Youth Media as a Means of Civic Development

by Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Democracy Program Director

Last week, I had the privilege of attending a meeting convened by the Center for Information Research on Civic Learning and Engagement titled “Youth, Media, and Civic Engagement in Local Contexts.” The meeting was supported by the Democracy Fund and hosted in Chicago by the McCormick Foundation and Mikva Challenge.

Wide-ranging conference discussions touched on a number of subjects, but centered on media’s role in youth civic development. This occurs in the context of local media ecosystems, some healthier and more diverse than others. And involves youth as both consumers and producers of news.

As a college instructor that guides students in creating issue campaigns for policy change, I am increasingly struck by the divergence in our respective media diets. Like many of you, mine is decidedly “old school,” as I have newspapers delivered to my door and read them cover-to-cover every day. While I sample in new media offerings on social media and via podcasts, they are often the product of legacy institutions (Washington Post, NPR, NBC News, etc.).

New media is the here and now for my and our students. Social media is ubiquitous, and they’re consuming news on platforms we may never access (see SnapChat). Some are quite sophisticated in their followings, pruning their feeds with an emphasis on quality and credibility. Others assume the attitude that if something important transpires in the news it will find them.

Regardless of our media diet, we are left with the basic question of how we develop a healthy appetite for news among students. Modeling our own consumption and incorporating current and controversial issues discussions into our classes is the age-old place to begin. But what does media outreach look like nowadays? Is there value in writing letters-to-the-editor or are we better served by tweeting directly at reporters and editorial boards? Alternatively, should students create their own media and disseminate it via social media?

Classroom integration of news literacy is critical, as are co- and extracurricular student media opportunities. Not only do student journalists benefit from the experience, but their peers that consume the final product also demonstrate long-term civic engagement benefits. Sadly, student media experiences are no longer universal, particularly in urban school systems like Chicago, but we do have a healthy non-profit youth media sector to train future journalists and amplify youth voice.

The youth media sector itself, student publications included, are vital components of a local media ecosystem. Beyond McCormick’s work in civic learning, we also support youth media and professional journalism in Chicago and Illinois. Most recently, we have explored the intersections of this work. News literacy is a vital component of civic learning. Civic learning is enhanced by youth media opportunities. In amplifying youth voice, the latter contribute to youth civic development as we move along the knowledge-engagement continuum.


Last week’s meeting was the first of many, and the thoughts articulated above are my own, but inspired by two days of engaging conversations. In this spirit, please share your own ideas about the intersection of news literacy, student/ youth media, and civic engagement.

The Icing on the Cake

by Mary Ellen Daneels, Lead Teacher Mentor

Cake seems to be a reoccuring theme in my social studies classroom. Marie Antoinette allegedly said, “Let them eat cake!” when confronted with information that her subjects were starving from lack of bread. Benjamin Franklin noted, “A great empire, like a great cake, is most easily diminished at the edges.” Who can forget the marble vs. layer cake analogy when teaching students about federalism? This week the United States Supreme Court served up another “slice” for classroom use when they heard oral arguments in Masterpiece Cakeshop vs.Colorado Civil Rights Commission.

Masterpiece Cakeshop is the “icing on the cake” of a year full of compelling court cases that can be used by classrooms to address essential questions related to power, freedom, justice and equality. By employing the proven practices of current and controversial issues discussions as well as simulations of democratic processes, teachers can facilitate student inquiry as prescribed by the new Illinois Social Studies standards that build both skills and deeper knowledge of the democratic institutions that scaffold our republic.

Here are some of my favorite resources to use when I have students examine the Judicial Branch of government.
What is missing from this list? Are their resources you can share to help students understand the court system? Please comment below. Together, we can prepare ALL students for college, career and civic life.

The Fifteen Days of Congress

by Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Democracy Program Director

A chaotic close to a political year like no other provides a yuletide feast of current events conversations in social studies classrooms. But an enterprising educator struggles with pairings and portions, and this post is intended to provide last-minute tips to help make sense of it all before we send students on their merry way.

Let’s begin with recent indictments against high-ranking Trump Administration and campaign officials. Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller is clearly working his way to the top, and congressional investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 election continue simultaneously. What the President knew and when/ if he knew it remain open questions likely to carry into the New Year and perhaps beyond. Yet echoes of Watergate and Iran Contra drum louder by the day, imperiling the Trump presidency and forcing us to revisit the succession plan for our nation’s highest office.

Other than the sometimes successful use of parliamentary tricks, including the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, Congress has mostly swung and missed despite unified Republican control of the three branches of national government. Efforts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act failed repeatedly, but the zombie repeal is still alive as part of the Senate’s tax reform legislation that passed early Saturday morning.

Given that the House and Senate tax bills vary in the volume and timing of tax relief to both individuals and corporations, a conference committee comes next. Its final product isn’t guaranteed to survive scrutiny of both bodies once more, as the needs of the Tea Party-inspired House Freedom Caucus must be balanced with the concerns of Senate moderates and wildcards like Susan Collins (ME), Bob Corker (TN), and Jeff Flake (AZ).

The content of the current legislation is a civics lesson in its own right. President Trump was notably elected in part to a coalition of rural, white, working-class workings, yet the prime beneficiaries of this bill are clearly the Republican donor class that pulled out all of its stops to deny him the Party’s nomination in early 2016. Congress clearly feels obligated to reward its benefactors heading into a midterm election year.

Also fascinating is the abandonment of commitment to deficit reduction by the GOP. A balanced budget was long core to the rhetorical plank of the Party, yet the current legislation is projected to add $1 trillion to the national debt over the next decade, even with increased economic growth considered.

