Guest Blog: Genius Hour at Antioch High School

by Jim Vera, Social Studies Department Chair, Oswego East High School
What do you wonder about? What have you always wanted to do? What would you do if you could change the world?

These are questions the students at Antioch High School deal with on Fridays in Global Studies. This year-long service project, started by Lauren Krickl is something that she has her freshmen deal with every Friday as part of a program called “Genius Hour.” Students get a chance to spend a year making their plan to change the world! It started with Krickl, but now Grant Murray, Social Studies Department Chair, has been able to expand this process to include all Global Studies classes, and it is now part of the curriculum. Genius Hour was the focus of their presentation at the 2017 Democracy School Annual Convening.


Getting students to think outside the box is a challenge for all teachers. Krickl, Murray and Antioch student Monica Wilhem talked about their successes and failures with this program. Creating projects that are completely student-driven helps to create a culture of good civic learning. Antioch students are able to engage in service learning through the year, while they explore their passions. Monica’s story proved especially moving as she shared her noble ambition of curing cancer. To some, this may seem too lofty, but she was able to move her school to raise money, and impact her community through her Walk On the Move fundraiser. Her passion was clear, as was the effect of Genius Hour on her and her peers. It’s a program that changes the way students look at their world.

It is difficult for teacher to “step away” sometimes, and let the students find what moves them, but as we learned, it’s an effort that pays off for everyone. It’s a class that has obviously had a positive impact at Antioch, and is a great way to instill the importance of student action.

Carolyn Pereira, 2016 Illinois Democracy Schools Recognized for Commitments to Students' Civic Development

by Shawn Healy, PhD, Civic Learning Scholar

Last Thursday, our annual convening of the Democracy Schools Network kicked off with a reception at Cantigny Park where 13 Illinois high schools were recognized in the largest class of Democracy Schools to date. The Network now encompasses 54 high schools with representation in Chicago, its surrounding suburbs, the Metro East region outside of St. Louis, and both Central and Southern Illinois.

The Democracy Schools Initiative stems from humble beginnings a decade ago when the first cohort of four high schools earned recognition. It was the brainchild of founding Illinois Civic Mission Coalition (ICMC) Chair Carolyn Pereira, who received seed money from the Carnegie Corporation to implement the recommendations of the Civic Mission of Schools report. Carolyn and the ICMC first considered developing a prototype civics course for replication throughout the state, but quickly pivoted to more of a school-wide focus, understanding that a singular civic learning experience for students was insufficient.

Students from multiple Democracy Schools working together in groups.

Instead, civic learning should be woven throughout the curriculum of students’ high school experience. Moreover, students should have opportunities to develop civic skills and dispositions through a wide array of extracurricular activities. Finally, student voice should be embedded in all aspects of a school’s functioning, as these vital institutions serve as incubators for democracy.

While the Democracy Schools recognition process has evolved significantly over the years, these central tenets remain constant. The model itself has drawn significant national interest and been replicated in number of states, Arizona and California specifically.

Each of our newest Democracy Schools took turns demonstrating their own unique commitments to students’ civic development, but the highlight of the evening was Carolyn Pereira receiving the inaugural Civic Leadership Award for her enormous contributions over the course of half a century to the civic mission of Illinois Schools. Beyond launching the ICMC and its Democracy Schools Initiative, Carolyn also founded the Constitutional Rights Foundation Chicago more than four decades ago. CRFC remains a pillar of the civic learning movement in Illinois and a core partner in our civics course and standards implementation process. The body of her work set the stage for these policy achievements.


Moreover, Carolyn was a key contributor to the creation of the College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework of the National Council for the Social Studies, enduring that deliberation was central to the civics strand and the broader inquiry arc than spans grades K-12. Carolyn later served on the task force that used the C3 Framework to write new social studies standards for Illinois.

It is therefore no coincidence that Illinois is the national epicenter for innovation in civic learning. Carolyn Pereira is a true trailblazer and her legacy looms large. We are lucky to follow in her footsteps, and Illinois has and will continue to benefit from her lifelong work. In fact, the country is increasingly turning to our state, and its civic learning programming and policies in particular, in building democratic communities and institutions for the 21st Century.

