Do You Have 19 for 19?

by Mary Ellen Daneels, Lead Teacher Mentor

While the last remaining days of 2018 are slipping away and many of us are looking forward to a well-deserved holiday break — the end of the year also marks a time of new beginnings. The new year brings with it a fresh start and resolutions for improvement both in and out of the classroom.


One of my favorite non-civics-related podcasts is “Happier”, hosted by bestselling author Gretchen Rubin and her sister, T.V. writer Elizabeth Craft. I find the podcast gives me practical tips to embrace habits that help me be, well, “happier” in both work and play. On their most recent podcast, they reflected on their resolutions for 2018 and started creating their “19 for 19” — a list of 19 items they would like to complete upcoming year. As you contemplate the new year, what is on your list? Are there new strategies related to the proven practices of civic education you would like to try? Is there a new lesson plan you would like to explore? How about some “attitude adjustments”? If you need some inspiration, here are some samples, both serious and silly.
We would love to hear what makes your 19 for 19 list. Please comment below. Together, we can prepare students for college, career and civic life.

Teach like our democracy depends on it — because it does: #NCSS18 recap

by Mary Ellen Daneels, Lead Teacher Mentor

Earlier this fall, I was part of a conference put on by Dr. Diana Hess, the Dean of Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The conference t-shirts read, “Teach like our democracy depends on it — because it does.” The recent 98th Annual National Council for the Social Studies conference held in Chicago highlighted this message throughout.

IllinoisCivics.org and the Department of Social Science and Civic Engagement at Chicago Public Schools hosted a special strand of Illinois programming around “Inquiry as Engagement: Connecting Across Differences” had the message, <strong>“Engage students like our democracy depends on it — because it does.”</strong> Session attendees learned how deliberation, student voice, and informed action can be leveraged to connect classrooms across cultural, geographic, and socioeconomic differences in this diverse state to promote culturally sustainable teaching.

The day concluded with the first ever Better Arguments Project sponsored by Allstate, the Aspen Institute, and Facing History and Ourselves. Eric Liu from Citizen University led the Better Arguments workshop and modeled classroom tools teachers can use to engage students in critical conversations around compelling questions that face our communities.


#CivicsIsBack teachers had a plethora of workshop sessions to choose from at #ncss18. If you were unable to attend, visit the NCSS Conference web site where members can access materials from conference presentations. Here are a few to start with:
Were you at #ncss18 this year? What were your favorite sessions? What did you learn? Please comment below. Together, we can prepare students for college, career and civic life.

Scholastic Journalism Endangered in Chicago and Other Underresourced Districts

by Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Democracy Program Director

On November 1-4, 2018, the Journalism Education Association hosted its semiannual convention in Chicago. More than 6,000 student journalists and their advisers attended, including a cohort of Chicago Public Schools students and teachers sponsored by the Chicago Scholastic Press Association, an affiliate of Roosevelt University and longtime McCormick Foundation grantee. Sessions were standing room only and enlivened by enthusiastic student journalists. However, the lack of racial diversity among conference attendees was stunning, especially in a city where students of color compose 90% of CPS’ enrollment, not to mention a majority of K-12 students statewide.

Scholastic journalism is vital to the civic mission of our schools and serves as an important pipeline into the journalism profession, where people of color are also vastly underrepresented. The 2011 Scholastic Journalism Census produced by the Center for Scholastic Journalism at Kent State (OH) University found that schools with student media had an average minority population of 35%, while those without media programs are majority nonwhite (average of 56% students of color; see below). Similar inequities surface for schools serving a majority of students receiving free or reduced price lunch.


Kent State intends to replicate the study in 2019, and I fear that scholastic journalism has lost further ground in the intervening decade, particularly in urban schools. My analysis of CPS’ course enrollment numbers for journalism courses reveals that only 30.1% (28 of 93) district high schools offer a course in journalism, print and/ or broadcast. When yearbook is added, the percentage jumps to 39.8% (37 of 93 schools). Yet only 1,038 students enrolled in these courses during the 2017-2018 school year, less than 1% of CPS’ high school student body of 107,352.

It’s likely that some CPS schools offer student media as an extracurricular-only option. This is of course better than nothing, but there is significant drop-off in the percentage of students that participate in extracurricular activities. Participation is also highly inequitable by race, where white and Asian students are much more likely to participate in extracurricular activities than their Black and Latinx peers.

We must do more to strengthen, resuscitate, and/ or reimagine student media in urban and underresourced schools. Some promising efforts already underway include:
  • McCormick youth media grantees Free Spirit Media and Yollocalli Arts Reach partner with teachers at CPS schools and offer channels for public dissemination of student journalism.
  • Loyola University’s School of Communications works with Senn and Sullivan High Schools on Chicago’s North Side to operate a storefront news bureau reporting on hyper-local news in Rogers Park and Edgewater.
  • And Medill Media Teens brings together Northwestern undergraduate journalism majors and CPS high school students every Saturday at Medill’s downtown campus for a distinctive mentoring experience that focuses on journalism production and media awareness. Students receive extensive training on writing, reporting, and multimedia storytelling.
These pockets of excellence, alongside the 28 CPS schools with journalism courses, offer promise. The task before us is to achieve districtwide scale parallel to the success of CPS’ civic engagement initiative, and we have found a willing partner in the Office of Social Science and Civic Engagement. We’ll be sure to keep you apprised of our progress, and invite your support as we simultaneously seek to promote equitable youth civic development and a healthy, representative local media ecosystem.

Celebrating Novinquiry with #sschat

by Mary Ellen Daneels, Lead Teacher Mentor

Every Monday from 6-7 p.m., social studies teachers from across the nation gather on Twitter to deliberate essential questions related to their craft on #sschat. The #sschat facilitators have declared this month “Novinquiry” as all discussions are designed to support student centered inquiry in the classroom.

