Leaning into a Contentious and Deeply Personal Immigration Debate

by Shawn Healy, PhD, Civic Learning Scholar

Immigration was central to Donald Trump’s presidential campaign from the first day he announced his candidacy in June 2015. His harsh rhetoric directed towards undocumented immigrants and refugees from war-torn countries motivated his base and contributed to his improbable victory. Trump’s early executive actions as President are popular with his core supporters as he delivers on campaign promises.

However, these actions horrify his opponents and threaten the very existence of many Americans, including Illinois residents and students in our classrooms. Stories abound of families living in fear, refusing to send their children to school, and once vibrant communities increasingly shuttered. Young children in Chicago and elsewhere are living in legal limbo, and even the Southern Illinois community of West Frankfort is torn over the recent arrest of a popular restaurant owner on immigration charges.

Anti Trump immigration protest in Baltimore DSC 6867 (32445440142)

As civics teachers, we are compelled to discuss these current and controversial issues in our classrooms. But we must do so with an abundance of caution.

I learned this the hard way more than a decade ago, teaching a United States History class to a racially mixed classroom, roughly half-white, half-Latino. The course was designed thematically and began with a compelling question: “What is an American?” This naturally lent itself to historical and contemporary explorations of immigration, and I attempted a Socratic seminar on the latter.

While the students’ shared a common text, their position relative to amnesty for undocumented immigrants that have long called the United States home was largely tied to their race/ ethnicity. I was na├»ve to the fact that this debate so early in the semester caused great harm to the classroom environment as the political statements of many of my white students were legitimately seen as direct threats to the personhood of my Latino students.

The tension in the air was palpable in the weeks that followed as I desperately employed all of the pedagogical tools in my teaching belt to undo the damage. Cooperative learning techniques helped, but I regret to admit that complete reconciliation was elusive.

I still hold true to the belief that I was right to bring immigration into my racially heterogeneous classroom. It was pertinent then as it was now: President Bush campaigned on comprehensive immigration reform and was arguably stymied because of the 9-11 attacks.

But as teachers we must account for classroom context, and on this measure I failed. The Socratic seminar was sloppy in construction and the issue discussion itself premature as classroom chemistry, and by association a safe environment, was still in the making.

On this issue we should’ve hewed more closely to the text, allowing the opinions expressed in the article to represent issue positions. I could have also been more sensitive at the outset to how personal this issue was too many of my students, making this clear to everyone in the classroom.

During these tumultuous times, students are looking to their teachers to make sense of shifting political debates and the human impact of related policies. We must lean into immigration and a plethora of other contentious issues, but do so with great care for our students and their very identities.

Testing the Limits of Students as Policy Advocates

by Shawn Healy, PhD, Civic Learning Scholar

We’ve made the case previously for actively engaging students in the public policy process. However, in reviewing a manuscript this week proposing to create a curriculum to facilitate this for both high school and college students, Lead Teacher Mentor Mary Ellen Daneels and I were struck by a statement that read, “Political involvement or action must never be required as part of an academic course.”

Is the author correct in making this pedagogical assertion? The answer is complicated and we invite your own views.

Advocacy is one form of service-learning (direct and indirect service are the others), a practice required by the new Illinois civics course requirement and complimentary to emerging state social studies standards that ask students to communicate conclusions and take informed action across grades and disciplines.


The standards, and best practice more generally, invite students to develop their own questions and inquiries. This removes the teacher from steering students towards a particular issue or political position.

What we teach and how we teach is an important consideration as students draw upon disciplinary knowledge to answer these questions, ideally consulting a rich menu of sources that provide a variety of political perspectives.

As we move towards communicating conclusions and taking informed action, students may be asked to write letters to an elected or appointed government official or to prepare testimony for a public meeting. It is here that the question of requiring engagement comes into question.

It seems perfectly reasonable to leave discretion with students as to whether to mail the said letter or provide testimony in person. We may encourage them to follow through, but must also consider potential discomfort and even issues of citizenship status in the current environment.

On Tuesday, we wrote about the tumultuous town hall meetings taking place across the country, and mentioned that several Illinois teachers, schools, and districts require students to attend public meetings as part of a civics or government course. Is it acceptable to compel attendance so long as students silently document the proceedings and later reflect upon the experience in class?

We are also aware of other districts that actually prohibit students from contacting school board members, providing public comment, or even attending meetings altogether. Not only does this other extreme strike us as undemocratic, but it denies students exposure to local democracy at its best. After all, Illinois has more school districts and boards than any other state.