Speaking of the debt, the ceiling is set to expire once more, and Republicans will need to rely on some Democratic votes to raise the borrowing limit on the nation’s credit card in order to avoid default. Both sides will attempt to extract unrelated concessions, including funding for a border wall by President Trump and permanent protections for DREAMers among Democrats. Finally, should the ACA mandate be repealed under the guise of tax reform, look for bi-partisan discussions of price supports for the insurance industry to control rising health insurance premiums that would drive millions out of the private market.

Better to be in the classroom than Congress with only 15 school days remaining before holiday break. Here’s hoping this cliff notes version of the compressed political calendar keeps you one (or many) steps ahead of students with sugar plums dancing in their heads.

Classroom Resources for this Election Season

by Mary Ellen Daneels, Lead Teacher Mentor

This week, marked the beginning of both the holiday shopping season and the official start of the midterm election season. As Shawn stated in an earlier blog, less than a week remains for candidates representing established parties in Illinois to file their petitions for the March primaries.


While resources for presidential elections are plentiful, teachers are often left scrambling for midterm election materials to engage their students. There are a number of tools from civic organizations and educational partners that provide a foundation for involving students in the 2018 election season. Here is a list to start with.
We hope this list helps support your efforts to engage your students in the upcoming election season. What materials are you using that are NOT listed above? Please share in the comment section below. Together, we can prepare students for college, career and civic life.

'Tis the Season to Pass Petitions

by Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Democracy Program Director

Attention holiday shoppers: Only one week remains for federal, state, and county candidates representing established political parties in Illinois to file petitions for the March 20, 2018 primary. The December 4th deadline (today is the first day candidates may file) requires legislative and congressional candidates from the Democratic and Republican Parties to furnish valid signatures equal or greater than half a percent of total votes cast for the office they are seeking in the previous election.

As detailed in this Illinois Issues article, third party candidates must clear a higher five percent threshold, making Illinois one of the most restrictive states challengers to the two-party system. This requirement survived a recent court challenge, but another is in the works taking on the standard that third parties must field a full slate of candidates for constitutional offices (Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Secretary of State, Attorney General, Treasurer, and Comptroller).

The race for Illinois Governor is in full swing, with hotel heir J.B. Pritzker leading a crowded field of Democrats seeking to take the (renovated) mansion back from Bruce Rauner. The incumbent Governor has attracted a challenger of his own in State Representative Jeanie Ives. The Wheaton Republican threw her hat in the ring shortly after Rauner signed legislation that increased access to abortion through the state’s health care system.

Attorney General Lisa Madigan’s surprise announcement that she would not seek a fifth term unleashed a wide open primary among Democrats. State Senator Kwame Raoul, Chicago Park District President Jesse Ruiz, and former Governor Pat Quinn are among the favorites for a position that would place them on the frontlines in battles over federalism with President Trump’s Homeland Security and Justice Departments. Former Miss America winner and Champaign attorney Erica Harold will likely be the Republican challenger come November 2018.

Illinois Democracy Schools are leading the way by engaging students in the petitioning process and parallel primary debates. Stevenson High School Social Studies Teacher Andrew Conneen, the suburban coordinator for Mikva Challenge's Elections in Action programs, recently organized a Petition Palooza for Lake County high schools that are part of the Mikva Challenge network.

This is the first opportunity for Illinois students to take advantage of a change in Illinois election law that allows any registered voter (including 17-year-olds who will turn 18 by the general election in November) to sign and distribute candidate nominating petitions.

Students invited candidates from both parties who are seeking election to offices ranging from Governor to Lake County board.

With competitive primaries expected in the 6th and 10th congressional districts as well as the 59th state representative district (including a current college student and Stevenson graduate), more than 30 campaigns were represented at the Petition Palooza. Most impressive was the 130-plus students that showed up to sign petitions as their first civic action as newly registered voters.

Finally, Glenbard North High School in Carol Stream is hosting a candidate forum for the eight challengers seeking the Democratic nomination in the 6th Congressional District. The forum will begin at 7pm on Tuesday, December 12, and be moderated by Mary Ann Ahern of NBC-5 Chicago.


This seat held by incumbent Peter Roskam, also of Wheaton, is one of 23 districts won by Hillary Clinton and a Republican congressional candidate, making it among the prime pickup targets for Democrats dreaming of winning back the House.

Civics in the Spotlight at #NCSS2017

by Mary Ellen Daneels, Lead Teacher Mentor

This past weekend, thousands of educators from across the nation gathered in San Francisco for the annual National Council for the Social Studies conference. Civics took center stage at many workshops with recognition of innovative practitioners, new resources for classroom teachers and affirmation of the importance of empowering ALL students for college, career and civic life.


Dr. Shawn Healy, Director of the Democracy Program at the Robert R. McCormick Foundation led an exciting session about the Action Civics initiative. The highlight of the presentation was the participation of a panel of youth from around the country that shared the significance of informed action in developing the knowledge, skills and dispositions of effective civic engagement.

With support from the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, the Stanford History Education Group (SHEG) debuted a new resource called Civic Online Learning designed to help students acquire, “the ability to judge the credibility of the information that floods young people’s smartphones, tablets, and computer screens.” Educators will find a series of flexible assessment tools in both paper and digital form for classroom use.

Joe Kahne and Erica Hodgin from the Civic Engagement Research Group highlighted materials they developed in partnership with the Teaching Channel. Educating for a Democracy Deep Dive provides a curated collection of videos accompanied by educational resources related to preparing youth for civic and political life in the digital age. It provides a way for educators to see civic education in action and find resources to support their efforts.

I was privileged to serve on a panel related to using current and controversial issues in the classroom and present on behalf of PolitiCraft, an action civics card game. In PolitiCraft, students construct a narrative around an issue of importance in their community and learn the various avenues they can pursue in order to take informed action. The game has curriculum aligned to both the Illinois Social Studies standards and Common Core Literacy standards.