IllinoisCivics.org joined Facing History and Ourselves and Chicago Public Schools Social Science and Civic Engagement Department to kick off Novinquiry hosting a chat on the topic of “Inquiry as Engagement: Connecting Across Differences” The seven questions that scaffolded the discussion were:
  1. What does a great current and controversial issue discussion that engages students across differences look like, feel like and sound like?
  2. What are your “go to” resources for inquiry that prepares students for these conversations?
  3. What do we gain from difference in the classroom? What do we lose without it?
  4. What would you say to a teacher that avoids controversies in the classroom because they fear being perceived as being too political?
  5. How do you move students towards better arguments: From arguing to win, to deliberating for a shared, better understanding?
  6. How do we find opportunities for difference in our classrooms when we are geographically and politically polarized?
  7. How do we honor students’ identities and lived experiences within the inquiry process?
As an educator, I value the opportunity to use #sschat to enhance my own practice with candid discourse around the opportunities and challenges of being a social studies teacher in the 21st century. The exchange to the right is just a snippet of the conversations and connections that occur each week. Participants share wonderings, successes, struggles, and most importantly, strategies and resources—the best kind of PD!

You can visit an archive of the chat to learn more and see the responses to the questions.

You can continue celebrating “Novinquiry” at the National Council of the Social Studies Annual Conference at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Chicago November 30th-December 2nd. There is a special strand of programming on November 30th designed to support K-12 educators in implementing the new Illinois Social Science Standards and high school civic education requirement.

The day will begin with and opening plenary hosted by Dr. Diana Hess to address the opportunities and challenges in engaging students in dialogue in an era of political polarization. Workshop sessions that follow will highlight how deliberation, student voice and informed action can be leveraged to connect classrooms across cultural, geographic, and socio-economic differences to promote culturally sustainable teaching. The day will conclude with Eric Liu from Citizen’s University hosting the first ever Better Arguments Project in conjunction with Facing History and Ourselves and the Aspen Institute. For more information on this strand of learning, visit the online guidebook.

How are you celebrating “Novinquiry?” Please comment below. Together, we can prepare all students for college, career and civic life.

Review: Why Learn History (When It's Already on Your Phone)

by Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Democracy Program Director

For the last four years, the McCormick Foundation has been privileged to partner with Sam Wineburg and his colleagues at the Stanford History Education Group (SHEG) to develop “critical online literacy” assessments. An offshoot of the category-leading work SHEG has done with “Reading Like a Historian” and its related assessments, the critical online literacy research attracted significant national attention in the aftermath of the 2016 Election and rise of the now ubiquitous term “fake news.”

Wineburg recounts this work within a larger, book-length narrative about the current challenges of teaching history titled Why Learn History (When It’s Already on Your Phone) [University of Chicago, 2018]. He begins by documenting century-long concerns about the lack of historical knowledge among our youth and the population as a whole. In modern times, the sporadic National Assessment of Education Progress in History reveals low levels of historical proficiency among students, results designed by modern tests to produce a predictable distribution of results.

These tests, and our obsession with declarative knowledge about history and civics, distract us from more meaningful ways to teach and learn about history. It’s true that the modern textbook, while more inclusive than in the past, provides superficial, even inaccurate, accounts of history, and it remains central to many current classrooms. Some teachers have experimented with alternative accounts of history like Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States (Harper & Row, 1980), but Wineburg is sharp in his critique of Zinn’s own one-sided and empirically-thin tome.

The key, according to Wineburg, isn’t to seek truth through a plethora of ideological and superficial sources, but instead engage students in the process of historical thinking and debate through examination of primary documents and accounts of pivotal events. SHEG has gained incredible traction among social studies teachers using this approach, and the pivot to critical online literacy is natural given that history (and seemingly everything that is knowable) is “Googled.”

The challenge of teaching history in the Information Age centers on discerning the accuracy of sources accessible in a millisecond at the command of our fingertips. It’s true that students are digital natives and have mastered the intuitive features of their handheld devices. The natural reaction of teachers who are a generation or two older is admiration and delegation. But we mistakenly conflate students’ digital prowess with their ability to scrutinize the sources they are encountering.

SHEG’s critical online literacy assessments are helpful to this end and have since been integrated into the work of media literacy organizations like the Center for News Literacy in partnership with Maine East High School in Park Ridge, IL. SHEG is also busy designing a curriculum to assist teachers with classroom instruction called MediaWise. It will be tested in partnership with the Poynter Institute in classrooms across the country in the coming months.

Teacher professional development has long been central to the McCormick Foundation’s work in Illinois to strengthen school-based civic learning, and we plan to recommend a grant to SHEG in February to develop online teacher professional development modules for dissemination of the MediaWise curriculum.

Wineburg’s book is a must-read for social studies teachers and other educators seeking to integrate media literacy across the curriculum. The parallel work he oversees at SHEG is also of utmost importance and should be immediately considered for classroom adoption. Perhaps ironically, historians have a great deal to offer in helping to navigate the Information Age. Tried and true tactics of multiple, primary source scrutiny translate incredibly well to the digital domain.

Civic Renewal Transcends Two Parties, Takes Root in Local Communities

by Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Democracy Program Director

At the conclusion of the most divisive midterm election in memory, “Blue America” is riding a state of ballot-driven euphoria, while “Red America” licks its wounds and prepares for its next battle in two years. Election 2018, like those of the previous quarter century, falls into the fractured paradigm framed by Mark Gerzon in his 2016 book The Reunited States of America, where “liberals are right, and if elected, will strengthen America.” The 1994, 2000, 2004, 2010, 2014, and 2016 elections reversed this tired narrative, substituting “conservative” for “liberal.”

