Understanding Instructional Shifts

by Christopher Busse, Civic Mentor for St. Clair County

Chris Busse is the Social Studies Department Chair at O’Fallon Township High School in O’Fallon, Illinois, where he has taught AP Political Science, AP Comparative Government, American Government, Civics, Psychology, Economics, United States History, and the American Legal System. Chris serves as the Regional Mentor for St. Clair County. He has been recognized with the Emerson Excellence in Teaching Award, the Constitutional Rights Foundation Barbara O’Donnell Teacher of the Year Award, and was chosen to participate in the Supreme Court Summer Institute.

As a curricular leader in his district, Chris has guided many educators through the instructional changes associated with the new Illinois Social Studies standards and civic education requirement. Here are his thoughts on how to help educators “make the shift.”

The new Illinois Social Studies Learning Standards and the Civic Learning Practice Indicators provide social studies teachers, new and old, with a template for engaging students in the learning process. In my position of social studies department chair at O’Fallon Township High School, I have encouraged social studies teachers to use the standards and indicators to reflect on “best practices” and to use them as benchmarks when considering instructional strategies, materials and resources which will effectively engage students in the learning process and contribute to a more productive learning environment.

The benefit of the new standards are they are skill-based, rather than content-based, and allow the expert in the classroom, the teacher, to tailor instruction to the needs of students, to the strength of the instructor, and to make content more relevant and meaningful for student growth.

Learning is achieved when a student is able to use prior knowledge to apply, evaluate, and analyze new content. The Social Studies Standards facilitate students’ investigation of content to discover its value in better understanding the world around them. What we teach in the social studies disciplines are relevant to a student’s understanding of the society in which they now and in the future will operate. The Standards and Learning Practices help us design, use and implement instructional resources and strategies to maximize the potential of students to become informed decision makers, engaged learners, and responsible citizens.

How have you made sense of the instructional shifts associated with the new Illinois Social Studies standards and civic education requirement? Please comment below. Together, we can prepare Illinois students for college, career and civic life.

Polarization and Classroom Practice, Part II: Mitigating Polarization's Deleterious Effects

by Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Democracy Program Director

Last week, I profiled the political typologies of educators to kick off a four part series on polarization and classroom practice. This week, I’ll revisit the power and prevalence of controversial issues discussions in classrooms, in part, as a means of mitigating polarization’s long-term, deleterious effects.

Our friends at the Center for Information Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tufts University published a 2013 report on youth voting in the 2012 Election titled All Together Now. It highlights the challenge of teaching civics in an era where young people accurately view politics as both polarized and dysfunctional. With challenges come opportunities, and CIRCLE suggests “teaching a new generation to be civil, responsible, and constructive citizens may be part of the solution…” to the aforementioned problems.

Scholarship supports this claim. Diana Hess, Dean of the University of Wisconsin’s College of Education, writes, “…The purposeful inclusion of controversial political issues in the school curriculum…illustrates a core component of a functioning democratic community, while building the understandings, skills, and dispositions that young people need to live in and improve such a community.”

Unlike our politics, teaching with controversy is not subject to a polarized academic debate. Mitt Romney’s education advisor for his 2012 presidential campaign, David Campbell, demonstrates that classroom discussions can actually help mitigate the adverse effects of low socio-economic status on youth civic development.

And University of Colorado Communication Professor Michael McDevitt finds widespread impact of student participation in deliberative discourse. Students emerge more attentive to the news and have a greater awareness of the prevailing issues of the day. They also form a larger discussion network involving both peers and parents. And aiming directly at polarization, students demonstrate a greater propensity to openly disagree, listen to opposing views, and test opinions through political conversation.

The empirical case stated, policies in Illinois are increasingly aligned with effective practice when it comes to teaching with controversy. Our high school civics requirement embeds discussions of current and controversial issues, and our K-12 social studies standards contain a deliberative strand across grade levels and subject areas. Early returns suggest that these policies are being implemented with fidelity, as issues discussions and standards are 84% and 74% fully or partially implemented in Illinois high schools, respectively (see Figure 3 below).



Finally, returning to the 2013 All Together Now report and a companion national survey of civics and social studies teachers, civil discussions of political issues ranks high among the “citizen responsibilities” that are “definitely important” for students to know.

