A Practical Guide to Service Learning

by Jennifer Conlon, Regional Teacher Mentor, North Cook County

Jennifer Conlon teaches Government, ESL through AP, at Maine East High School. She serves as the Regional Mentor for North Cook County. A former attorney and Congressional staffer, she enjoys making democracy accessible to all her students and is delighted to help others do the same. Over the past several years, she has worked to include service learning in her classes and to make simulations increasingly authentic. Jennifer has created a booklet to guide her students through a service-learning project. Jennifer introduces this resource below.

Teachers repeatedly indicate that service learning is the requirement of the new state civics statute they find most difficult to implement. There is a lot of helpful literature about this, too, from a taxonomy of participants to suggestions for service. Teachers want to give students agency and an authentic, reflective experience without overwhelming them. Like everyone else, I have been on a service learning journey and here is the result to date. Thanks to conferences, colleagues in my department and my district, and students in my classes, this is the most recent iteration. It's very simple. Students are grouped by topics for which they have expressed a preference. They develop a team name. They consider their issue, make a root cause tree, ask questions and research, then they plan for observations, civic participation, and political action to help resolve the problem. They make connections to curriculum and reflect on the process. They record all this in a booklet. When they turn it in completed, it is worth a set number of points. They like what it does for their grade and the sense of satisfaction it gives them. We like that it gets them engaged. I hope this works well for you.


To access Jennifer’s booklet to scaffold service learning, please visit the Lesson Plan resource page at illinoiscivics.org. Please post comments about what you find useful in this resource and any other materials you use to support service learning in your classroom.

In Search of Oases in Civic Deserts

by Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Democracy Program Director

Last week, I had the honor in participating in the National Conference on Citizenship in Washington, D.C. For the past decade-plus, the congressionally-chartered organization has published annual reports on the nation’s civic health. The McCormick Foundation has been a proud local partner, producing state and local civic health reports of our own, and also providing funding for this year’s national publication, Civic Deserts: America’s Civic Health Challenge.

Civic deserts are defined as “communities without opportunities for civic engagement” and are increasingly common in rural and urban areas alike. More broadly, our nation’s civic health is in a continued state of decline, posing existential threats to “our prosperity, safety, and democracy.”
  • A little more than a quarter of us (28%) belong to a group led by individuals we consider accountable and inclusive.
  • Large-scale civic institutions like political parties, labor unions, metropolitan daily newspapers (see Chart 9 below), and religious congregations continue to shrink. They formerly mobilized communities for civic and political purposes.
  • Declines in newspaper readership are coupled with plummeting trust in all forms of news media.
  • Volunteering rates have fallen from already low percentages, dropping from 30% in 2005 to 25% in 2015.

Per recent trends, this report places part of the blame for our civic deficits on the marginalization of civic learning in P-20 education. The authors (Matthew Atwell, John Bridgeland, and Peter Levine) point to the decline of civics course offerings, specifically problems of democracy classes, and recipient waning student performance on sporadic administrations of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in Civics. Even among the upper echelon of high school students, the percentage taking AP U.S. Government and Politics has declined precipitously over the last quarter century.


I encourage you to read the report in full for a comprehensive view of our contemporary civic health crisis, but will conclude by riffing from the “paths to civic renewal” provided by the authors, in particular their call to “increase access to and the quality of American history and civics education in the United States.”

This includes adoption of “rigorous state standards” as we have in Illinois, “meaningful assessments” (still work to do here), and coursework that features discussions of current and controversial issues and service learning (see our new high schools civics course requirement). Federal funding is also key, including the revival of the Teaching American History grant program, increased frequency of the NAEP Civics Assessment, and “disaggregated or state level data of the results.” The final recommendation parallels our own Democracy Schools Initiative, where schools that demonstrate deep commitments to civic learning and American history would receive “blue ribbon” federal recognition.

