the principles of the patriotism we seek to develop in our students: “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion, or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein. If there are any circumstances which permit an exception, they do not now occur to us.”

May the “Spirit of 1776” embedded in our founding documents and reinforced by Justices Jackson and Brennan live long in our republic and most of all your classrooms.