One of the more exciting events I attended at #NCSS17 was the planning session for next year’s conference in Chicago on November 30- December 2, 2018 at the Hyatt Regency. The theme of the conference is Yesterday-Today-Tomorrow, The Future of Social Studies. Proposals for the conference will be open in December. Stay tuned for more information on how you can help with planning and volunteer efforts to make #NCSS18 in the Windy City a success.

Did you attend the NCSS Conference in San Francisco? What were your favorite sessions from the conference? Please comment below. We would love to learn from you and share with others how to best prepare students for civic life.

Classroom Resources for News Literacy

by Mary Ellen Daneels, Lead Teacher Mentor

A recent report from the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) highlights the importance of news literacy as a complementary stream to the proven practices of civic education embraced by the civic education requirement for graduation in the state of Illinois.

Kei Kawashima Ginsberg and Peter Levine, co-authors of the report titled, The Republic is (Still) at Risk- and Civics is Part of the Solution, explain that, “young people are increasingly empowered to influence the topics and stories that are widely shared. At the same time, they are deluged with unreliable information and actual propaganda, and research shows that most young people perform poorly at distinguishing fake news from reliable news. This skill can be taught effectively in schools, and students can learn to be effective producers of news.”

The proven practice of current and controversial issue discussions in the classroom has explicit ties to the need for students to acquire the knowledge, dispositions and skills associated with media literacy. In addition, the new Illinois Social Studies standards requires students be healthy “consumers” of information as they evaluate sources and use evidence to address essential questions facing their communities. The inquiry arc of the new standards ends with students communicating conclusions and taking informed action with an authentic audience in mind, creating the need for helping students be wise producers of information.

In a previous blog post, Shawn Healy remarked that, “daily integration of these (media literacy) practices into our classrooms, will help to rebuild trust in and consumption of the high-quality journalism that is arguably more abundant than ever before. If successful, we will better inoculate ourselves and our students against the competing misinformation campaigns that are truly fake.” There are a number of resources that can help teachers empower students with media literacy practices.
  • The News Literacy Project has lesson plans, archived webinars and a digital platform called Checkology that can be used one to many or in one to one classrooms. Don’t forget to subscribe to their weekly newsletter called The Sift for weekly updates on “teachable moments” related to news literacy.
  • The Center for News Literacy at Stony Brook University has a Digital Resource Center that teachers can sign up for to curate resources for classroom use.
  • Newseum ED has wonderful infographics for classroom use as well as lessons plans.
  • Facing History and Ourselves partnered with the News Literacy Project to create a timely unit on media literacy called “Facing Ferguson” that is appropriate for high school students.
  • The American Press Institute has activities and lesson plans for all ages.
  • This link from Edutopia has vetted a 5-minute film festival with nine videos on news literacy.
  • LAMP, or Learning about Multimedia Project, has materials that shine a light to “challenge stereotypes, fake news and more.”
  • While we many schools recently celebrated Media Literacy Week, the National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE), sponsors of the event, celebrate information literacy year round.

Do you have a favorite resource tied to media literacy? Please comment and share below. Together, we can prepare students for college, career and civic life.

Media Literacy Week Highlights Importance of Healthy News Diets

by Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Democracy Program Director

A modern definition of informed and engaged citizenship includes media and news literacy. I write today in honor of Media Literacy Week, sponsored by our partners at the National Association of Media Literacy Education (NAMLE). NAMLE hosted its conference in Chicago last summer, and the McCormick Foundation is proud to support and collaborate with a number of its members, including the News Literacy Project and the Center for News Literacy.

Like civic learning, media literacy must live across the curriculum. When I began my teaching career two decades ago, the daily newspaper served as my textbook. Media diets have since evolved, but the currency of news for democratic discourse and participation has only appreciated. While our students are indeed digital natives and often more adept than us with their devices, it is wrong to asssume that they possess the skills and dispositions to be media literate.

Media literacy is fostered by inculcating daily news habits. In the company of many of you, I mourn the pending extinction of print newspapers delivered to my doorstep, but we must not allow this technological transition to stand as the death knell for news consumption more broadly. The reality is that the digital revolution has placed more news and information at our finger tips than ever before, some of it very high quality, and our role as educators is to develop the news attentiveness of our students as they navigate emerging information flows.

Identifying reputable sources for news is a gateway skill. Encourage students to follow both news outlets and individual reporters on Facebook and Twitter, sign up for daily news digests like Politco’s Illinois Playbook or the Chicago Tribune’s Morning Spin, and subscribe to podcasts like NPR’s “1A” or CNN’s “The Axe Files.”


The modern era has also lowered the barriers of entry to journalism. One no longer needs to own a printing press to produce media and journalism. School-based publications are age-old incubators of media literacy regardless of whether student journalists later parlay these experiences into a paycheck. And Chicago has a healthy local youth media ecosystem of its own, working both within and outside of schools to amplify youth voice and teach transferable media literacy skills.

But teachers themselves can integrate news production into civics classrooms as students examine public issues. Encourage students to start their own blog, use an existing or invent a new hash tag, or submit traditional letters to the editor or opinion-editorial pieces. Because of virtually infinite digital capacity, the former often run online with greater frequency nowadays than the space-starved print editions permitted.

I’ve avoided the topic of “fake news” thus far and promise to tackle it in future posts, but buried the proverbial lead because I contend that the phenomenon is a second-level problem. First, we must build healthy news habits and diets. Then, and only then, do we have the luxury of teaching students (and adults) how to better discern good from bad. Indeed, “fake news” is often used as a moniker to disparage news coverage of facts that conflict with our personal political beliefs. My hope is that Media Literacy Week, alongside daily integration of these practices into our classrooms, will help to rebuild trust in and consumption of the high-quality journalism that is arguably more abundant than ever before. If successful, we will better inoculate ourselves and our students against the competing misinformation campaigns that are truly fake.

