How NOT to Avoid "Talking Politics"

by Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Democracy Program Director

Last Tuesday, I had the honored of speaking at a community forum in Chicago’s 47th Ward sponsored by partner and grantee Facing History and Ourselves. It was titled “How NOT to Avoid ‘Talking Politics’,” and my remarks are excerpted below.


According to Hill’s Manual of Social and Business Forms, a guide to writing and etiquette from 1879, we should “…not discuss politics or religion in general company. You probably would not convert your opponent, and he will not convert you. To discuss those topics is to arouse feeling without any good result.”

Today’s program will test the wisdom of this time-honored adage.

The truth is that most of us don’t discuss politics at all, and when we do it’s with people that share similar ideological views. These like-minded conversations can lead to ideological amplification, where there is even less diversity in political opinions on the issues of the day post-deliberation.

Consider an experiment conducted in Colorado where liberal residents of Boulder and conservative residents of Colorado Springs were assembled to discuss global warming, affirmative action, and civil unions for same-sex couples. Not only was there more consensus on these issues within groups, anonymous statements by individual members reflected more extreme views.

And these scenarios are liked replicated every day in the 47th Ward, City of Chicago, selected suburbs, and most certainly downstate. Bill Bishop first made the case that we’re sorting ourselves ideologically by where we choose to live in a widely cited 2008 book, The Big Sort. There he documented the growth in landslide counties that favored one presidential candidate over the other by more than 20 percentage points. While they were scant in the fiercely fought 1976 election between Carter and Ford, they multiplied seven cycles later in the narrow 2004 Bush victory over Kerry.

Landslide counties have proliferated over the last quarter century; and it won’t surprise you that these trends only continued in 2016, where a full 60% of all counties now fall in this category.

Republicans won 9 times as many of these counties as Democrats, but the latter have an iron grip on big cities like Chicago. And Illinois is not immune from these trends in ideological polarization. Previously you count on diehard Democrats in Chicago and rock-ribbed Republicans in the surrounding suburbs, with statewide elections swinging on the up-for-grabs downstate vote. Chicago remains a constant and downstate is now bright red with the exception of university towns and East St. Louis. The suburbs are the one place where there’s a politically heterogeneous population.

Read the entire speech.

The McCormick Foundation Salutes Civic Learning Legend Sharon Smogor

by Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Democracy Program Director

Today marks the end of a teaching career that has spanned 43 years and sparked the civic development of generations of students. Carmel Catholic High School Social Studies Teacher Sharon Smogor is set to retire, and it’s with mixed emotions that I write this tribute to her legacy in Illinois’ civic learning lore.


Sharon’s involvement with the McCormick Foundation preceded my own. She was a member of the teacher advisory council convened by the Bill of Rights Institute to help develop the Freedom Museum and design a curriculum that complimented student visits. The Museum opened in 2006 and served thousands of students in its three years of operation. The exhibit was later adapted to a mobile museum, Freedom Express, that traveled to schools throughout Chicagoland, Carmel Catholic included.

Since 2006, the McCormick Foundation has provided professional development opportunities for Illinois teachers, and Sharon was a staple in demonstrating “Monday morning lesson plans” for teachers to emulate shortly thereafter.

Sharon later led Carmel Catholic’s successful Illinois Democracy Schools recognition process during the 2010-2011 school year. In seven years of overseeing the program, I have yet to see a more comprehensive analysis of students’ civic learning opportunities and the organizational culture of a school that undergirds them. Yet Sharon was never an army of one, building administrative support for her school’s civic mission and mentoring younger colleagues in its continuous pursuit.

Sharon wrote a vignette on her school’s Democracy Schools journey for the Illinois Civic Blueprint, no doubt inspiring the 43 schools throughout the state that have since completed the recognition process and joined the Democracy Schools Network.

