Teach Our Children Well

by Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Democracy Program Director

If anyone ever questioned the value of civics and the importance of preparing young people for democracy in a racially and ethnically heterogeneous republic, these detractors learned a harsh lesson last weekend in our perpetual quest to build a more perfect union. Saturday’s tragic and deeply unsettling events in Charlottesville should challenge our collective conscience and force us to reflect on our failure to educate the (mostly) young men that invoked historic symbols of hatred to terrorize those confronting their deeply offensive rhetoric and actions through constitutionally-protected channels.


Civic education has many benefits, but at its core is a goal to develop the capacity, connections, and commitments necessary for informed, effective, and lifelong engagement in our democracy. This includes the obvious norms of voting, volunteering, contacting public officials, and paying attention to the news, but also a shared sense of community and commitment to a common destiny for an America that has forever promised the “golden door” to the “tired,” “poor,” and “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

The truth is that we have too often failed to deliver on this promise in a nation that marginalized and virtually exterminated Native Americans, enslaved millions of African-Americans, excluded and detained Asian-Americans, and abused and made second-class citizens of Latino-Americans. These narratives, and the legacies of our original sins, haunt us and our nonwhite brothers and sisters to this day.

But we must follow in the footsteps of Martin Luther King, Jr. and bend the arc of history towards justice. This begins by confronting historic and contemporary racial and ethnic discrimination in our classrooms. Once this powerful evidence is burned deeply into the minds of our youth, we move next to not mere tolerance of difference, but an outright embrace of its social and democratic value. These are among the dispositions essential to the survival of the American experiment.

Citizenship in this country conventionally ends with norms of personal responsibility: paying the bills, taking out the garbage, and casting a ballot in presidential election years. Civic education frequently pushes further and injects participatory norms like volunteering on a campaign, contacting an elected official, and writing a letter to the editor of a local newspaper. These actions are valuable, but still minimalistic during times like these that test our democratic institutions and try the souls of our nation.

What’s missing is a commitment to social justice, particularly among Caucasian Americans that have long benefited from the privilege of their skin color. The events of the past weekend and the election of President Trump last November stand as existential threats to our black and brown family members, friends, students, co-workers, and fellow citizens. And the rise of the so-called alt-right also terrorizes Jewish-Americans as they wield symbols and salutes that society vowed to never surface again.

We must teach our children that there is no moral equivalence between those that intend to discriminate and invoke harm on the basis of race, ethnicity, or religion and those that confront hatred, bigotry, and deeply-seeded racism. That tolerance of diversity is insufficient, as the entrenched impact of centuries of overt and implicit racism must be extracted by the root. That times like these compel us to be “upstanders” for fellow citizens and residents of this country.

Moments like the present are our reason for being as civic educators. Our ranks are disproportionately white in a state where a majority of our K-12 students are black and brown. All of our students are watching what’s transpiring in this country, and they will look to you to help them make sense of it all. Educate them on historic and contemporary racism, empower them to confront it through words and actions, and join them in our perpetual quest to make America live up to its founding creed, that “all men (and women) are created equal.”

In Search of a Symbiotic Relationship Between Parents and Teachers in Supporting Youth Civic Development

by Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Democracy Program Director

As a young boy, I developed an early interest in politics, thanks in part to the influence of my parents and grandparents. I recall my father bringing me along to the voting booth, my paternal grandmother taking two newspapers each day and faithfully watching gavel-to-gavel coverage of the party conventions, and my maternal grandmother meeting with her alderman at the kitchen table.

Now, with two kids of my own, I’ve tried my very best to pass the torch, modeling these same behaviors and demonstrating my daily commitment to strengthening democracy in Illinois through my work at the McCormick Foundation, teaching at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and service on a number of nonprofit boards.


Last week, as part of the 2017 Summer Convening of the Action Civics Initiative in Philadelphia, I was asked to participate in a Facebook Live session sponsored by Pearson to discuss how parents can support the diffusion of action civics principles (read the summary article here). They center upon student voice; deliberative discussion; real world interaction with local leaders, officials, and systems; and support for teachers and instructors through professional development opportunities, materials, and favorable policies.