These winner-solves-all mantras have instead produced policy paralysis and political polarization at levels unseen since the Civil War. For 2018 to represent a departure, Tuesday’s victors and all citizens must instead embrace the precept that “Americans can work together with people different than (them)selves to find common ground that can strengthen the country we all love.”

The Illinois #CivicsIsBack Campaign and our long-standing Democracy Schools Initiative have embraced this latter promise through offering students equitable exposure to best practices in civic learning, including current and controversial issues discussions and simulated democratic processes. Mary Ellen wrote just last week about civics classrooms as the local for conversations on how we live together.

Early returns for students taking the new required civics course offer strong evidence that students embrace Gerzon’s preferred third path. Across racial and ethnic groups, a strong majority of students surveyed last spring agreed or strongly agreed with the notion that by working with others in the community, they could affect positive change (see Figure 1 below).

Figure 1: By working with others in the community, we can help make things better 
(percent agree/ strongly agree)


While dysfunction and stalemate characterize the policy environment in Washington and many state capitals, Springfield included, signs of democratic revival spring eternal at the local level. James and Deborah Fallows penned a marvelous tome titled Our Towns that documents their four-year journey to cities across the fruited plain. In places as geographically and politically polar as Burlington, VT, and Greenville, SC, they find common elements of a better future that disavows our toxic national political discourse and instead embraces our founding creed of e pluribus unum.

These local revitalization efforts are led by local champions the Fallows label “patriots", a plethora of public-private partnerships that embody the best elements of progressive and conservative positions relative to these two sectors, and a common local narrative of civic revival. These cities have revitalized downtowns, are often home to research universities and/ or community colleges and innovative K-12 schools, are welcoming to new residents, and have big plans for continued evolution and growth. Deborah Fallows also surfaces the centrality of local libraries to these communities, modernized hubs of civic energy welcome to all residents.

Outside of Columbus, OH, Pittsburgh, PA, and Louisville, KY, the Fallows visited and profiled medium-to-small towns, so the translation of their findings to a city the size of Chicago may be more difficult, yet there are elements of universality. Moreover, although they did not touch down in the Land of Lincoln, they did mention both Batavia and Moline as future sites for exploration. I would add the Bloomington-Normal and Champaign-Urbana areas to their itinerary.

Are you a “patriot” for your local community? Do you know its civic narrative? And how can you and your students transcend the dueling zero sum national narratives of the left of right to contribute to democratic revival from the bottom up?

Empowering Students to Take a Stand at the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center

by Amy Corey, Grayslake Middle School, Grayslake, Illinois, and Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center Educator Advisory Committee Member

On September 27, 2018, I had the privilege and opportunity to attend a workshop at the Illinois Holocaust Museum in Skokie entitled “Inquiry as Engagement: Empowering Students to Take a Stand,” which was facilitated by Mary Ellen Daneels of the Robert R. McCormick Foundation. This workshop was great for many reasons, from the topic and presentations being interesting, to finally having some ideas on how to incorporate the new Illinois Civics standards into my teaching, it was three of the best hours of PD I have had in a while!

The new Civics standards that the state of Illinois has begun to mandate have felt rather overwhelming when teaching 8th grade due to them being written in such an open manner without a lot of specific focus in many cases. Having that much leeway is the same as having too many good food options on a restaurant menu because it makes it so difficult to know which option is the best. Mary Ellen Daneels did a great job of making me feel far more comfortable with what the standards are really looking for and giving approachable ways to deal with the standards.


We had the opportunity to work in small groups to look at what makes a good essential question and what does not. We also learned about organizations such as the Robert R. McCormick Foundation and illinoiscivics.org to help with resources and planning for seamlessly bringing the standards to our students in a meaningful and useful way.

Also, as part of the PD, we had the chance to spend time with Amanda Friedman of the Illinois Holocaust Museum on a tour of the Take a Stand Center within the Museum. The exhibit allows for teachers to bring students through several different sections to learn what people of all ages, races, genders, nationalities, religions, ethnicities, and abilities have done to make the world a better place. All of the sections are designed to be interactive and hands on to keep the kids engaged in the learning. Furthermore, this exhibit is inspiring and encouraging to those students who feel motivated to make a change to make the world a better place. It helps to show them that they are not alone in wanting to do this.

If you ever have the chance to work with either of these amazing organizations I would strongly encourage you to do so as I was able to learn so much in such a short amount of time!

For educators interested in the Take a Stand Center and other materials from the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center (IHMEC), consider attending this year’s National Council for the Social Studies Annual Conference. There will be a NCSS pre-conference clinic, “Take a Stand: From Civics Learning to Civic Engagement,” on November 29. Museum staff will also present a “Vital Issues Session” on November 30 at 11:30, “Lessons of the Holocaust: The Experiences of Survivors,” and a workshop on December 2 at 8:30, “From Tongue-Tied to Responsive: Navigating Difficult Questions” about the Holocaust.

How do you empower students to take a stand? Please comment below. Together we can prepare the youngest members of our community for college, career and civic life.

Improving School Climate to Support Student Success

by Sonia Mathew, Civic Learning Manager

The Learning Policy Institute recently published a research brief in September 2018, titled “Educating the Whole Child: Improving School Climate to Support Student Success,” by Linda Darling-Hammond and Channa M. Cook-Harvey. As a key element of Democracy Schools is “school climate,” I was excited to read more about their findings and connect their ideas to strengthening civic learning in schools.

The research brief examines, “how schools can use effective, research-based practices to create settings in which students’ healthy growth and development are central to the design of classrooms and the school as a whole.” The report explores findings related to the science of learning and development, school practices that should come from this science, and policy strategies that can support this work on a wider scale.