More than anything, Sharon Smogor is a remarkable civic educator. Her students move beyond the hymnals of democracy to consistently practice its instruments. They played critical roles in passage of “Suffrage at 17,” establishment of the Illinois Task Force on Civic Education, and later legislation requiring a high school civics course in all Illinois public schools.

What a civic learning legacy she leaves. The state’s civic learning community, and the generations of students and teachers she so positively influenced, are forever indebted.

I’ll close with a quote from Sharon that summarizes her calling as a civics teacher, words that speak to the urgency of the work that we will continue to carry forward, no doubt with Sharon among our ranks. Sharon is a woman of action more so than of words, but she speaks with candor and earnestness. Sharon is sincerely respected and simply adored.

All of us, regardless of our professions, are citizens and members of our communities and the knowledge, skills, and attitudes of effective citizenship are skills for life. The success of our representative democracy is dependent upon informed, engaged, and responsible citizens.

Review: You're More Powerful Than You Think

by Shawn Healy, PhD, Democracy Program Director

Thanks to our friends at the Chicago Community Trust, fellow supporters of the #CivicsIsBack Campaign, we were invited to a program featuring Eric Liu and his new book, You’re More Powerful Than You Think, at the Chicago Cultural Center last month.


I’ve had the privilege of knowing and working with Eric for the past several years through his leadership of the Civic Collaboratory, self-described as a national “trans-partisan” group broadly committed to civic empowerment. Civic education has long had a seat at the table, and Eric has lent his hand specifically to promoting “action civics,” best embodied locally by the Mikva Challenge.

You’re More Powerful Than You Think contains a number of important lessons transferrable to the civics classroom.

Power lies at its center, and is defined as “...the capacity to ensure that others do as you would want them to do.” Liu then pivots to three power axioms:
  • “Power concentrates”
  • “Power justifies itself”
  • “Power is infinite”
As we engage students in a process of civic inquiry, an assessment of the status of power in our communities, states, country, and world is a critical place to begin. Who has power? And how do they justify wielding it to the detriment of others?

As they examine government institutions and other entrenched sources of power, students understand what they are up against in their quest to effect positive change. But as educators we cannot allow their journeys to end here, because power is indeed infinite and contrary to conventional wisdom, our students hold latent political power in spades.

Student voice should be honored in our classrooms, hallways, and auditoriums. These venues must serve as platforms for students to flip the script of concentrated power that justifies itself. Storytelling is an incredibly effective tool as students paint a picture for a better world, use stories as an organizing principle, and construct fables illustrating the fight for what’s right.

Liu’s book is inspirational in stringing together inclusive stories of civic engagement that span age, race, ethnicity, class, geography, and ideology. Yet young people emerge as frequent heroes, including #BlackLivesMatter, the DREAMers, and even a conservative campus coalition supportive of concealed carry.

While most of the book is devoted to the what and how of power, Liu concludes with the why, an important lesson in civic virtues. As we engage our students in the process of examining and ultimately contesting the existing power structure, we must also emphasize the importance of acting with integrity. Their advocacy should also be inclusive and serve a cause greater than self-interest.

Building and Executing an Implementation Plan for New Illinois Social Science Standards

by Shawn Healy, PhD, Democracy Program Director

Since the inception of our #CivicsIsBack Campaign to support implementation of the new high school civics course requirement, the emerging Illinois Social Science Standards have served as a backdrop to this work. Specifically, the grades 9-12 civics strand frames the content and pedagogy to be used in the stand-alone, semester-long course.

Yet the standards are K-12 in scope and span the social sciences, including economics, financial literacy, geography, and history. With official implementation set for this coming fall, we have our work cut out for us in leveraging an opportunity to return the social sciences to their rightful seat at the core content table. The standards also promise to transform teaching from didactic instruction to student-directed inquiries, ultimately resulting in students communicating conclusions and taking informed action.