Propagating Civic Education Practice in Illinois

by Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Democracy Program Director

I’m delighted to share some of the results from the first full year of our civics course implementation efforts. In 2015, Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner signed bi-partisan legislation requiring high school students to complete a semester-long civics course effective with the Class of 2020. The McCormick Foundation, in partnership with other local funders, committed more than $1 million annually to support statewide implementation efforts in the form of intensive teacher professional development opportunities paired with related curriculum and resources.

We have also partnered with the Center for Information Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), based at Tufts University, to evaluate our implementation efforts. By utilizing real-time evaluation data, we have made timely adjustments and adaptations to our programming, and also been able to communicate our progress to key stakeholders, policymakers included.

Through surveys of our Illinois Civics Teacher Mentors, a broader statewide teacher survey, and interviews with partners and advocates, CIRCLE compiled a Year One report on our progress.

Our implementation model is articulated in more detail here, but CIRCLE elegantly summarizes it as follows:

By seeding champions, demonstrating use, and fertilizing judiciously with training, support, resources, and connections, the Illinois civic education efforts seeks policy implementation through a cultural shift in practice germinating from the ground up (see figure 1).


Interest in the new course requirement varies by audience, as mentors and teachers have had the most success in reaching out to social studies coordinators and colleagues in their own buildings, with some traction among principals, other teachers in the region, and superintendents. Local leaders and parents present growth opportunities for future outreach.

CIRCLE did find evidence of civics-oriented relationships forming at all levels as social studies teachers leverage opportunities previously afforded to only math and English Language Arts peers.

The extent to which schools have implemented the civics course requirement varies by practice. Controversial issues discussions are most implemented, and service-learning the least, yet the latter practice is at least two-thirds partially or fully implemented (67% combined; see figure 3).


Yet service-learning is listed as the most challenging practice to implement, far outpacing outreach to school leadership, alignment with the Danielson Framework, and using simulations of democratic processes (see figure 4).


These challenges considered, the #CivicsIsBack Campaign has room for growth as we are well into Year Two and begin planning for 2018-2019. This past summer, we offered eleven regional workshops, with new sites in Bloomington and Rockford, and Lead Mentor Mary Ellen Daneels is on staff full-time during the current school year to deliver customized professional development sessions for regional offices of education, districts, and even individual schools. Mary Ellen and our teacher mentors are designing standards- and course-aligned lesson plans for immediate classroom use, and in partnership with Illinois State University, our mentors have designed and are currently teaching a free online tutorial on the course requirement and embedded practices.

Stay tuned for further reflections on our Year Two programming, and please contact us with feedback on how we can better meet your course implementation needs.

A Practical Guide to Service Learning

by Jennifer Conlon, Regional Teacher Mentor, North Cook County

Jennifer Conlon teaches Government, ESL through AP, at Maine East High School. She serves as the Regional Mentor for North Cook County. A former attorney and Congressional staffer, she enjoys making democracy accessible to all her students and is delighted to help others do the same. Over the past several years, she has worked to include service learning in her classes and to make simulations increasingly authentic. Jennifer has created a booklet to guide her students through a service-learning project. Jennifer introduces this resource below.

Teachers repeatedly indicate that service learning is the requirement of the new state civics statute they find most difficult to implement. There is a lot of helpful literature about this, too, from a taxonomy of participants to suggestions for service. Teachers want to give students agency and an authentic, reflective experience without overwhelming them. Like everyone else, I have been on a service learning journey and here is the result to date. Thanks to conferences, colleagues in my department and my district, and students in my classes, this is the most recent iteration. It's very simple. Students are grouped by topics for which they have expressed a preference. They develop a team name. They consider their issue, make a root cause tree, ask questions and research, then they plan for observations, civic participation, and political action to help resolve the problem. They make connections to curriculum and reflect on the process. They record all this in a booklet. When they turn it in completed, it is worth a set number of points. They like what it does for their grade and the sense of satisfaction it gives them. We like that it gets them engaged. I hope this works well for you.


To access Jennifer’s booklet to scaffold service learning, please visit the Lesson Plan resource page at illinoiscivics.org. Please post comments about what you find useful in this resource and any other materials you use to support service learning in your classroom.

In Search of Oases in Civic Deserts

by Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Democracy Program Director

Last week, I had the honor in participating in the National Conference on Citizenship in Washington, D.C. For the past decade-plus, the congressionally-chartered organization has published annual reports on the nation’s civic health. The McCormick Foundation has been a proud local partner, producing state and local civic health reports of our own, and also providing funding for this year’s national publication, Civic Deserts: America’s Civic Health Challenge.

Civic deserts are defined as “communities without opportunities for civic engagement” and are increasingly common in rural and urban areas alike. More broadly, our nation’s civic health is in a continued state of decline, posing existential threats to “our prosperity, safety, and democracy.”
  • A little more than a quarter of us (28%) belong to a group led by individuals we consider accountable and inclusive.
  • Large-scale civic institutions like political parties, labor unions, metropolitan daily newspapers (see Chart 9 below), and religious congregations continue to shrink. They formerly mobilized communities for civic and political purposes.
  • Declines in newspaper readership are coupled with plummeting trust in all forms of news media.
  • Volunteering rates have fallen from already low percentages, dropping from 30% in 2005 to 25% in 2015.

Per recent trends, this report places part of the blame for our civic deficits on the marginalization of civic learning in P-20 education. The authors (Matthew Atwell, John Bridgeland, and Peter Levine) point to the decline of civics course offerings, specifically problems of democracy classes, and recipient waning student performance on sporadic administrations of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in Civics. Even among the upper echelon of high school students, the percentage taking AP U.S. Government and Politics has declined precipitously over the last quarter century.


I encourage you to read the report in full for a comprehensive view of our contemporary civic health crisis, but will conclude by riffing from the “paths to civic renewal” provided by the authors, in particular their call to “increase access to and the quality of American history and civics education in the United States.”