Related to the science of learning and development, a key finding from the report that connects to our work in civic learning is that “human relationships are the essential ingredient that catalyzes healthy development and learning.” How do schools cultivate those relationships between students and teachers? What builds teachers’ awareness, empathy, and cultural competence to appreciate and understand their students’ needs and experiences?


Teaching Tolerance has a number of resources and professional development opportunities related to this. Addressing teacher capacity in these areas is essential to promoting the civic development and efficacy in our students.

Darling-Hammond and Cook-Harvey also assert that an implication of the science of learning and development for schools is that there needs to be “supportive environmental conditions that create a positive school climate and foster strong relationships and community.” Schools must work to strengthen relational trust among educators and families. How can families be integrated into the school community? What assets do community members have that can be leveraged in classrooms? Engaging these stakeholders and valuing their expertise can strengthen school and community connections, which is another key element of Democracy Schools.

Additionally, Darling-Hammond and Cook-Harvey recommend that schools become “’identity safe’- i.e. places where all students feel competent and supported in all classroom.” Strategies for promoting identity-safe classrooms include teaching that promotes understanding and developing student voice, responsibility, and belonging in classroom communities. The connection to student voice provides another parallel to the work in Democracy Schools, as our schools strive to find ways for student decision-making to be impactful at various levels of the school community.

A second strategy includes, “Cultivating diversity as a resource for teaching through culturally responsive materials, ideas, and teaching activities, along with high expectations for all students.” Related to this work is addressing racial bias that often exists in schools. Kathleen Osta and LaShawn Route Chatmon from the National Equity Project discuss additional strategies related to this in “Five Steps to Liberating Public Education from its Deep Racial Bias.”

Schools also must prioritize social and emotional learning (SEL) that foster skills, habits, and dispositions that allow for academic growth and development. Developing social and emotional skills helps to cultivate the civic dispositions that we want in our students, so they can be further engaged in their communities.

Darling-Hammond and Cook-Harvey state, “Many schools also infuse social-emotional learning through the curriculum- for example, through curricula focused on perspective-taking and empathy in history and English language arts, and on community and social problem solving in social studies, mathematics, and science. Such efforts produce positive outcomes for student engagement, attachment to school, achievement, attainment, and behavior, including strong collaboration and support of peers, resilience, a growth mindset, and helpfulness toward others.”

These are all qualities we need in our young people to support the strengthening of our democracy and emphasize how a cross-curricular approach can strengthen civic learning.

A final area that connects to our work from this study connects with instructional strategies that support student motivation and efficacy. Inquiry is featured as an important learning strategy and one that the new Illinois Learning Standards for Social Science prioritizes.

Democracy Schools teachers design curriculum and utilize democratic teaching strategies by complementing the curriculum and assessments with civic learning that incorporates student-created essential and supporting questions as well as sustained inquiry. Creating these questions develops opportunities for deeper student engagement and learning.

Recommendations from the report include focusing the system on developmental supports for young people, designing schools to provide settings for healthy development, and ensuring educator learning for developmentally-supportive education. Overall, this emphasizes an alignment between the benefits of civic learning and positive school climate supporting effective learning in schools.

How Should We Live Together?

by Mary Ellen Daneels, Lead Teacher Mentor

As we return to the classroom this week, once again we will create a safe civic space to help students process a national tragedy. As I struggled to articulate my thoughts and role in responding, a friend eloquently posted, “My heart breaks for the families of the 11 killed in the Tree of Life Synagogue yesterday. It is especially cruel that these people were killed in the name of hate and in a place that should be sacred. I will continue to work to erase hate and promote understanding”

Another friend replied with a charge for all of us in the classroom, “As we search for ways to react meaningfully, Social Studies educators have a special opportunity. Our classrooms are the homes for students to learn empathy, respect, [and] how to listen to others with understanding.”

The new Illinois social science standards and high school civics requirement promote active student inquiry into the most essential question facing our communities — How should we live together? In doing this rigorous work, students are able to build knowledge and skills to prepare them for effective civic engagement. However, as my friends alluded to in their social media posts, something else is happening in the midst of this inquiry. Students are employing important civic dispositions as they, in the words of the IL Social Science standards, "apply civic virtues and democratic principles in school and community settings."

Much of the work of the #CivicsIsBack campaign centers on building networks of professionals who can support one another in closing the civic empowerment gap. In the next month, there are numerous opportunities to join this network to “work to erase hate and promote understanding” in our classroom.


For resources to respond to the events in Pittsburgh consider these resources from Facing History and Ourselves, Teaching Tolerance and the Anti Defamation League.

Do you have resources that would be helpful in helping students address the essential question, “How should we live together?” Please comment below. Together, we can prepare all students for college, career and civic life.

Conceal and Carry in Schools? An Opportunity for Service Learning

by Mary Ellen Daneels, Lead Teacher Mentor

One of my most fundamental responsibilities as a teacher is to keep my students safe. This blog has, on numerous occasions, discussed how to create a classroom that is safe, equitable, and inclusive for all learners. We have also processed how to create safe civic spaces to help students process current events in troubling times. We have yet to address how to keep our students safe from school violence?

Barbara Laimins, the #CivicsIsBack Mentor Liaison, recently attended a local school board meeting where the membership was deliberating whether they would endorse a resolution being presented at the upcoming IASB Joint Annual Conference to allow individual districts to choose whether they want to arm faculty members as part of a student safety and protection plan.