In class, teachers claim that students are encouraged to make up their own mind about issues (100% agree or agree strongly), that they select issues for discussion about which people have varying opinions (99.3%), and that “students should explicitly discuss difficult and divisive issues” (87.9%).

On paper and in practice, teachers are well equipped to bring controversy into the classroom and do so with increasingly fidelity. They are up against a menacingly polarized political environment, the subject of next week’s post.

Illinois Civics in the Spotlight - NCSS 2018

by Mary Ellen Daneels, Lead Teacher Mentor

This fall, the National Council for the Social Studies Annual Conference will be in Chicago, putting Illinois Civics in the spotlight! The conference will be held at the Hyatt Regency in Chicago November 29th to December 2nd. The theme of the conference is “Yesterday-Today-Tomorrow: Building the Future of Social Studies.”


This is a time for Illinois teachers to shine and share best practice in standards and civics implementation. A call for conference proposals is open through February 26th. Proposals can take the form of full or half day pre-conference clinics, one-hour sessions, thirty-minute power sessions, poster sessions or two-hour workshops.

If you have never submitted a proposal for a conference, do not be intimidated by the process! There is a link provided on the NCSS website to coach you through the endeavor.

There will be special programming on Friday, November 30th designed for Illinois teachers. This series of workshops and sessions will be aligned to Illinois standards implementation (K-12) and the civics requirement for graduation. Start planting the seeds NOW with your department to attend these offerings geared especially for YOU!

Illinois educators interesting in shaping conference events can volunteer to serve on the Local Arrangements Committee. This committee will shape the experience for visitors to the Land of Lincoln for this conference and be ambassadors of the great work happening in Illinois Social Studies. Besides collaborating with like-minded professionals and contributing to the field, volunteers may earn free conference registration! Please take this survey to find out more about opportunities to help make #NCSS2018 in Chicago a great experience for all!

If you have any questions or suggestions about the forthcoming NCSS conference, please comment below. Together, we can prepare Illinois students for college, career and civic life!

Polarization and Classroom Practice, Part I: The Political Typologies of American Educators

by Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Democracy Program Director

This post represents the first of a four part series on political polarization and classroom practice, ultimately attempting to answer the question of what we can do as educators to bridge this seemingly cavernous fracture in the heart of our democracy. Teaching with controversy is among the most impactful civic learning strategies, yet it is also fraught with danger and educators are wise to proceed with caution.

To kick off this series, I will begin with the political typology of teachers themselves, as the line where we separate the professional from the personal on the political front is complicated.

I’m often asked, “Aren’t teachers overwhelmingly liberal, and don’t they try to make students into little Democrats?” The answer is a definitive no, as teachers’ beliefs are typically reflective of the communities where they teach. Moreover, teachers have forever had a commitment to teaching students about democratic institutions and encouraging participation agnostic of party. If anything, politics, and especially political parties, are often absent from civics curricula.

For further insight, Education Week published a report last month titled Educator Political Perceptions, which summarizes the results of a national survey of more than a thousand educators, half of them teachers, on a range of political issues. When it comes to ideology, educators form a bell curve, with a plurality identifying as moderate (43%), roughly a quarter liberal (24%) or conservative (23%), and only a small percentage far left (5%) or right (4%).


While there is a Democratic tilt when it comes to party affiliation (41% identify as Democrats), 30% identify as Independents, and 27% as Republicans. Similarly, Hillary Clinton gained half of all educators’ presidential votes in 2016, but this was only a tick above her overall national percentage (48.5%). Trump received 29% of educators’ votes, while 13% voted for a third party candidate, and 8% did not vote. One year into the Trump presidency, 80% of his initial supporters among educators still have a favorable opinion of him, compared to 27% among Clinton voters.

During these turbulent political times, educators are divided when it comes to their own political activities. Nearly half have avoided political activities altogether (21%) or some (27%) out of concern that it may create problems for their job in education, while 17% said they’ve tempered activities a little, and 34% not at all. As for the specific political activities educators pursue, contacting elected officials tops the list, followed by trying to persuade friends or colleagues to change their minds on a political topic.