This includes adoption of “rigorous state standards” as we have in Illinois, “meaningful assessments” (still work to do here), and coursework that features discussions of current and controversial issues and service learning (see our new high schools civics course requirement). Federal funding is also key, including the revival of the Teaching American History grant program, increased frequency of the NAEP Civics Assessment, and “disaggregated or state level data of the results.” The final recommendation parallels our own Democracy Schools Initiative, where schools that demonstrate deep commitments to civic learning and American history would receive “blue ribbon” federal recognition.

Embracing Diversity

by Mary Ellen Daneels, Lead Teacher Mentor

A few years ago, students in my class participated in Project Soapbox, a program sponsored by the Mikva Challenge in which students give a two to three minute speech in response to the prompt, “What is the biggest issue facing your community?” We heard heartfelt pleas to end bullying, respond to racial and religious discrimination, address the gender gap, and promote acceptance of the LGBTQ community. Each speech ended with a “call to action” that implored the audience to address the essential question, “How should we live together?”

The students and I invited administrators, police resource officers, school board members and county officials who worked with at-risk teens to listen and provide feedback to the speeches. The adults in the room valued the passionate, heartfelt pleas for change and encouraged the students to present their findings to the school board. The students did some further investigation and presented a six-point plan of action at a school board meeting. This resulted in policy changes, the development of a more comprehensive plan to address bullying and a new school touchstone created by the students to articulate what kind of school climate they wanted. The touchstone was created through student body input and now hangs in every classroom as a foundation of how all members of our school are to conduct themselves, in short, how we as school community should “live together.”

In crafting the school touchstone, the most animated conversation involved how we should respond to our “deepest differences”- the very topics that were highlighted in the Soapbox Speeches. Students considered using the word tolerance until one student exclaimed, “Well, I would not feel very good if someone told me they ‘tolerated’ what made me unique, I want them to EMBRACE DIVERSITY!”


The Illinois Civics requirement promotes the proven practice of current and controversial issue discussions in part to “embrace diversity.” It is only when we dialogue about our deepest differences that we can (as Shawn stated in a previous blog), “seek to understand the values that underlie often deeply personal contrasting beliefs through deliberative dialogue, with a commitment to identifying areas of agreement.”

There are many resources available to teachers to help students understand multiple perspectives on the most compelling questions facing our communities and promote purposeful discourse.
  • AllSides.com provides current events articles from multiple sources on the political spectrum.
  • ProCon.org provides lesson plans and primary sources related to controversial issues.
  • Deliberating in a Democracy provides Structured Academic Controversies on a multitude of issues, local to global. Many are in multiple languages.
  • The New York Times Upfront Magazine provides current and controversial deliberations monthly.
  • Teachers can sign up for the Student Government Affairs Program newsletter that curates a current events issue each month that culminates in proposed “informed action” that students can take.
Do you have any resources to share to help facilitate current and controversial issue discussions in the civics classroom? Please leave a comment to this blog. Together, we can prepare Illinois students for college, career and civic life.

Political Polarization No Longer the Sole Province of Elites

by Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Democracy Program Director

A decade ago, political scientists were deep in the throes of a debate over the extent to which political polarization was elite driven, or also represented throughout the population. The former argument acknowledged that the two political parties in Congress moved more decisively to the left and right, respectively, leaving a largely centrist public to choose between two polar choices.

Indeed, a young Illinois Senate candidate named Barack Obama dismissed the artificial divisions of “red” and “blue America” in the 2004 keynote at the Democratic National Convention in Boston.

Elected president four years later, Obama soon came to grips with conservative Republican opposition committed to limiting him to a single term in office. And this opposition was backed by the grass roots activism of the Tea Party. The left had its own counterpunch in the form of Occupy Wall Street, and the elite-only political polarization hypothesis has since been disproven.

Earlier this month, the Pew Research Center released a report that challenged age-old assumptions of the forces that shape our political views. Education and income were once decisive predictors, and a decade ago religiosity, or the frequency by which we worship, was correlated with partisan choice. More recently, race has been at the forefront of political debates with perhaps the second coming of the Civil Rights Movement paired with the politics of resentment of the white working class.

While these variables partly predict our political views, our party affiliation stands first and foremost.


This conclusion is a product of a survey capturing partisan views on ten selected economic and social issues.


Over the course of a 23-year period, significant, yet comparatively shallow partisan divides have become cavernous. Even on issues like the value of immigration to the country and tolerance for homosexuality where overall views have trended progressive, the gap between Democrats and Republicans have widened. And Republicans mistrust of government as a partner in resolving societal problems stands in stark contrast with Democrats’ more optimistic view.

These alarming data points affirm what many of us witness in daily debates that smack of tribalism. The question is where we go from here. We’ll have more to say about this in future posts, but it underlines once more the critical roles that teachers and schools play in students’ civic development.

As a citizenry we must understand where our beliefs lie on the political spectrum and the values that underlie them. We must also avoid caricatures of our “opponents,” seeking to understand the values that underlie often deeply personal contrasting beliefs. This can be achieved through deliberative dialogue, with a commitment to identifying areas of agreement. The latter can be the basis of seemingly elusive political compromise. Nothing less than the future of our republic depends on it.

Civic Participation is the Key to Understanding How Government Works

Steven Stukenberg is the Illinois Civics Teacher Mentor for DeKalb County. In this guest blog post, Steven shares his reflections on his role as a civic educator and how to help students “do government.”

My interest in political science came at a young age in my small hometown of Leaf River, Illinois (population 600). As I observed the involvement and sometimes aggravation of my father during his tenure as a school board member, I remember being impressed by how much influence he had in the policy of the school I attended. Through my high school and college education, I learned that our country is based on this type of participation in local, state and national government. Civic engagement and community involvement in the governmental system is what has made the United States one of the best countries in the world. As I guide my students through the government curriculum at Harry D. Jacobs High School (where I am enjoying my 22nd year as a social studies teacher), the importance of civic engagement is at the heart of every lesson.