Thankfully, the McCormick Foundation is not alone in this work, as the standards were written by a teacher-led task force that is already in the field training teachers on their use both in their own schools and districts and regionally. Moreover, the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) has created the Classrooms in Action portal to support implementation, offering a series of guiding documents, video tutorials, and a catalogue of organizations poised to further support teaching and learning. ISBE also offers a mix of in-person and online professional development on the new standards and related inquiry arc.

Districts and regional offices themselves have organized around standards implementation. In the case of the former, teachers and curriculum leaders from suburban Chicago school districts convene regularly to compare notes and learn from invited experts. They are set to meet again next Thursday, May 18, in Algonquin.


ISBE has trained professional development providers within the state’s regional offices of education, and we’ve partnered with two (West Cook and DuPage) to offer day-long trainings for K-8 teachers. The DuPage training is scheduled for June 8 and seats remain open for this free workshop led by two teachers that served on our standards task force.

While there is no shortage of activity around standards implementation, the need among teachers, schools, and districts is acute. The aforementioned stakeholders, plus nonprofit organizations that provide professional development to social studies teachers, met in Normal last month to catalogue existing activities, identify remaining needs, and lay the seeds for a more comprehensive plan to address them.

Future posts will flesh this plan out further, but three primary professional development needs were identified:
  • Unpacking the standards. Awareness of the new standards, the embedded inquiry arc, and the process by which they were created varies, and this is a necessary first step for implementation.
  • Aligning current curriculum and practice with the new standards. For many teachers, the new standards represent a paradigm shift. For others, the pivot will be more subtle.
  • Presenting standards-aligned resources and demonstrate how to use them in full scope and sequence. Our nonprofit professional development partners will prove particularly helpful here.

With Challenges Come Opportunities to Advance Civic Learning

by Shawn Healy, PhD, Democracy Program Director

Earlier this week, I had the honor of attending and presenting at the Civics Education Leadership Team Meeting convened by the Council on State Governments (CSG) in Lexington, KY. In partnership with the National Center for Learning and Civics Engagement, CSG brought together representatives of all three branches of government from states throughout the country, including Illinois Representative Elgie Sims (D-Chicago); state civic education advocacy leaders; and experts on youth civic development (see the agenda and list of attendees).

Rep. Elgie Sims speaks at the Civics Education Leadership Team Meeting


A panel presentation by Center for Information Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) Director of Impact Abby Kiesa struck a chord with me and is the basis of today’s post.

Abby identified four challenges and parallel opportunities in the civic education space.
  1. Last week, CIRCLE released a new national index of county-level youth civic engagement opportunities. It is searchable by state and provides information on local educational attainment, the frequency of competitive elections, potential youth influence on elections, overall quality of life measures, and finally, a rating of community civic culture. Even among Illinois’ 102 counties there is significant variation and this speaks to Abby’s first identified challenge. In turn, through state policy we can achieve scale and help reduce the “civic empowerment gap” evident in these ratings.
  2. Civic education is broadly defined and there is not a one-size-fits-all model for youth civic development. In this fog lies opportunity as we can tie civic learning outcomes with college and career readiness metrics. Moreover, important civic skills like news literacy fall under this umbrella. And finally, civics can latch on to the microcredentialing movement to recognize students’ acquisition of the knowledge and skills necessary for informed, effective engagement in our democracy.
  3. The field of civic education has a tendency to focus obsessively with the knowledge side of the equation, neglecting civic skills, attitudes, and behaviors. Thankfully, we have an extensive body of research that paints a broader picture of civic competencies. Additionally, because civics is infrequently tested at the state level, our field has an opportunity to design and implement more authentic forms of assessment that allow students to demonstrate the whole of their civic personas.
  4. Finally, policy implementation is an underappreciated and poorly funded endeavor. Yet I can speak to our own experiences in Illinois in outlining the art of the possible, and future frontiers include more comprehensive exposure among pre-service teachers to civic content and best practices in civic education, along with the prospect of microcredentialing in-service teachers as they achieve mastery in facilitating controversial issues discussions or students’ service-learning projects.