The Guardian of Democracy report published by the Campaign for the Civic Mission of schools recommends that “parents…encourage their children to develop an interest in keeping themselves informed about current events; encourage their children to take an interest in and volunteer in their community; and help their children develop civic knowledge, skills, and habits.”

Guardian of Democracy also encourages parents to “…review civic learning opportunities in children’s schools,” a practice we’ve institutionalized at the McCormick Foundation through the Illinois Democracy Schools Initiative. Through a school-wide civic assessment process, students, teachers, administrators, community partners, and parents are asked to weigh in on their support for students’ civic learning opportunities and sense of the organizational culture at the school undergirding them.

Nationally, too many high school civics teachers (one in four according to the Center for Information Research on Civic Learning and Engagement) believe that parents or community members would object if political issues were discussed in their classrooms. When it comes to teaching about elections, only 28% of these educators feel that parents would provide strong support for this practice. This support is critical because teachers that have it are more likely to have open classroom environments and deploy deliberative practices.

According to researchers Michael McDevitt and Mary Caton-Rosser, “High school students…seem to thrive when teachers do feel they have enough community support to allow for (these types) of interaction.” Parents and teachers both clearly have a role to play in fostering students’ civic development and it should be seem as a “symbiotic,” not adversarial, relationship. The authors suggest that “…teachers…become more proactive in finding ways to enlist parents as partners in democratic education.”

To this end, McDevitt and Spiro Kiousis, in two separate articles, examine the interplay of students, parents, and schools in the political socialization process. In asking students to discuss elections-related news with parents, the authors find that "…Student-initiated conversation seems to awaken the civic parent in an adult, a role identity that might otherwise remain dormant…”

In sum, “The civic parenting phenomenon can be thought of as a mirror reflection of trickle up influence as the flow of influence moves in the opposite direction, from families to schools, with the child once again acting as a conduit for interpersonal political communication between the two parties."

More specifically, “Student-parent discussion appears to elevate the social utility or social value of paying attention to news media, and this increased motivation is not simply a fleeting effect.”

Thus, this symbiotic relationship between parents and school-based civic learning has mutual benefits for student and parent alike. It bears nurturing beyond teaching about elections and deliberative discussion, encompassing all of the action civics principles discussed above.

A Reflection on the NAMLE Conference

by Jay Mehta, English Teacher, Wheaton North High School

The power of a conference lies in the hands of an educator. Sharing information and connecting with professionals from around the world is an opportunity the NAMLE (National Association for Media Literacy Education) Conference 2017 in Chicago provided everyone who attended the 3-day conference. As an English teacher and as guest of the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, I was fortunate enough to attend all 3 days of the conference. I found educators in all realms of the professional world and collaborated with them on various ideas and projects.

At first, I did not know such a plentiful variety of educators would attend the conference, but once presentations began I quickly filled up my notebook with copious amounts of ideas I could use in the classroom. Each presentation centered around research and practical methods of energizing students to take an active voice in their society. No matter your opinion, use your voice in media through an ethical manner in order to express your opinion - that was the consistent theme in every presentation. The notes jotted down in my notebook will mold the curriculum I have began to devise for my English classes. I have never had more methods to involve students in the learning process outside of school than before the NAMLE conference.


The message of involving student voice did not begin and end within each presentation. The board of the NAMLE conference arranged guest speakers during breakfast and lunch, which included Patricia Carter (Head of Global Safety Outreach, Twitter), Newton Minow (former FCC chair and recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom), Aine Kerr (Manager, Journalism Partnerships, Facebook), etc. Listed are only a few of many contributors to the educational aspect of the conference and I am glad I could take note of their ideas of how to support student involvement in the media within the ever-changing area of “media literacy”, in which each individual has a responsibility to source-check any information before simply reposting it or discussing it for others to believe without evidence. The guest speakers were able to converse amongst each other and give the audience an insight of the struggles that each organization faces with educating the public about “media literacy”.

Overall, NAMLE Conference 2017 provided me with a plethora of ideas to build upon during my educational career, connections with colleagues I will utilize to strengthen the ability of my students being able to take an activity voice in society through “media literacy”, and new perspectives on what “media literacy” means in today’s society. Thank you to the Robert R. McCormick foundation for the sponsorship and to the organizers and presenters at the NAMLE 2017 Conference - I hope to see you next year.