The Illinois Civic mentor program has enhanced my core belief of the need and the importance of teaching Civic engagement. The lead teacher mentors in the Illinois Civic mentor program have shared various teaching strategies and learning techniques that have improved and enhanced my government classes.


Some specific examples of engaged learning techniques have challenged my students to understand how the government works. During our “Congress Role-play”, my students choose a US state to represent, a current issue to research and are asked to create a bill to present to the “mock Congress”. Before individual research begins on a curricular linked issue, the class participates in two student lead class activities. The “Root cause tree” (from the Mikva Challenge) lesson allows students to work together to comprehend the subtle complexities of the issues they chose. The “four corner” lesson (from Facing History and Ourselves) further engages the student in the class opinion on the issue. After these lessons are complete, the student will have a better approach to their research on the topic.

Once an individual student has completed their research, the student (upon acknowledgement from the “Speaker of the House”) will present their idea for a law to the “mock congress”. After the presentation of their idea, fellow student-legislators are encouraged to comment, question and amend the bill from their own perspective. Discussion (never debates) may last the whole class period on a single topic. Our classroom atmosphere is relaxed, respectful and open for uninhibited discussion. The class has been instructed to always respect different opinions. This last point is crucial. Consensus on issues is what makes our country prosper and what good citizens should strive for in our classroom, our cities, states and country.

As I have explained to my students, we are not only “learning government” but we also “doing government”. Role-play activities, critical issue discussion, and critical thinking strategies are just some of the strategies that have challenged my students to become actual participants in the democratic process. The current rise of social media, the dominance of cable news and the overall complexities of today’s political landscape has made the need for enlightened citizens necessary for our progress as a nation.

Opportunities to Promote the "Civic Good"

by Jason M. Artman, Illinois Civics Teacher Mentor

Jason M. Artman is a Social Studies teacher and Head Coach of Boys and Girls Soccer at Mendota High School. Jason serves as a civic mentor for LaSalle, Marshal and Putnam counties. In this guest blog post, Jason reflects on how his role as a civic educator shapes his larger identity and interactions in his community.

I guess if you believe in something enough and make it a part of everything you do, that becomes a part of your character, your identity. As the only civics teacher in a small school in a small community, what I do in the classroom is a large part of the identity I carry among my students and their parents, whether I am in the classroom, on the soccer field, or even in the local grocery store. Wearing many hats in a small community gives me the opportunity to see my students as many others may not. In addition to being a teacher and a coach, I am an active band parent, as my two daughters are proud members of our marching and concert bands.


Student involvement in extracurricular and co-curricular activities naturally produces students who grow accustomed to being a part of something larger than themselves. It builds a community of diverse participants and learners. My soccer players know that in order for the team to succeed, they have to share the ball, move together, defend together, and work toward a common goal, all despite another group of people actively working against them. Soccer adds the unique element that it is played nearly everywhere in the world, and different regions have different ways of playing. When I have students from diverse backgrounds (which is nearly always), they usually come to our team accustomed to one way of playing and have to be open to new ways of doing things. Our band students also know if all the sections, despite their different notes and tones, do not work together, they fail to sound appealing; if one person marches out of step, he can literally bring the entire performance to a halt.


Too often in today’s world we hear about sports dividing people; whether one person’s protest is another person’s disrespect is not the greater picture. The greater civic good and opportunity for civic discussion and action comes from the teamwork and membership that individuals share when they bond together despite any differences they have. That is our opportunity for civic action and civic learning. For me, it comes in the classroom. It comes on the soccer field. And it comes in the flute section.

Protest is Patriotic in Our Quest to Build a More Perfect Union

by Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Democracy Program Director

Like many of you, I’ve struggled to make sense of the national backlash against professional football players taking a knee during the playing of the National Anthem prior to kickoff. As a former player and coach, I understand the reverence for the flag long associated with the “Boys of Fall,” but also hold a healthy respect for the freedom of expression enshrined in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

From a technical standpoint, it’s important to note that the protests are not protected speech as the players work for a private employer, the National Football League (NFL), and their contracts require them to stand for the National Anthem. However, NFL owners have stood in solidarity with their players in light of President Trump’s disparaging remarks.

Taken at Lambeau Field by Kate Foran against the Chicago Bears on November 4th 2013 2013-11-29 00-17
By User:Nicky4180 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
(http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]

It should also be noted that former quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who originated the gesture a season ago to register his protest to the disparate treatment of people of color in this country, remains unemployed, yet seemingly qualified to fill an NFL roster spot.

Historic sports parallels have been repeatedly invoked in the past week, but a young boy named Billy Gobitas resurfaced in my mind. He was the Jehovah’s Witness punished for refusing to stand at school for the Pledge of Allegiance. In Minersville School District v Gobitis (1940; his last name was misspelled in the Court records), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the school district, declaring that interests of “national cohesion” trumped “the hierarchy of legal values,” thus allowing states “to promote in the minds of children who attend the common schools an attachment to the institutions of their country.”

The Court corrected itself just three years later in West Virginia v. Barnette (1943) after violence was perpetrated against conscientious objectors like Gobitas during the flag waving World War II era.

Writing for the majority, Justice Robert Jackson declared, “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…”

Patriotism isn’t owned by one side of the ideological spectrum or political party. It can’t be force-fed or indoctrinated. Instead, it is the product of seeing the United States as it is: Land of the free? Yes. Home of the brave? Without doubt. But not without historic and contemporary flaws that demand acknowledgement and urgent action.

Patriotic rituals like reciting the Pledge of Allegiance or standing for the National Anthem facilitate an attachment to this ongoing experiment in republican democracy, but its depth comes through reconciling the ideals of the Revolution with the injustices carried out against racial and ethnic minorities, women, and other underrepresented groups throughout history. The truth is that protest is every bit as patriotic as these age-old rituals because it forces our nation to live up to the true meaning of its creed.