The exact language of the Student Safety and Protection Resolution from Mercer County CUSD 404 that will be voted on at the upcoming conference, November 16-18, 2018, is as follows:

BE IT RESOLVED THAT the Illinois Association of School Boards shall support and advocate for legislation which provides local school boards the option of developing Student Safety and Protection Plans which may include administrators, faculty, and/or other staff who have completed a state approved training course above and beyond concealed carry training, who have passed the multiple background checks and qualifications required for a concealed carry license, or have a current concealed carry license issued under the Law Enforcement Officers Safety Act. Only staff who fulfill all requirements listed would be eligible as an active and armed part of the Student Safety and Protection Plan, upon being granted board approval.


This proposed resolution is the perfect opportunity for students to engage in service learning through researching and advocating how they would like their school board to vote on this issue. Classrooms can engage in an inquiry of this current and controversial issue topic and have their own simulation of a democratic process to deliberate their perspectives to take informed action.

Informed Action can take many forms, including writing letters to their school board or the editor of the local newspaper, testifying in person at a school board meeting, presenting petitions signed by a variety of constituents, hosting an informed conversation or panel discussion with a variety of stakeholders, creating political cartoons, engaging in social media...the opportunities are plentiful!


To help support inquiry on this topic, here are a few resources to use in your classroom:
Do you have any ideas of current and controversial issue topics that lend themselves to informed action? Please comment below. Together, we can prepare students for college, career and civic life.

Strategies to Support Struggling Readers in Civic Inquiry

by Mary Ellen Daneels, Lead Teacher Mentor


In recent blog posts, Shawn highlighted compelling data analyzing the impact the #CivicsIsBack initiative has had on bridging the civic empowerment gap in the state of Illinois. While the results are encouraging, there are still important questions to tackle in order to meet the need of ALL learners in the civic classroom. One of these questions is, What are some strategies or resources that can be used to support students of varying reading levels in conducting research and building background knowledge to participate in civic inquiry?

In an article documenting a study of the literacy challenges faced by students and teachers in an advanced, project-based version of the US Government and Politics course, Dr. Walter Parker and Dr. Shelia Valencia from the University of Washington stated that:

Students in this study, when working with course texts, encountered densely constructed textbooks, challenging specialized vocabulary, and lack of teacher support for learning from text. Generally, they could read but not comprehend. Both teachers and students developed strategies to avoid learning from text-based resources. These strategies hindered students’ ability to learn course content and further disadvantaged students who needed more practice and support in learning from text.

My travels throughout the state of Illinois to provide professional development to support educators provides anecdotal evidence that this is not an issue isolated to students in APGOV. I have long believed that civics is best in a diverse classroom with students from varying lived experiences. However, the unintended consequence of having a cross-section of the community in the classroom is the variance of reading abilities.

So, how can we provide equitable opportunities for success in civics for students who need support in learning from texts? Here are some suggestions from Parker and Valencia as well as other resources to explore.
Do you have a favorite strategy to support struggling readers in your civics classroom? Please comment below. Together, we can prepare all students for college, career and civic life.

School Leaders Say Civic Learning Marginalized by Test Pressures in Other Subjects

by Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Democracy Program Director

In June, I recapped an administrator academy that Lead Teacher Mentor Mary Ellen Daneels and I delivered for Springfield (IL) Public Schools. The academy was designed to build greater support for school-based civic learning among administrators, familiarizing them with new state policies impacting civics, but also making the empirical case for doubling down on civic learning.

Education Week has increased its coverage of civic learning in the wake of the 2016 Election and Parkland tragedy earlier this year. This spring and summer, respectively, they conducted and reported on a national survey of school leaders’ views on civic education (n=524). More than half of school leaders (52%) said that their schools provide “too little” civic education. The remaining 48% said there was just the right amount (one administrator said there was “too much”).

These leaders are seemingly well-positioned to support expanded civic learning opportunities for students, so what’s holding their schools’ back? As evident in the chart below, civics does not suffer from a lack of student interest. And contrary to the contention of many educators with whom we work, teacher training opportunities are a challenge in only 16% of cases. Similarly, there are few reported shortages of curricular materials to teach the subject.


Current and controversial issues endemic to high-quality civic learning fail to scare off the vast majority of administrators, and only 15% report challenges making civics a school or district-wide priority.

All of these challenges cast aside, the remaining, glaring obstacle is “pressure to focus on subjects other than civics because they are tested and emphasized.” More than half of school leaders suggested that this is challenging to very challenging (51%), and another 28% considered it somewhat challenging.

These findings are helpful as they allow us to focus our energies on breaking down civics’ marginalization by other prioritized and/ or tested subjects. One strategy centers on district and state policies, as civic learning and the social studies more generally should be treated as core subjects with credit and/ or hours of instruction requirements coequal to math, English language arts, and science.

Some states like Florida have had great success in pairing a civics course requirement with a high-stakes exam. For political and economic reasons, this option was and is not on the table in Illinois, but we must not punt the assessment question. Civic knowledge, skills, attitudes, and behaviors can be measured, and a consortium of states, Illinois included, is currently developing instruments to this end.

A second strategy encompasses both research and communications. There is some empirical evidence that high-quality civic learning opportunities correlate with student success across the board, but more must be done to examine the relationship between civic learning and students’ social and emotional development, related impacts on school climate, and potential links to student attendance, engagement, and graduation.

I’m confident that further research will affirm what we know anecdotally and experientially, and these findings should be paired with an effective communications strategy. We have long made the case for civic learning on the basis of preparing young people for informed, effective participation in the civic life of our communities, state, nation, and world. But reading, math, and science are ascendant because they have been successfully linked to preparation for college and careers. Civic learning has much to add here too in terms of both “hard” and “soft” skills. The field must therefore employ the advocacy skills we teach to elevate civic learning to its rightful place at the center of schools’ missions.