Embracing Diversity

by Mary Ellen Daneels, Lead Teacher Mentor

A few years ago, students in my class participated in Project Soapbox, a program sponsored by the Mikva Challenge in which students give a two to three minute speech in response to the prompt, “What is the biggest issue facing your community?” We heard heartfelt pleas to end bullying, respond to racial and religious discrimination, address the gender gap, and promote acceptance of the LGBTQ community. Each speech ended with a “call to action” that implored the audience to address the essential question, “How should we live together?”

The students and I invited administrators, police resource officers, school board members and county officials who worked with at-risk teens to listen and provide feedback to the speeches. The adults in the room valued the passionate, heartfelt pleas for change and encouraged the students to present their findings to the school board. The students did some further investigation and presented a six-point plan of action at a school board meeting. This resulted in policy changes, the development of a more comprehensive plan to address bullying and a new school touchstone created by the students to articulate what kind of school climate they wanted. The touchstone was created through student body input and now hangs in every classroom as a foundation of how all members of our school are to conduct themselves, in short, how we as school community should “live together.”

In crafting the school touchstone, the most animated conversation involved how we should respond to our “deepest differences”- the very topics that were highlighted in the Soapbox Speeches. Students considered using the word tolerance until one student exclaimed, “Well, I would not feel very good if someone told me they ‘tolerated’ what made me unique, I want them to EMBRACE DIVERSITY!”


The Illinois Civics requirement promotes the proven practice of current and controversial issue discussions in part to “embrace diversity.” It is only when we dialogue about our deepest differences that we can (as Shawn stated in a previous blog), “seek to understand the values that underlie often deeply personal contrasting beliefs through deliberative dialogue, with a commitment to identifying areas of agreement.”

There are many resources available to teachers to help students understand multiple perspectives on the most compelling questions facing our communities and promote purposeful discourse.
  • AllSides.com provides current events articles from multiple sources on the political spectrum.
  • ProCon.org provides lesson plans and primary sources related to controversial issues.
  • Deliberating in a Democracy provides Structured Academic Controversies on a multitude of issues, local to global. Many are in multiple languages.
  • The New York Times Upfront Magazine provides current and controversial deliberations monthly.
  • Teachers can sign up for the Student Government Affairs Program newsletter that curates a current events issue each month that culminates in proposed “informed action” that students can take.
Do you have any resources to share to help facilitate current and controversial issue discussions in the civics classroom? Please leave a comment to this blog. Together, we can prepare Illinois students for college, career and civic life.

Political Polarization No Longer the Sole Province of Elites

by Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Democracy Program Director

A decade ago, political scientists were deep in the throes of a debate over the extent to which political polarization was elite driven, or also represented throughout the population. The former argument acknowledged that the two political parties in Congress moved more decisively to the left and right, respectively, leaving a largely centrist public to choose between two polar choices.

Indeed, a young Illinois Senate candidate named Barack Obama dismissed the artificial divisions of “red” and “blue America” in the 2004 keynote at the Democratic National Convention in Boston.

Elected president four years later, Obama soon came to grips with conservative Republican opposition committed to limiting him to a single term in office. And this opposition was backed by the grass roots activism of the Tea Party. The left had its own counterpunch in the form of Occupy Wall Street, and the elite-only political polarization hypothesis has since been disproven.

Earlier this month, the Pew Research Center released a report that challenged age-old assumptions of the forces that shape our political views. Education and income were once decisive predictors, and a decade ago religiosity, or the frequency by which we worship, was correlated with partisan choice. More recently, race has been at the forefront of political debates with perhaps the second coming of the Civil Rights Movement paired with the politics of resentment of the white working class.

While these variables partly predict our political views, our party affiliation stands first and foremost.


This conclusion is a product of a survey capturing partisan views on ten selected economic and social issues.