The political typologies of American educators profiled, my next post will focus specifically on civics teachers and the nature by which they bring political controversy into the classroom. I will then address the empirical question of the extent to which political polarization is a mass phenomenon, or more the province of political elites. The series will conclude with some preliminary thoughts about the current challenges of teaching with controversy.

Resources for Informed Action

by Mary Ellen Daneels, Lead Teacher Mentor

John Dewey stated, "The only way to prepare for social life is to engage in social life. To form habits of social usefulness and serviceableness apart from any direct social need and motive, apart from any existing social situation, is, to the letter, teaching the child to swim by going through motions outside of the water." —Moral Principles In Education

In the same sense, the only way to prepare and assess if students are equipped to engage in civic life, is to engage them in civic life. As stated in a previous blog post, both the new Illinois Social Studies standards and civics requirement embrace the authentic assessment of student knowledge, skills and dispositions through informed action or service learning.

Several organizations have resources related to the proven practice of service learning/informed action. This can be a starting point for educators in the important work of measuring student growth.
  • Through funding provided by the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, the Stanford History Education Group (SHEG) has published resources related to Civic Online Reasoning to help students become both wise consumers and producers of digital media.
  • In the state of Tennessee, all school districts must implement a project-based assessment in civics at least once in grades four through eight and at least once in grades nine through twelve. The Tennessee Center for Civic Learning and Engagement provides support for what such portfolio based assessments should entail.
  • The state of Washington has created an Open Source Assessment Portal for social studies that provides examples of performance based assessments K-12 across the disciplines.
  • The National Youth Leadership Council provides examples of informed action K-12. Many of the service learning projects provide rubrics to assess student investigation and preparation leading up to action as well as reflection and demonstration of learning “post action”.
  • Empowering Youth for Positive Change program from the Center for Prevention Research and Development has both rubrics and checklists for informed actions related to local public policy projects.
Do you have ideas for how to authentically assess the new Illinois Social Studies standards? Please comment below. Together, we can prepare ALL students in Illinois for college, career and civic life.

The Measure of Success

by Mary Ellen Daneels, Lead Teacher Mentor

In an article I wrote last year for Social Education, called, “Thermometers to Thermostats: Designing and Assessing Informed Action”, I made reference to the viral TED talk “The Power of Vulnerability” by best-selling author Brene’ Brown in which she struggled with the sentiment, “If you cannot measure it, it does not exist.” Many social studies teachers in Illinois are wrestling with the same premise as they work to assess the new inquiry standards. How do you measure informed action? Is it a test? Is it a portfolio? I have come to look at these questions in a different way. I do not see informed action as something additional to assess. I see informed action as the assessment of how students apply disciplinary content and proficiencies to address essential questions investigated in the classroom.

As noted in previous blog posts, the new Illinois Social Studies Standards are a paradigm shift for many educators in that they prescribe not only “what” classrooms should be teaching but “how” it should be taught. While many educators are fairly comfortable with measuring disciplinary content, or the “what” of civic education, there is ambiguity in measurement of the “how”- the acquisition of civic skills and dispositions leading to informed action.

Because there is no prescribed, “high stakes” test in Illinois, assessment is a local control issue. While the Illinois School Code prescribes that there be instruction and successful examination on such topics as the Flag Code, the United States and Illinois Constitutions the Declaration of Independence as well as Voting and Elections (105 ILCS 5/27-3), there is no mandate as to what these “examinations” should look like. Local districts have autonomy to choose the method of assessment. In my observations, most districts assess civic knowledge through the use of multiple choice tests. The new Illinois Social Studies Standards and civic education requirement provide an opportunity to think “Beyond the Bubble” and investigate assessments that allow students to communicate conclusions and take informed action, a.k.a. the proven practice of service learning.

Informed action projects can be the truest measurement of how students can apply the knowledge, skills and dispositions that they have practiced in class. Because they are the culmination of the inquiry cycle prescribed by the Illinois social studies standards, these projects are thoroughly embedded in both the content and process of student learning, and are an exercise that enhances and consolidates student learning, rather than taking time out to measure it. They can take the good work that we do in social studies and explicitly prepare students for civic life as students see they can be agents of change in their community.

Do you have ideas for how to authentically assess the new Illinois Social Studies standards? Please comment below. Together, we can prepare ALL students in Illinois for college, career and civic life.