Closing the Civic Empowerment Gap through the #CivicsIsBack Campaign

by Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Democracy Program Director

In August, we published a three-part series analyzing year two evaluation data of Illinois’ statewide civics course implementation plan provided by the Center for Information Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE). The first piece provided a broad overview of the findings, and the second did a deep dive on the results of our Illinois Civics Teacher Mentor program.

The concluding post further analyzed the student outcomes data derived from more than 3,000 Illinois high school students that completed surveys during the 2018-2019 school year measuring their exposure to proven civic learning practices and a stand-alone civics course, along with related civic dispositions and behaviors.

These students attended schools affiliated with teacher mentors and span from the suburbs of Chicago and St. Louis to rural communities throughout Central and Southern Illinois. And they are broadly representative of the state’s student population, skewing slightly more white (54% white, 24% Latino, 21% Black, 11% multiracial, 3% Asian, and 2% American Indian/ Alaskan Native).

Last month, we published a companion piece disaggregating student participation and performance on the Advanced Placement American Government and Politics Exam by race, revealing deep inequities in terms of both access and outcomes. In a similar vein, we asked CIRCLE for disaggregated student survey data from our civics course implementation evaluation. My analysis of this data follows, which is available in its entirety here.

In terms of access, the results are mixed, as LatinX and Asian American students were less likely and Black students more likely to report taking a civics course (see Figure 1 below). Given that the course is a state mandate, more must be done to ensure equity of implementation across schools and districts statewide.

Figure 1: Did you take a social studies course that was completely about
how the government works and your role in participating in public decisions?

Similarly, while Black and Asian-Pacific Islander students were more likely to participate in extracurricular activities with exposure to a civics course, this distinction had no impact for LatinX students and overall participation in extracurricular activities is cause for concern among with LatinX and Black students (see Figure 2).

Figure 2: Did you participate in a school club, sports team, or other
extracurricular activity during this school year (percent yes)?

These concerns considered, students enrolled in civics courses reported relatively equal access to proven civic learning practices across race (see Figure 3).
Figure 3: This year, in my classes, I have discussed controversial issues (percent agree/strongly agree).

The student survey concluded with a battery of questions assessing students’ civic behaviors and attitudes. While course exposure had a positive effect across races, significant gaps remain, privileging white and Asian-Pacific Islanders over their Black and LatinX peers. Figure 4, which asks students to assess their preparedness for political participation, is illustrative of both course benefits and remaining gaps.

Figure 4: I have the skills and knowledge necessary to participate in
politics and public issues (percent agree/strongly agree).

Course implementation continues in earnest with a quest for racial equity front and center. As these results demonstrate, we must do more to ensure universal access to both a required civics course, but also extracurricular activities critical to students’ social, emotional, and civic development. While access to best practices in civics courses is relatively equal by race, we must dig deeper and search for equity so long as students of color express less confidence in their civic skills and dispositions. In part, this entails a wholesale interrogation of existing curricula in a quest to align classroom instruction with students’ lived experiences. Stay tuned for further details on an emerging “lived civics” agenda.

Teaching Resources to Understand the Kavanaugh Hearings

by Mary Ellen Daneels, Lead Teacher Mentor

In a previous blog post, I shared resources to understand the U.S. Supreme Court confirmation process and earlier this week, Shawn shared why the Kavanaugh hearing is a pivotal moment in our nation’s history, explaining that, “The midterm elections are an important backdrop to the Kavanaugh confirmation process, as Democrats have an outside chance of taking control of the Senate, and with it vetting future presidential nominees. Should Kavanaugh not be confirmed and the Senate falls to Democrats, the clock is running out on Republicans to appoint a like-minded conservative.”

Beyond understanding the importance of the 2018 midterm elections and the system of checks and balances that scaffold the appointment process of federal judges, the Kavanaugh hearings have provided classrooms an opportunity to engage in current and controversial issue discussions related to power, justice and equity.

Navigating these quickly changing events can be challenging for teachers. Below are some resources to help.
How are you helping students make sense of the Kavanaugh Confirmation Hearings? Please comment below. Together, we can prepare ALL students for college, career and civic life.

The Kavanaugh Nomination: A Pivotal Moment in Our Nation's Political Life

by Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Democracy Program Director

A month ago, my colleague Mary Ellen Daneels previewed the U.S. Supreme Court confirmation process for Judge Brett Kavanaugh, sharing a plethora of classroom resources ripe for immediate use. Little did we know of the dramatics that would follow.

Kavanaugh was a fairly conventional nominee for a Republican President that vowed to select individuals vetted by the conservative Federalist Society. He did have a significant paper trail given his previous service as a lawyer in the Bush Administration, but twelve years on the federal bench and an Ivy League education placed him on par with his presumptive peers on both sides of the ideological spectrum.

However, history suggests that some of the most contentious nominations center on the ideological positioning of the Justice being replaced in relation to the nominee. In this case, Justice Anthony Kennedy, the swing vote on an otherwise evenly divided Court, decided to retire in June, opening the door for his former law clerk, a conservative more in the mold of the late Justice Antonin Scalia. Kavanaugh’s ascension to the Court could place precedents that progressives hold near and dear to their heart in jeopardy, including those related to affirmative action, same-sex marriage, and abortion.

The Senate is empowered to confirm judicial nominees, and we are in the midst of the vetting process. Historically, the bar was whether a nominee was qualified to serve a lifetime appointment in the Court, but as symptomatic of our increasingly polarized politics, ideology entered the fray with Reagan’s failed nomination of Judge Robert Bork in 1987.

Recent allegations of sexual abuse against Judge Kavanaugh bring us back to 1991 when President George H.W. Bush nominated conservative Judge Clarence Thomas to replace civil rights icon Thurgood Marshall. An all-male Judiciary Committee arguably provided cover for Thomas against sexual harassment allegations from his former colleague Anita Hill.