Please join me in congratulating Carolyn for this lifetime achievement recognition and our 2016 Illinois Democracy Schools for their deep commitment to students’ civic development.

Madison's First Amendment a Bulwark of Our Democracy

by Shawn Healy, PhD, Civic Learning Scholar

Sixteen years ago a large envelope arrived in the mail that forever changed the trajectory of my career. Inside, I was delighted to learn of my selection as the 2001 James Madison Fellow from my home state of Wisconsin. It entailed a scholarship for graduate school and a once-in-a-lifetime summer institute at Georgetown University, all of it centered on improving my understanding of and ability to teach the U.S. Constitution.


Thanks to the Madison Fellowship, I graduated with the masters degree in political science and pivoted immediately towards pursuit of my PhD. This journey included leaving the high school classroom eleven years ago, but my deep commitment to students’ civic development has been a constant ever since and inspired much of the work I’ve pursued at the McCormick Foundation and through the auspices of the Illinois Civic Mission Coalition.

This build-up is meant to introduce you to the Madison Fellowship and encourage you and your colleagues to explore it further. Thanks to support from the McCormick Foundation, Illinois teachers are awarded two fellowships each calendar year, and the McCormick Fellow spends a summer in our offices deeply engaged in our work to strengthen the state’s civic education system. I also encourage you to check out the “Constitutional Conversations” videos archived on the Fellowship website where leading scholars speak in short segments about constitutional history.

Recently, I was asked to don my scholarly hat and write an article on the Constitution for the Fellowship’s monthly newsletter to more than 1,000 recipients that span the continent and globe. My constitutional expertise is largely centered on the First Amendment, and recent events, including the progressive protest movement in solidarity against President Trump and his controversial policies and positions, along with the President branding the press as “enemies of the people,” have elevated its importance once more.

What follows is an excerpt from the article, but I encourage you to read it here at full length and perhaps to even integrate it into classroom instruction. Madison’s wisdom in writing it was prescient then as it is for his posterity.

The First Amendment is declarative in saying the “Congress shall make no law” respecting the five freedoms: religion, speech, press, assembly, and petition. There is a presumption against prior restraint on speech by government bodies unless it represents a grave danger to national security (see Near v. Minnesota, 1931, and New York Times v. U.S., 1971).

However, some speech can be punished after the fact if it falls within one of five categories. This includes “fighting words,” or spoken words that instigate violent reactions (see Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, 1942), and defamation, which in the case of a public figure, must rise to “actual malice.” It constitutes leveling knowingly false charges, or demonstrating a reckless disregard for the truth (see New York Times v. Sullivan, 1964).

Speech that incites danger, where there is imminence between a call to action and the act itself is also categorically unprotected (see Brandenburg v. Ohio, 1969), as is speech that represents a true threat (as distinguished from political hyperbole; see Watts v. U.S., 1969).

Finally, obscenity is unprotected, which is material that “appears to a prurient interest,” portrays sexual conduct in an offensive fashion according to state law, and has no artistic, literary, political or scientific value. In order to be considered obscene, it must meet all three parts of this test (see Miller v. California, 1971).

Teachers Still Processing 2016 Election Results with Students; Answers Remain Elusive

by Shawn Healy, PhD, Civic Learning Scholar

I spoke on Friday to a packed house at the 31st annual DuPage County Social Studies Conference held at Wheaton-Warrenville South High School. It’s the largest gathering of social studies teachers in the state (more than 800 registered this year) and an event I always look forward to attending.

As a teacher, I saw the DCSSC as one day a year when I got to be a student again. And as a presenter, it’s the one venue where all teachers are required to attend. It’s therefore an amazing opportunity to stand before a true cross-section of the local teaching profession.


Over the years, my best-attended sessions have been on elections and their aftermath, and last Friday’s was no exception. My guidance was broad, but I planned to unpack the 2016 Election results, lay out the current conditions for governance at the national and state level, and then pivot to engaging students in the policy making process. But I soon realized that some of these plans should be scrapped as I got a better sense of the reality that attendees are currently grappling with.