Over the course of a 23-year period, significant, yet comparatively shallow partisan divides have become cavernous. Even on issues like the value of immigration to the country and tolerance for homosexuality where overall views have trended progressive, the gap between Democrats and Republicans have widened. And Republicans mistrust of government as a partner in resolving societal problems stands in stark contrast with Democrats’ more optimistic view.

These alarming data points affirm what many of us witness in daily debates that smack of tribalism. The question is where we go from here. We’ll have more to say about this in future posts, but it underlines once more the critical roles that teachers and schools play in students’ civic development.

As a citizenry we must understand where our beliefs lie on the political spectrum and the values that underlie them. We must also avoid caricatures of our “opponents,” seeking to understand the values that underlie often deeply personal contrasting beliefs. This can be achieved through deliberative dialogue, with a commitment to identifying areas of agreement. The latter can be the basis of seemingly elusive political compromise. Nothing less than the future of our republic depends on it.

Civic Participation is the Key to Understanding How Government Works

Steven Stukenberg is the Illinois Civics Teacher Mentor for DeKalb County. In this guest blog post, Steven shares his reflections on his role as a civic educator and how to help students “do government.”

My interest in political science came at a young age in my small hometown of Leaf River, Illinois (population 600). As I observed the involvement and sometimes aggravation of my father during his tenure as a school board member, I remember being impressed by how much influence he had in the policy of the school I attended. Through my high school and college education, I learned that our country is based on this type of participation in local, state and national government. Civic engagement and community involvement in the governmental system is what has made the United States one of the best countries in the world. As I guide my students through the government curriculum at Harry D. Jacobs High School (where I am enjoying my 22nd year as a social studies teacher), the importance of civic engagement is at the heart of every lesson.

The Illinois Civic mentor program has enhanced my core belief of the need and the importance of teaching Civic engagement. The lead teacher mentors in the Illinois Civic mentor program have shared various teaching strategies and learning techniques that have improved and enhanced my government classes.


Some specific examples of engaged learning techniques have challenged my students to understand how the government works. During our “Congress Role-play”, my students choose a US state to represent, a current issue to research and are asked to create a bill to present to the “mock Congress”. Before individual research begins on a curricular linked issue, the class participates in two student lead class activities. The “Root cause tree” (from the Mikva Challenge) lesson allows students to work together to comprehend the subtle complexities of the issues they chose. The “four corner” lesson (from Facing History and Ourselves) further engages the student in the class opinion on the issue. After these lessons are complete, the student will have a better approach to their research on the topic.

Once an individual student has completed their research, the student (upon acknowledgement from the “Speaker of the House”) will present their idea for a law to the “mock congress”. After the presentation of their idea, fellow student-legislators are encouraged to comment, question and amend the bill from their own perspective. Discussion (never debates) may last the whole class period on a single topic. Our classroom atmosphere is relaxed, respectful and open for uninhibited discussion. The class has been instructed to always respect different opinions. This last point is crucial. Consensus on issues is what makes our country prosper and what good citizens should strive for in our classroom, our cities, states and country.

As I have explained to my students, we are not only “learning government” but we also “doing government”. Role-play activities, critical issue discussion, and critical thinking strategies are just some of the strategies that have challenged my students to become actual participants in the democratic process. The current rise of social media, the dominance of cable news and the overall complexities of today’s political landscape has made the need for enlightened citizens necessary for our progress as a nation.

Opportunities to Promote the "Civic Good"

by Jason M. Artman, Illinois Civics Teacher Mentor

Jason M. Artman is a Social Studies teacher and Head Coach of Boys and Girls Soccer at Mendota High School. Jason serves as a civic mentor for LaSalle, Marshal and Putnam counties. In this guest blog post, Jason reflects on how his role as a civic educator shapes his larger identity and interactions in his community.

I guess if you believe in something enough and make it a part of everything you do, that becomes a part of your character, your identity. As the only civics teacher in a small school in a small community, what I do in the classroom is a large part of the identity I carry among my students and their parents, whether I am in the classroom, on the soccer field, or even in the local grocery store. Wearing many hats in a small community gives me the opportunity to see my students as many others may not. In addition to being a teacher and a coach, I am an active band parent, as my two daughters are proud members of our marching and concert bands.