Please share your thoughts on the limits of students as policy advocates. We’d love to summarize them in a future post.

Turning the Tables on Tumultuous Town Halls

by Shawn Healy, PhD, Civic Learning Scholar

Congressional scholar Richard Fenno wrote eloquently about the “home style” of the “people’s representatives,” deeming their local footprint critical to earning the enduring trust of constituents and a lengthy tenure in the Capitol. This traditional notion has been tested in recent years with the advent of highly polarized politics and a prevailing anti-government fervor.

We need look no further than congressional town hall meetings, historically intimate settings where voters and their elected representatives can connect on an intimate basis, discussing common concerns and the issues of the day. Lately, they have unraveled into angry shouting matches, where attendees feel that their voices are left unheard in the current political environment, and elected officials fear an ambush and national headlines in the aftermath.

Some, like suburban Chicago Congressman Peter Roskam, have gone so far as to avoid them altogether, limiting personal meetings to 25 or fewer constituents and instead conducting town halls by telephone. The latter has no threat of poor optics and offers Roskam tight control of incoming questions.

Both sides of the political spectrum have contributed to the deterioration of these democratic forums. Eight years ago it was Tea Party Republicans that raided Democratic town halls to voice their opposition to the fledgling Affordable Care Act (ACA). More recently, it has been a unified progressive movement showing solidarity against President Trump, his controversial policy positions, and somewhat ironically, the Republican refrain to “repeal and replace” the ACA.

As an advocate for youth civic engagement, I certainly find widespread interest in political issues and attendance at public meetings encouraging signs. Indeed, many Illinois educators require that their students do both as a condition for completing a civics course. However, I fear that the absence of deliberation at these forums is teaching them harmful lessons.

Too often government assumes the role of parent and treats its constituents as children. When the voice of the latter is narrowly conscribed, there is a tendency to rebel.

It’s also wrong for elected officials to characterize protesters as paid plants. While it’s true that money does go into political organizing, many Americans have and are attending these meetings under their own auspices and are demanding to be heard by officials elected to represent them.

Congressmen shouldn’t hide behind the cloak of their office, and citizens should be able to disagree with him or her without being disagreeable. This gets to the heart of the deliberative norms we try to teach our students and hope they carry with them throughout life.

As educators, we should critique these corrosive town halls with our students, using them as a foil to the discourse we model and practice in our classrooms. We can also draw from a couple of what I consider model town halls reported on in recent days.

Congressmen Sensenbrenner (left) and Schneider (right) have recently held model town hall meetings

The first was in my old stomping grounds of suburban Milwaukee, where Republican Congressman James Sensenbrenner held court and asked attendees to respect the views of those with whom they disagree. He faced dissenting views in his district directly and demanded decorum, stating at the outset, “This is not a session on who can cheer or boo the loudest…Be respectful of opinions that you do not share.”

The second is closer to home in north suburban Chicago, where Democratic Congressman Brad Schneider hosted an overflow crowd every bit as concerned about the Trump Administration and its early actions as him. Schneider said, “If all of us try to do everything, we will accomplish nothing.” Instead, Schneider suggests, we should select a couple of issues that concern us most. Join a local organization fighting for them, and also educate friends and neighbors.

Both congressmen offer sage advice to share with students as we paint a new democratic canvass in the midst of these unprecedented political times.

The New Political Normal Tests Teachers' Commitments to Neutrality and Impartiality

by Shawn Healy, PhD, Civic Learning Scholar

Current and controversial issues discussions are embedded in Illinois’ new civics course requirement and among the proven civic learning practices that help facilitate students’ civic development. Last summer, we raised the issue of whether teachers should disclose their personal views when facilitating these discussions and pointed to research that suggests both disclosure and nondisclosure can work so long as a safe classroom environment is maintained. The most recent presidential election and its frantic aftermath have further tested this formula, and it’s fair to say that as educators we’re still adjusting to the “new normal.”

Last weekend, I had the honor of attending the American Political Science Association’s annual Teaching and Learning Conference in Long Beach. While there, I attended a workshop led by Nancy Thomas of Tufts University where she explored the “neutrality challenge,” placing forth four different teaching approaches to addressing controversial issues in the classroom. The exercise assumed that social justice is the ultimate goal of civic or political education, admittedly a contested concept.

On one end of the spectrum, we were offered a pedagogical approach that places trust in the process of classroom deliberation. If done well, the process itself with produce social justice. In my experience and research, most educators adhere to this approach.

