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

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.