Regardless of whether we stand or kneel during the National Anthem, I would encourage us to adopt the sentiments attributed to Voltaire: "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."

In fact, I’d take it one step further: Consider the sources of consternation on both sides of this emotional debate, search for common ground, and get to work on collectively building a more perfect union.

Do You Have Your Ticket?

by Barb Laimins, Illinois Civics Teacher Mentor Liaison

In 2016, 1,300,627,644 people bought tickets to a movie theater according to the Motion Picture Association of America. POLITICO reports there are currently 200,081,377 registered voters in the United States. While this is a somewhat imperfect analogy, it is remarkable that more people paid for a ticket to see a 2-hour movie at the theater than obtained their “free ticket” that would allow them to vote in just a few minutes. National Voter Registration Day was established in hopes of encouraging everyone to obtain their “free ticket” to participate in the political theater of our Democracy.

The National Association of Secretaries of State (NASS) established the first National Voter Registration Day on September 25, 2012. Currently, thousands of organizations join together on the fourth Thursday of September to register voters. NVRD is a day to set aside political differences and join in celebrating our Democracy by registering to vote.


This year, on September 26th, schools and civic organizations throughout the country mobilized to hold events to provide citizens the information and the opportunity to register/update their voter registration. Democracy Schools and Civic Mentors throughout Illinois held registration drives at their schools. School based voter registration events are extremely important due to the passage of the “Suffrage at 17” legislation. The legislation provides an opportunity for the youth of Illinois to develop the civic engagement habits which are essential to healthy democracy. The Illinois League of Women Voters chapters encouraged voter registration by disseminating registration information at commuter train stations and social media.


Hopefully, voter registration efforts won’t be limited to this one day a year. The new Automatic Voter Registration Act will be implemented in phases over the next year. Therefore, voter registration efforts need to continue. Teachers can become voter registrars by having their principals contact their local Election Commission. Community members can become a voter registrar by joining a civic organization recognized by the Illinois State Board of Elections. Everyone can encourage online voter registration at https://www.elections.il.gov/votinginformation/register.aspx.

Let’s make sure everyone has their “free ticket” to participate in our Democracy.

Democracy at a Crossroads Summit Spotlights Civic Learning as Long-Term Solution

by Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Democracy Program Director

Last Thursday, the nation’s civic learning community gathered at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., for the Democracy at a Crossroads National Summit. Convened by iCivics in partnership with the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools, the Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts University, and the Lou Frey Institute at the University of Central Florida, the Summit sought to gather funders interested in education or political reform and convince them that civic learning is also a logical and urgent investment.

The event was high-profile in a picturesque setting high above Pennsylvania Avenue with both the Capitol and Washington Monument as a backdrop. Harvard’s Danielle Allen headlined the first panel, suggesting that our 230 year-old institutions designed for 3 million people are being tested like never before by more than 300 million residents today. The University of Wisconsin’s Diana Hess added the importance of teaching students to deliberate in what is now a continental, and deeply polarized democracy.


I had the great honor of sitting on a policy innovation panel with Peter Levine of Tufts, Senator Bob Graham of Florida, and Rachel Roti, a civics teacher at Washington High School on Chicago’s Southeast Side. Levine co-authored a briefing paper released at the Summit titled “The Republic Is (Still) at Risk and Civics Is Part of the Solution.” Florida and Illinois were featured prominently in the report and on the panel as states that enacted civic learning policies that scaled effective practice.

Beyond the proven practices detailed in two earlier reports, Levine points to “complimentary streams of research and practice,” including news media literacy education, action civics, social and emotional learning, and school climate reform. These practices have been integrated into the professional development opportunities we offer to teachers and administrators as part of our course and standards implementation practices here in Illinois, and have long been staples of our statewide Democracy Schools Initiative.

Equity was also a strong Summit theme, and Mikva Challenge CEO Michelle Morales made a strong case for it in the form of civic learning opportunities, but also student voice in school governance. The latter is too often lacking, particularly for students of color, as evidenced by one D.C. student’s heartbreaking testimonial during the session.


The Summit concluded in a conversation with Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who serves on the iCivics Board of Directors and has pushed for the games to be adapted for English Language Learners and students with disabilities. Justice Sotomayor strolled slowly through the room of more than 200 attendees, answering audience questions face-to-face and ended each encounter with a warm embrace. As the first Latina Justice, she is a role model and leading advocate for civic learning, taking the baton from her predecessor and iCivics founder Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.

Benjamin Franklin’s reflection on the creation of the Constitutional Convention, “a republic, if you can keep it,” was oft-repeated at Thursday’s Summit. The nation’s civic learning community rightfully embraced this current moment of democratic crisis, offering our time, talents, and proven classroom models as long-term cures for a nation at risk.

Happy Constitution Day!

by Mary Ellen Daneels, Lead Teacher Mentor

On September 17, 1789, thirty-nine delegates to the Constitutional Convention signed the completed U.S. Constitution. This momentous occasion has been marked by various holidays throughout the years. While many previously celebrated this anniversary as “Citizenship Day”, an amendment to an omnibus bill in 2004 by Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia, officially designated September 17th as Constitution Day. As September 17th falls on a Sunday in 2017, according to the National Constitution Center, September 18th is the official day schools and federal institutions are to dedicate to learning more about this foundational document of the United States.

Washington Constitutional Convention 1787

One of the proven practices of civic education mandated by the Illinois Civics requirement is direct instruction on government institutions. Knowledge of the U.S. Constitution and the framework it established to protect the rights and freedoms that “We the People” enjoy today is key to civic education. There are numerous resources that can help classroom teachers in this very important work on Constitution Day and throughout the year.
How do you celebrate Constitution Day? We would welcome your best practices in the comment section of the blog to help others with ideas to prepare students for civic life.