Thomas survived a narrow confirmation vote, but 1992 became known as the “Year of the Woman” when many female candidates were motivated to enter the arena of electoral politics, and a number of candidates found success, including ranking minority member of the Judiciary Committee Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and former Illinois Senator Carol Moseley Braun.

Four women now sit on the Senate Judiciary Committee, but each of them are Democrats. All eleven Republican committee members are Republican, and two of them (Senators Grassley and Hatch) were there in 1991.

Women are still vastly underrepresented in Congress, and only four have ever served on the Supreme Court. More female candidates than ever before are pursuing elected office at the state and national levels this November, so a second coming of the “Year of the Woman” may not be far behind.

The midterm elections are an important backdrop to the Kavanaugh confirmation process, as Democrats have an outside chance of taking control of the Senate, and with it vetting future presidential nominees. Should Kavanaugh not be confirmed and the Senate falls to Democrats, the clock is running out on Republicans to appoint a like-minded conservative.

In this scenario, it’s not difficult to imagine the Kennedy vacancy remaining open through the 2020 Election. Indeed Republicans did the same to President Obama during his final year in office.

Turning back to Kavanaugh, the FBI is currently in the throes of an investigation called for by Senator Jeff Flake (R-AZ), but also endorsed by two of his colleagues, Senators Susan Collins (R-ME) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK). Assuming a strict party line vote outside of these three Senators, they hold the balance of power in a body controlled 51-49 by Republicans with Vice President Pence poised to break any tie. Recall that the filibuster was neutralized for Supreme Court nominees last year.

As we await the results of this investigation, the background provided above is critical to advance students’ understanding of how we arrived at this juncture. It goes without saying that we should also underline that what happens in high school and college follows us throughout our lives, impacting our careers and families.

Face and Embrace Conference

by Sonia Mathew, Civic Learning Manager

On August 15th and 16th, nearly 300 teachers came together for the Chicago Public Schools (CPS), “Face and Embrace: Waking up to Racial Equity in Education” conference at North Grand High School, sponsored by the CPS Social Science and Civic Engagement Department.

Guiding principles for this conference included the opportunity to:
  • Reflect on our own awareness and relationship to race
  • Build knowledge, skills, and conviction
  • Engage in building equity to make strategic and informed decisions
Throughout the two-day conference participants, speakers, and presenters worked to answer these guiding questions:



Presenters created sessions that connected to the essential questions, which provided a great framing for attendees as well as questions for educators to reflect on their practice as it relates to building racial equity in education.

I presented a session on Racial Equity in Democracy Schools, where teachers had the opportunity to analyze the civic empowerment gap in recent cohorts of Democracy Schools and discuss how teachers can address issues on inequity as it relates to civic learning and engagement. The first breakout session I attended was titled, “Trauma and Resilience: Tools for Educators,” presented by Laura Ramirez, Executive Director of the Chicago Freedom School. There was an emphasis on how teachers can work to move towards “Radical Healing,” a concept framed by Shawn Ginwright. Attendees also examined how educators can utilize “Transformative Healing” in the classroom through an analysis of:
  • Culture: My identity
  • Agency: Individual and collective ability to act, create, and affect change
  • Relationships: Capacity to create and sustain healthy relationships
  • Meaning: Profound discovery of who we are
  • Aspirations: Explorations of possibilities for the future
I also attended a session titled, “Breaking Silence: Unpacking Power, Perception and Bias,” presented by Jarret King and Stacey Mann from Unsilence. Their framework explores institutional silencing, cultural silencing, and personal silencing as they uncover hidden stories of human rights. As they “unsilence” these stories, they create learning experiences and provide leadership training that includes opportunities for reflection, building empathy and healing. In this session, they highlighted the work of artists Garland Martin Taylor and Julie Green, exploring how artistic expression can be used to address controversial topics and promote civil dialogue.

The final breakout I attended was “Confronting Discipline Disparities,” presented by Claire Schu, the former Tier 1 SEL Manager with Chicago Public Schools. This session examined the disparities that exist with school discipline policies and strategies for participants to address this. To reduce racial bias in discipline, teacher can work to humanize relationships, recognize cultural orientation and bias, and build a classroom environment and learning structure that match students and accelerate their learning.

The conference ended with a dynamic closing panel moderated by Jessica Marshall, the former Director of Social Science and Civic Engagement. Panelists included Dr. Cathy Cohen, the David and Mary Winton Green Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago; Mayra Almarez, CPS Educator; Elizabeth Todd-Breland, Assistant Professor of History at UIC; and Terry Keleher, Director of Strategic Innovations for Race Forward.

The panel addressed how we need to re-imagine how we interrogate forms of political knowledge in the classroom. Additionally, there needs to be a systems approach to equity. For educators, Teaching Tolerance has social justice standards that can be helpful for grounding this work. Ultimately there needs to be a shift in power in our classrooms and educators are doing work that may make them uncomfortable, especially when addressing issues related to race.

The CPS Social Science and Civic Engagement Team did a fantastic job with this event, surfacing an important conversation about racial equity in education. The event closed with an On the Table discussion about racial equity and opportunities for participants to share learnings from how they were able to Reflect, Build and Engage during the conference. We look forward to seeing how they build on this work, supporting teachers in CPS, as well as being a model for other districts across Illinois on building racial equity in education.