Classroom 3rd floor

From neutrality we creep a bit closer to subjectivity, acknowledging teachers’ passion for certain issues, thereby drawing attention to something that concerns us, yet remaining agnostic about what should be done. The latter, once more, is left to student deliberation.

Intentionality enters the fray as we drift to the disclosure side of the spectrum. Thomas writes, “We need to be more intentional. What’s missing is an industry-wide commitment to a purposeful, explicit examination of patterns of power, privilege, and structural inequality underlying any public problem.”

The shift is completed when social justice is identified as “the work” itself. Thomas continues, “(Teachers) need to acknowledge that structural inequalities exist in society, these inequalities are detrimental to a strong democracy, and social, political, and economic justice are goals of the work.”

Thomas led participants through a four corners exercise as we identified with one or more of these perspectives. There was some subtle shifting as she raised different issues, from climate change to sexual assault to President Trump himself, suggesting that there may be a situational aspect to this pedagogical decision.

Also surfaced was the need to account for the perspectives and identities of our students. However, one attendee made a good point in saying it’s not equivalent to balance one student’s political views with another’s personal identity as is true in the current debate over President Trump’s Muslim ban, for example.

Finally, I raised the issue that geographic context also matters. It is a safe decision to go all in on social justice in deep blue Chicago, but tougher in the more politically heterogeneous suburbs, and perhaps a career-ender in some conservative downstate communities.

In sum, I appreciate the complexity of the model offered by Thomas and look forward to your own thoughts on its application. As we collectively navigate what seem like unprecedented political times, I find it helpful to reexamine current practices and place our best foot forward for our students.

Emerging Illinois Social Science Standards Require Paradigm Shift for Teaching and Learning

by Shawn Healy, PhD, Civic Learning Scholar

Yesterday, the Illinois Civics team, in partnership with members of the Illinois Social Science Standards Task Force (see p.3), presented a daylong workshop for K-12 teachers at the West Cook Regional Service Center on emerging state standards. It was remarkably well attended. In fact, we were oversubscribed and stretched into three different rooms. A subsequent workshop was scheduled there for next month and is already at capacity.



We take this as a sign that there is significant demand in the field for additional support with standards implementation that transcend the new course requirement, and our team is strategizing with the Illinois State Board of Education on a collaboration that spans the state and K-12 spectrum. Stay tuned for additional details in the weeks and months ahead.

My workshop assignment was to provide context for the standards’ development, and I began by making the case for civic learning, which lies at the heart of the C3 Framework’s inquiry arc embedded in the standards. Most of our work to date has been with high school teachers, so in preparation for the presentation, I analyzed data from the 2014 National Assessment of Educational Progress in Civics administered to 8th graders.

The standards require a paradigm shift from teacher-dominated to student-centered instruction, and the NAEP results underline the value of this proposition. For example, while reading from a textbook had little impact on students’ civic knowledge and skills, usage of primary documents moved the needle significantly, maxing out at daily dosages (see below).



Monthly to weekly current events discussions also proved effective, as did periodic debate and panel discussions. The same was true for role plays, mock trials, and dramas.

The evidence is firmly in our corner, but students taking the test suggested that these practices are all too rare, and in the cases of current events discussions and simulations, decreasing in frequency.

Moving forward, our challenge is to further unpack these new standards with educators and work with them to align current practices and curriculum. There is also a demonstrable need to identify and create curriculum that meets the new standards, later scaffolding it with teachers in the trenches for classroom use.

I was asked by one attendee during my presentation about how long teachers and schools should expect standards implementation to take. A specific answer was elusive, but as is true with implementation of the civics course, we view this is a multi-year process. At its center will be continued engagement with educators and responsiveness to their identified needs. It’s fair to say that we “put points on the board” towards this end yesterday.

Should States Make the U.S. Citizenship Test a Graduation Requirement?

by Shawn Healy, PhD, Civic Learning Scholar

This was the question posed to me by Congressional Quarterly last fall in a call to draft an opinion-editorial in opposition to emerging state policies transforming the U.S. citizenship test into a high-stakes graduation requirement (check out their larger, in-depth report on civic education).

Naturalization Ceremony (29700860365)

The Joe Foss Institute has been successful in pushing policies of this ilk in 15 states and counting with a 50-state strategy in the works (click here to read the case for requiring the citizenship test). As I argue in my piece excerpted below, the marginalization of civic learning is certainly cause for national concern, but this solution is overly simplistic and may further undermine students’ civic development.

