Youth Media as a Means of Civic Development

by Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Democracy Program Director

Last week, I had the privilege of attending a meeting convened by the Center for Information Research on Civic Learning and Engagement titled “Youth, Media, and Civic Engagement in Local Contexts.” The meeting was supported by the Democracy Fund and hosted in Chicago by the McCormick Foundation and Mikva Challenge.

Wide-ranging conference discussions touched on a number of subjects, but centered on media’s role in youth civic development. This occurs in the context of local media ecosystems, some healthier and more diverse than others. And involves youth as both consumers and producers of news.

As a college instructor that guides students in creating issue campaigns for policy change, I am increasingly struck by the divergence in our respective media diets. Like many of you, mine is decidedly “old school,” as I have newspapers delivered to my door and read them cover-to-cover every day. While I sample in new media offerings on social media and via podcasts, they are often the product of legacy institutions (Washington Post, NPR, NBC News, etc.).

New media is the here and now for my and our students. Social media is ubiquitous, and they’re consuming news on platforms we may never access (see SnapChat). Some are quite sophisticated in their followings, pruning their feeds with an emphasis on quality and credibility. Others assume the attitude that if something important transpires in the news it will find them.

Regardless of our media diet, we are left with the basic question of how we develop a healthy appetite for news among students. Modeling our own consumption and incorporating current and controversial issues discussions into our classes is the age-old place to begin. But what does media outreach look like nowadays? Is there value in writing letters-to-the-editor or are we better served by tweeting directly at reporters and editorial boards? Alternatively, should students create their own media and disseminate it via social media?

Classroom integration of news literacy is critical, as are co- and extracurricular student media opportunities. Not only do student journalists benefit from the experience, but their peers that consume the final product also demonstrate long-term civic engagement benefits. Sadly, student media experiences are no longer universal, particularly in urban school systems like Chicago, but we do have a healthy non-profit youth media sector to train future journalists and amplify youth voice.

The youth media sector itself, student publications included, are vital components of a local media ecosystem. Beyond McCormick’s work in civic learning, we also support youth media and professional journalism in Chicago and Illinois. Most recently, we have explored the intersections of this work. News literacy is a vital component of civic learning. Civic learning is enhanced by youth media opportunities. In amplifying youth voice, the latter contribute to youth civic development as we move along the knowledge-engagement continuum.


Last week’s meeting was the first of many, and the thoughts articulated above are my own, but inspired by two days of engaging conversations. In this spirit, please share your own ideas about the intersection of news literacy, student/ youth media, and civic engagement.

The Icing on the Cake

by Mary Ellen Daneels, Lead Teacher Mentor

Cake seems to be a reoccuring theme in my social studies classroom. Marie Antoinette allegedly said, “Let them eat cake!” when confronted with information that her subjects were starving from lack of bread. Benjamin Franklin noted, “A great empire, like a great cake, is most easily diminished at the edges.” Who can forget the marble vs. layer cake analogy when teaching students about federalism? This week the United States Supreme Court served up another “slice” for classroom use when they heard oral arguments in Masterpiece Cakeshop vs.Colorado Civil Rights Commission.

Masterpiece Cakeshop is the “icing on the cake” of a year full of compelling court cases that can be used by classrooms to address essential questions related to power, freedom, justice and equality. By employing the proven practices of current and controversial issues discussions as well as simulations of democratic processes, teachers can facilitate student inquiry as prescribed by the new Illinois Social Studies standards that build both skills and deeper knowledge of the democratic institutions that scaffold our republic.

Here are some of my favorite resources to use when I have students examine the Judicial Branch of government.
What is missing from this list? Are their resources you can share to help students understand the court system? Please comment below. Together, we can prepare ALL students for college, career and civic life.

The Fifteen Days of Congress

by Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Democracy Program Director

A chaotic close to a political year like no other provides a yuletide feast of current events conversations in social studies classrooms. But an enterprising educator struggles with pairings and portions, and this post is intended to provide last-minute tips to help make sense of it all before we send students on their merry way.

Let’s begin with recent indictments against high-ranking Trump Administration and campaign officials. Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller is clearly working his way to the top, and congressional investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 election continue simultaneously. What the President knew and when/ if he knew it remain open questions likely to carry into the New Year and perhaps beyond. Yet echoes of Watergate and Iran Contra drum louder by the day, imperiling the Trump presidency and forcing us to revisit the succession plan for our nation’s highest office.

Other than the sometimes successful use of parliamentary tricks, including the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, Congress has mostly swung and missed despite unified Republican control of the three branches of national government. Efforts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act failed repeatedly, but the zombie repeal is still alive as part of the Senate’s tax reform legislation that passed early Saturday morning.

Given that the House and Senate tax bills vary in the volume and timing of tax relief to both individuals and corporations, a conference committee comes next. Its final product isn’t guaranteed to survive scrutiny of both bodies once more, as the needs of the Tea Party-inspired House Freedom Caucus must be balanced with the concerns of Senate moderates and wildcards like Susan Collins (ME), Bob Corker (TN), and Jeff Flake (AZ).

The content of the current legislation is a civics lesson in its own right. President Trump was notably elected in part to a coalition of rural, white, working-class workings, yet the prime beneficiaries of this bill are clearly the Republican donor class that pulled out all of its stops to deny him the Party’s nomination in early 2016. Congress clearly feels obligated to reward its benefactors heading into a midterm election year.

Also fascinating is the abandonment of commitment to deficit reduction by the GOP. A balanced budget was long core to the rhetorical plank of the Party, yet the current legislation is projected to add $1 trillion to the national debt over the next decade, even with increased economic growth considered.

Speaking of the debt, the ceiling is set to expire once more, and Republicans will need to rely on some Democratic votes to raise the borrowing limit on the nation’s credit card in order to avoid default. Both sides will attempt to extract unrelated concessions, including funding for a border wall by President Trump and permanent protections for DREAMers among Democrats. Finally, should the ACA mandate be repealed under the guise of tax reform, look for bi-partisan discussions of price supports for the insurance industry to control rising health insurance premiums that would drive millions out of the private market.

Better to be in the classroom than Congress with only 15 school days remaining before holiday break. Here’s hoping this cliff notes version of the compressed political calendar keeps you one (or many) steps ahead of students with sugar plums dancing in their heads.