Student involvement in extracurricular and co-curricular activities naturally produces students who grow accustomed to being a part of something larger than themselves. It builds a community of diverse participants and learners. My soccer players know that in order for the team to succeed, they have to share the ball, move together, defend together, and work toward a common goal, all despite another group of people actively working against them. Soccer adds the unique element that it is played nearly everywhere in the world, and different regions have different ways of playing. When I have students from diverse backgrounds (which is nearly always), they usually come to our team accustomed to one way of playing and have to be open to new ways of doing things. Our band students also know if all the sections, despite their different notes and tones, do not work together, they fail to sound appealing; if one person marches out of step, he can literally bring the entire performance to a halt.


Too often in today’s world we hear about sports dividing people; whether one person’s protest is another person’s disrespect is not the greater picture. The greater civic good and opportunity for civic discussion and action comes from the teamwork and membership that individuals share when they bond together despite any differences they have. That is our opportunity for civic action and civic learning. For me, it comes in the classroom. It comes on the soccer field. And it comes in the flute section.

Protest is Patriotic in Our Quest to Build a More Perfect Union

by Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Democracy Program Director

Like many of you, I’ve struggled to make sense of the national backlash against professional football players taking a knee during the playing of the National Anthem prior to kickoff. As a former player and coach, I understand the reverence for the flag long associated with the “Boys of Fall,” but also hold a healthy respect for the freedom of expression enshrined in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

From a technical standpoint, it’s important to note that the protests are not protected speech as the players work for a private employer, the National Football League (NFL), and their contracts require them to stand for the National Anthem. However, NFL owners have stood in solidarity with their players in light of President Trump’s disparaging remarks.

Taken at Lambeau Field by Kate Foran against the Chicago Bears on November 4th 2013 2013-11-29 00-17
By User:Nicky4180 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
(http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]

It should also be noted that former quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who originated the gesture a season ago to register his protest to the disparate treatment of people of color in this country, remains unemployed, yet seemingly qualified to fill an NFL roster spot.

Historic sports parallels have been repeatedly invoked in the past week, but a young boy named Billy Gobitas resurfaced in my mind. He was the Jehovah’s Witness punished for refusing to stand at school for the Pledge of Allegiance. In Minersville School District v Gobitis (1940; his last name was misspelled in the Court records), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the school district, declaring that interests of “national cohesion” trumped “the hierarchy of legal values,” thus allowing states “to promote in the minds of children who attend the common schools an attachment to the institutions of their country.”

The Court corrected itself just three years later in West Virginia v. Barnette (1943) after violence was perpetrated against conscientious objectors like Gobitas during the flag waving World War II era.

Writing for the majority, Justice Robert Jackson declared, “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion…”

Patriotism isn’t owned by one side of the ideological spectrum or political party. It can’t be force-fed or indoctrinated. Instead, it is the product of seeing the United States as it is: Land of the free? Yes. Home of the brave? Without doubt. But not without historic and contemporary flaws that demand acknowledgement and urgent action.

Patriotic rituals like reciting the Pledge of Allegiance or standing for the National Anthem facilitate an attachment to this ongoing experiment in republican democracy, but its depth comes through reconciling the ideals of the Revolution with the injustices carried out against racial and ethnic minorities, women, and other underrepresented groups throughout history. The truth is that protest is every bit as patriotic as these age-old rituals because it forces our nation to live up to the true meaning of its creed.

Regardless of whether we stand or kneel during the National Anthem, I would encourage us to adopt the sentiments attributed to Voltaire: "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."

In fact, I’d take it one step further: Consider the sources of consternation on both sides of this emotional debate, search for common ground, and get to work on collectively building a more perfect union.