To me, November 9, 2016, felt similar to the aftermath of the 9-11 attacks in that many of our students were traumatized by the election results and we were collectively making sense of what transpired. This process took weeks, not days, and nearly four months removed, we’re still dealing with its aftershocks.

A couple of colleagues on Friday pushed back on my analogy, suggesting that while we had free license to call an audible and spend weeks on 9-11, the reverse was true for the 2016 Election. School principals asked that teachers return to the standard curriculum for fear of further stoking political tensions among students and their parents.

These unfortunate directives aside, I would suggest that social studies teachers are made for this moment. Our students are still processing what happened and many are in fear of the early policies that have emerged from the Trump White House. We are more qualified than anyone in their lives to help them navigate these choppy waters and hopefully assuage their concerns.

Beyond the question of how we objectively teach about President Trump, questions proliferated in my session about the 2016 election results and what they mean for the future. I answered them to the best of my ability, but many were elusive or warrant further empirical study. I’ll conclude by listing them here, and will proceed to answer them in subsequent posts.
  • What role did the media play in Trump’s rise in both the Republican primary and the general election? And was critical coverage more damaging to him or Hillary Clinton?
  • Young voters are more progressive yet less Democratic. And both parties are clearly in a state of ideological transformation. Is the time ripe for a third party to emerge that is more closely aligned with the ideology and policy agenda of youth?
  • How important was religiosity in the 2016 election? In the recent past, church attendance proved a strong predictor of party affiliation.
  • Are public opinion polls reliable in the age of smart phones and Trump?
  • How will a Congress led by free market Republicans work with an economically populist President of their own party? And will Republicans jump ship when/ if his approval ratings fall to Nixonian levels?
  • Will early signs of solidarity among progressives lead to electoral gains for Democrats akin to the Tea Party among Republicans in 2010 and beyond?
  • How should Democrats position themselves against unified Republican control in Washington? And how strongly should they contest the Supreme Court nomination of Neil Gorsuch?

Future of the First Amendment Forecast Partly Cloudy with the Chance for Rain

by Shawn Healy, PhD, Civic Learning Scholar

The Trump presidency has simultaneously inspired a new protest movement and galvanized a press corps labeled “enemies of the people.” Both rely on constitutional protections embedded in the First Amendment, and a recent survey sheds light on students’ perspectives on the importance of the “five freedoms.”

Independence Park (6315721106)

According to the 2016 survey funded by the Knight Foundation titled “Future of the First Amendment,” student support is at a ten-year high. Ninety-one percent of high school students agreed that “people should be able to express unpopular opinions,” up from 83% in 2004.

Students and their teachers differ when asked if the “First Amendment goes too far in the rights it protects.” While 56% of students answered in the affirmative, three-fourths of teachers (75%) took the same position.

Nearly two-thirds of students (64%) believe that freedom of speech should prevail over “protecting someone from being offended.” But a majority of students disagree that “people should be able to say what they want if it’s offensive to others…” in public (59.1%) and on social media (65.4%). Likewise, bullying in either venue garners little support (36% in public and 30% on social media).

Among those students supportive of the First Amendment “right to offend,” they are more likely to discuss news with others on social media, seek news on their mobile devices, and also to use online videos as a news source. It’s also interesting to note that there’s a gender divide when it comes to social media as a news source: females are much more likely to consume news here (58% versus 46%).

Most students (65%) believe that individuals have the same right to post photos, videos, or other documentation of a public event on social media as journalists, yet they are less likely to say that these parties should follow through with sharing such information publically (44% and 39%, respectively).

While a plurality of students (45%) find legacy media sources (TV and newspapers) more trustworthy than social media, 29% deem them equally trustworthy and more than a quarter (26%) lend more credence to social media. Their teachers, by comparison, are much more partial to legacy media sources (68% consider them more trustworthy).

All of this analysis considered, only a third of students personally think about First Amendment freedoms, whereas 35% take them for granted and 32% admittedly don’t know much about them. This leaves much work for us as educators while First Amendment freedoms are exercised and tested more acutely than any time since the Vietnam War and the Nixon presidency.