The Joe Foss Institute of Arizona has rightly focused its attention on the marginalization of civic learning in K-12 education throughout the United States. However, its solution — requiring high school students to pass the U.S. citizenship test before graduation — isn't the answer to fostering the knowledge, skills, attitudes and behaviors among young people necessary for informed engagement in our democracy.

The test itself wasn't designed as a summative assessment for students. While many of the questions and answers constitute important factual knowledge that I would hope we all possess as Americans, some of them border on trivia. My fear is that a citizenship test will serve as more of a ceiling than a floor for civic learning in the United States.

Based on my analysis of the results of the last three iterations of the National Assessment of Educational Progress in Civics (1998, 2006 and 2010), instruction in the form of textbook reading, memorization of material and worksheet completion too often constitutes the sum of students' civic learning experience.

Moreover, I tested the link between teaching specific content knowledge, such as the U.S. Constitution or Congress, and student performance by measuring civic knowledge and skills. I found no relationship between these variables.

Instead, students did best when discussing current events in class daily, simulating democratic processes regularly and engaging in community service annually. These practices are too often neglected in content-centered courses, and students depart with a fleeting knowledge base and are poorly prepared for the demands of democratic governance.

Student-centered civic learning practices should lie at the heart of policy efforts to improve youths' civic knowledge. For example, Illinois recently passed a law requiring schools to offer a semester-long course that embeds these practices through discussion, service-learning and simulations.

Assessment is also imperative, and Tennessee opted for a project-based learning requirement in civics, where students demonstrate their civic capacity by doing, the heart of democratic governance.

Instead of a shallow exercise in memorization, let's unite around course requirements, standards and assessments that empower students not only with knowledge, but also skills, attitudes and behaviors requisite for lifelong civic engagement.

Teacher Mentors at Center of Course Implementation Efforts Throughout Illinois

by Shawn Healy, PhD, Civic Learning Scholar

Central to our civics course implementation efforts is the Illinois Civics Teacher Mentor program. Last spring, teacher mentors were recruited for each region (one per Regional Office of Education; 38 in total including Cook County’s three regional service centers) and assigned to support teachers, schools, and districts in their area. They are tasked with co-facilitating our summer professional development workshops, providing fall and spring in-service sessions, and consulting with colleagues in their respective regions on a regular basis.

Last weekend, mentors representing 25 regions convened in Champaign for a mid-year reflection on successes and challenges to date. This feedback will inform the second year of our offerings and the future of the mentoring program itself.


Across the board, our mentors are a passionate and committed cohort of educators with strong organizational skills and decades of innovative teaching experience. However, they are severely time-challenged and find difficulty in balancing their mentoring responsibilities with their critical day jobs. Some are overwhelmed by the new information about the course requirement and emerging social studies standards. Others have experienced difficulties translating their excitement about these new policies to colleagues.

Our mentors are still in the process of establishing their credibility with colleagues, area schools, administrators, even the regional offices of education themselves. They sometimes feel like their email outreach constitutes “writing into the abyss” as responses are few and far between.

While we trust that their exposure and reputation will grow with time, we are committed to supporting our mentors by better engaging administrators and regional superintendents of schools. We also plan to help mentors facilitate informal meetings with teachers in their area outside of school hours, creating space for communities of practice to coalesce.

Reflecting back on the first year, our mentors learned a great deal from our civic education partners, using their resources and lesson plans in their own classrooms. They specifically cited the Mikva Challenge’s root cause tree, a legislative hearing modeled by the Constitutional Rights Foundation Chicago, and Facing History’s Choices in Little Rock curriculum.

Looking ahead to this coming summer, emerging social studies standards are front and center. Our mentors pointed to a series of challenges with their implementation, including yet another set of standards piled on top of Common Core and Next Generation Science Standards, competition with the new teacher evaluation system, and lack of awareness that new standards are on our doorsteps.

Moreover, the inquiry arc embedded in the new social studies standards, paired with minimal content, requires a shift in teaching philosophy for many educators, from “sage on the stage” to “guide on the side.”

Finally, our summer workshops will certainly infuse the new standards, but also respond to mentors’ requests for additional examples of service-learning in practice and how to assess it. Workshops will embed more state and local issues, and teacher mentors will assume a greater role in the planning and execution of workshops in their respective regions. Stay tuned for the release of summer workshop dates and registration links later this month.