Confronting Civic Inequities

by Mary Ellen Daneels, Lead Teacher Mentor

In his most recent blog post, Shawn Healy illustrated how APGOV scores in Illinois raise important questions about “deep inequities along racial and ethnic lines.” This data is not an isolated incident. The evidence of inequity and a civic empowerment gap has been well documented by researchers and has been referenced in previous blog posts. While measurements documenting the impact of the new Illinois civics requirement are encouraging, there is work still to be done in the area of equity. Mandating an equal opportunity for students to have civic instruction is a start but it does not guarantee equity. I do not have all of the answers concerning this important issue, but I am willing to engage in the conversation and collaborate with you to affect change.

Illustration courtesy of Interaction Institute for Social Change | Artist: Angus Maguire

I recently had the opportunity to “start the conversation” at a conference hosted by Dr. Diana Hess at the University of Wisconsin- Madison that engaged teachers who used the Legislative Semester to guide civic instruction in their respective schools. This pedagogy embraces the proven practice of current and controversial issue discussions as well as simulations of democratic processes to facilitate students in acquiring the knowledge, skills and dispositions of effective civic engagement. Dr. Hess and her colleague, Dr. Paula McAvoy have documented the opportunities and challenges of the simulation in their award winning book, “The Political Classroom”.


The teachers at this conference came from various regions of the country, each with unique challenges and opportunities. One segment of the workshop was devoted to “Meeting the Needs of All Learners: Promoting Equity in the Legislative Semester”. The following questions framed our discussions and perhaps would be helpful to you as you start conversation in your own building.
  • What are some strategies or resources you use to support students of varying reading levels in conducting research and building background knowledge to participate in civic inquiry?
  • What are some resources and tools you use to help students with communication challenges (ELL or speech limitations) in advocating their position in and out of the classroom?
  • Students from various racial, SES and naturalization backgrounds might have a very different experience with civic institutions from others. What are some ways teachers might be more culturally relevant to embrace and address these experiences the classroom?
  • If a teacher has a homogeneous classroom with a majority of caucasian students with relatively few challenges, how can they build awareness of equity issues in other classrooms or in the larger society?
My blog posts over the next weeks will address each of these questions and share resources I gleaned from participants at the conference as well as other experts in the field. But I am curious, how would you respond to these essential questions around the civic empowerment gap and equity? Please comment below. Together, we can prepare students for college, career and civic life.

Civic Opportunity and Achievement Gap Mar APGOV Test Results in Illinois

by Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Democracy Program Director

The Advanced Placement Test for U.S. Government and Politics (APGOV) is among the most popular in Illinois, ranking behind only English, Calculus, U.S. History, and Psychology among exams taken by Illinois students in 2017. For many students, APGOV is their seminal civics course, taught by the most esteemed member of the social studies department.

Based on my analysis of 2017 score distributions, more than half of APGOV test takers in Illinois (54.0%) earned a score of 3 or higher, qualifying many for college credit and/ or preferable registration status. But beneath these impressive numbers are deep inequities along racial and ethnic lines.

In Table 1 below, I juxtaposed the racial/ ethnic breakdown of APGOV test takers with the composition of the student body in Illinois schools as a whole. White and Asian students are disproportionately more likely to take the APGOV test than their Black and Hispanic peers. Black students are underrepresented by a factor of four.

Table 1: 2017 Illinois Student Population vs. APGOV Test Population


A breakdown of test scores also shows evidence of a civic achievement gap. While a majority of Asian, white, mixed race, and Pacific Islanders scored a 3 or higher on the APGOV test, only three-in-ten Black and Hispanic students attained the same success (see Table 2).

Table 2: APGOV Scores of 3 or Higher by Race/ Ethnicity


APGOV is one of many means by which Illinois high schools are addressing the new civics course requirement. These findings are cause for concern and further reflection. Why are Black and Hispanic students grossly underrepresented among the ranks of test takers? And what can be done to close the achievement gap among students of color taking the test?

Future posts will further grapple with these questions, featuring a return to our 2018 survey of Illinois high school students exposed to the new civics course, but this time disaggregating the data by race.

SCOTUS Takes Center Stage

by Mary Ellen Daneels, Lead Teacher Mentor

This week, the confirmation hearings of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to be the 114th justice to serve on the United States Supreme Court will be front and center in many #CivicsIsBack classrooms. Nina Totenberg from National Public Radio states that abortion, gun rights, presidential power and campaign finance reform are likely to be current and controversial issues addressed in the hearings.

It is the perfect opportunity to address essential questions such as:
  • How should the government balance individual rights with the common good?
  • Are the branches balanced?
  • What responsibilities do people in charge have to others?
  • Who has the power and why?
  • What should be the role of the judicial branch?
  • How should the courts interpret the law?
  • Does the structure of the federal court system allow it to administer justice effectively?
  • To what extent has the judiciary protected the rights of privacy, security, and personal freedom?
To help #CivicsIsBack classrooms explore these and other questions, there are a plethora of resources for your consideration.
  • Check out this C-SPAN/PSB Survey on public attitudes about the U.S. Superme Court.
  • Do you think you have what it takes to interpret the law? Street Law has a great activity to illustrate it is not as easy as you might think.
  • Street Law also has a great simulation for students to decide if they would "grant cert" to discern the complexity of serving on the SCOTUS.
  • Our friends at icivics.org have a wonderful lesson plan to help students understand how the nomination process works.
  • Illinois Civics has a lesson plan that uses the current and controversial issue of the citizenship question on the census to explore how courts might weigh in on the issue.
  • PBS Education also has several lessons highlighting the importance of the U.S. Supreme Court.
  • The New York Times has curated "10 Ways to Study the Supreme Court" complete with lesson plans!
  • The Annenberg Foundation has a wealth of video resources about the importance of the court and landmark cases.
Do you have favorite resources to teach students about the U.S. Supreme Court? Please list them in the comment section below. Together, we can prepare ALL students for college, career and civic life.