September 11th Echoes Continue to Shape American Politics

by Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Democracy Program Director

Today marks the 16th anniversary of the September 11th attacks on the United States. Like many veteran teachers, I spent that fateful morning and the weeks that followed making sense of these tragic events with my students. For Millennials, Sept 11th was the defining event as the Challenger explosion had been for mine and the Kennedy assassination for my parents.

More recently, as I’ve written here on the blog, November 8, 2016, has a similar feel for today’s students, and its connection to the events of September 11, 2001, is closer than you might think.

The political debates of sixteen years ago were centered on what to do with federal budget surpluses that emerged during the technology boom and end of the Cold War. Democrats argued for further investment in the social safety net, while Republicans pushed for supply side tax cuts.

A Republican President, George W. Bush, facing his own legitimacy challenges given his loss of the popular vote and Electoral College victory secured by Supreme Court decision, positioned himself as a “compassionate conservative.” This entailed, for example, support for comprehensive immigration reform, including a path to citizenship for the ten million-plus undocumented individuals residing in the country at the time.

Twin Towers-NYC

The events of September 11th changed the course of the Bush presidency and history itself. It placed the country on a war footing, with entanglements in first Afghanistan, and later Iraq, which continue to this day. An outright defense of civil liberties took a backseat to homeland security, yielding a Cabinet-level agency in this name and the infamous U.S. PATRIOT Act. Entitlement and immigration reform took a back seat to prosecuting the War on Terror at home and abroad.

The 2004 and 2008 presidential elections were essentially fought on this terrain. In 2004, Bush, benefiting from residual support as a wartime leader, proved that he was tougher on terrorism (in the eyes of voters) than his Democratic opponent John Kerry. Four years later, then-Senator Obama based the premise of his campaign on ending the now unpopular Iraq War, and successfully tied his challenger, Senator John McCain, to the toxic incumbent president.

Many political biographies of the aftermath of September 11 end with Obama’s victory and pivot towards addressing the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. His re-election in 2012 highlighted these Herculean rescue efforts, but also his order to have 9/11 mastermind Osama Bin Laden assassinated by U.S. Navy Seals.

President Obama campaigned twice on the promise of comprehensive immigration reform, but never built sufficient support or found enough willing partners in Congress. Republicans moved decisively to the right on this and other issues, with 2012 nominee Mitt Romney calling for “self-deportation,” and Donald Trump’s signature promise in 2016 and beyond to “build a wall” along the entirety of the Mexico-U.S. border. Trump also called for, and attempted to institute a Muslim ban. Echoes of 9/11 reverberate.

Funds for the wall have yet to be appropriated, and the Muslim ban is tied up in our federal courts, but last week’s announcement that President Obama’s DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) executive order would be rescinded after six months unless Congress fails to act in the interim sent chills down the spines of the vast majority of Americans. Optimistic signs of bi-partisan compromise have since emerged, and Trump’s potential signing of any form of progressive immigration reform would be the historical equivalent of Nixon going to China.

Regardless, the implications of the September 11th attacks remain with us today, and the Trump presidency is a natural culmination of the reaction and counter-reaction to this fateful day.

Teaching With Controversy: Using Questions to Promote Dialogue

by Mary Ellen Daneels, Lead Teacher Mentor

This past summer, my colleague Barbara Laimins and I embarked on what we dubbed the LOL Tour- LOL deriving from Land of Lincoln. Our charge was to coordinate with 38 regional mentors throughout Illinois to provide free professional development to facilitate implementation of the new Illinois Social Studies standards and civics requirement. While we were impressed with many of the roadside attractions the state had to offer (think the Muffler Man on Route 66), what most impressed us was the deep commitment educators in every corner of the state have to preparing students for civic life despite challenges in the form of time, resources and support.


As Barb and I traveled the state, most teachers lamented that they were experiencing more difficulties than ever before in facilitating current and controversial issue discussions, one of the proven practices elevated in the new civics requirement in Illinois. Teachers were unsure how to begin such deliberations and once initiated, provide a safe environment for students to address compelling questions. In a previous blog, I cited a number of organizations that provide resources to support “courageous conversations.” Beyond these resources, there is also a need to elevate student voice in the selection of questions to consider when it comes to current and controversial issues.

According to the Civic Mission of Schools, “Giving students more opportunities to participate in the management of their classrooms and schools builds their civic skills and attitudes.” One indicator of critical thinking, defined by the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, is the “ability to identify and ask significant questions that clarify various points of view and lead to better solutions.” The College, Career and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies State Standards, from the National Council of the Social Studies asserts, “Central to a rich social studies experience is the capability for developing questions that can frame and advance an inquiry.”

The Illinois Social Studies standards took their inspiration from the C3 Framework and promote the explicit teaching of questioning skills (SS.IS.1-3. 9-12). Here are some resources to help students develop questions to guide teaching with controversy.
  • The Question Formulation Technique (QFT) from the Right Question Institute is a simple protocol for helping students design good questions. Teachers can register for their Educator Network for free and have access to training in the QFT and classroom resources.
  • C3 Teachers has produced a short video overview introducing the importance of questioning.
  • The 5 Whys Technique attributed to Toyota founder Sakichi Toyoda, has students probe deeper into compelling questions by asking “why” to seek out root causes and underlying issues.
  • Questionstorming is an iteration of brainstorming in which students generate questions and then zero in on “the best question we need to answer right now.”
  • The Q-Matrix developed by Kagan Cooperative Learning is a wonderful protocol I have used to differentiate and scaffold question formulation. Use your favorite search engine to generate different versions of this strategy.
  • Illinois’ own Dan Fouts has started a new blog called Socrates Questions: Teach Different with Big Questions. Check it out for inspiration for using “Big Questions” in your classroom.