Guest Blog: The “Ah-Ha” Moments

by Clinton Mathewson, Civic Mentor for Peoria County

Clinton has taught U.S. Government and Civics, AP U.S. Government and Politics, Geography, World History, Economics, Consumer Economics, and, Psychology over his ten-year career. He is a member of the National Council for the Social Studies.

Clinton earned his Master’s Degree from Eastern Illinois University in Educational Administration and his undergraduate degree from Illinois State University. Here are some of Clint’s thoughts on his role as civic mentor for Peoria County.

I have taught Civics & Government for most of my teaching career and can truly say I am extremely passionate about my students recognizing the importance of being active lifelong citizens in our society. Being able to observe that “Ah-Ha” moment when a student figures out the complexities of federalism or an effective electoral campaign strategy, makes teaching all worthwhile. When I saw there was an opening for the Civics mentorship, I was the one now having the “Ah-Ha” moment. The prospects of partnering with the Illinois Civics program to gain knowledge of best civic practices from other professionals and immerse myself in the vast amounts of resources they possess would be an amazing way to take my trade to another level. The thought of making connections, spreading knowledge outside of my classroom, and teaching educational strategies to colleagues in a geographic area I was new to had me setting all other items for the day off to the side as I filled out my application.

After becoming an Illinois Civics mentor and attending the Illinois Civics workshop, I had some great takeaways. Like many Civics teachers in the state of Illinois, I had already been incorporating the new civics learning standards into my class even before they were implemented. This was a huge boost as a teacher and eased some anxiety about what deficiencies I may need to improve upon to be a strong mentor. The other takeaway was that there is a vast amount of resources and an entire organization that wants to assist Civics teachers throughout the state with perfecting their craft. Illinois Civics is a professional learning community that spans as large as statewide or as small as a few educators sharing an email.

Being a Civics mentor has definitely changed my approach to teaching and the engagement of students in my classroom. I found myself borrowing numerous ideas that have been shared with me from other mentors and even classroom teachers that I have mentored. My students have become more engaged in my class because I am now constantly thinking about how I can develop more ownership in our future generation. Service learning has definitely been the area that I feel the greatest changes have occurred with my students. Allowing students to not only simulate but play an actual role in issues they are passionate about will play a strong influence on how my students will view their participation in government in the future.

What are some of the “Ah-Ha” moments you and your students have had this school year? Please comment below. Together, we can prepare Illinois students for college, career and civic life.

Using Podcasts for Professional Development

by Mary Ellen Daneels, Lead Teacher Mentor

In my role as Lead Teacher Mentor for the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, I have traversed the state several times over this year in what I call my LOL (Land of Lincoln) tour of Illinois. One of my constant companions on the road has been civics-related podcasts. I have grown in my content knowledge and understanding of current and controversial issues through such thinkers as noted author Malcolm Gladwell, Jeffrey Rosen, the President and CEO of the National Constitution Center, as well as Chicago Tribune columnist Rick Pearson.

While shrinking school budgets provide limited access to in-person conferences featuring noted experts, teachers can join the 67 million Americans listening to podcasts on at least a monthly basis. According to an article published by Forbes titled, “Why Podcasts are So Popular (and Four Content Lessons to Learn from Them)” by Jayson DeMers, podcasts enjoyed an eleven percent surge in 2017, giving listeners, “a refreshing alternative (to screens). Rather than using your eyes, you use your ears; there are silences, pauses, and genuine human voices rather than words and images on a screen.”

When used in the classroom, podcasts give an opportunity for students to hear from influencers and practice listening skills as they digest information in spoken word. Well-curated podcasts can also provide examples of civil discourse as a wide array of content experts address some of the most essential questions facing our communities.

Here are a few podcasts to consider adding to your media diet.
  • Revisionist History by Malcolm Gladwell provides episodes that, “will go back and reinterpret something from the past: an event, a person, an idea. Something overlooked. Something misunderstood.” Season two has several civics-centered episodes.
  • The Sunday Spin from WGN Radio features current and controversial issue discussions led by host Rick Pearson examining local, state and national politics.
  • Constitutional from the Washington Post, builds off the success of the 2016 series, Presidential. Constitutional explores, “the Constitution and the people who framed and reframed it — revolutionaries, abolitionists, suffragists, teetotalers, protesters, justices, presidents – in the ongoing struggle to form a more perfect union across a vast and diverse land.”
  • 1A from National Public Radio, takes its name from the First Amendment and examines, “important issues such as policy, politics, technology, and what connects us across the fissures that divide the country.”
  • More Perfect from Radio Lab examines decisions made by the United States Supreme Court and what the rulings mean for “We the People”.
  • Civics 101 from New Hampshire Public Radio provides short, classroom-friendly tutorials on the basics of how our democracy works. There are lesson recommendations and worksheets for student use.
  • Curious about the latest polling data and current events? Subscribe to the weekly FiveThirtyEight podcast.
  • We the People, hosted by Jeffrey Rosen from the National Constitution Center, brings together liberal and conservative thinkers to engage in civil dialogue about issues facing our nation. Other episodes interview noted experts such as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
  • My knowledge of history has deepened as a result of listening to Stuff you Missed in History Class. There are great personal narratives woven throughout each episode that can enrich your students understanding of history.
  • For general tips and ideas involving teaching methodology such as culturally responsive teaching or discussion strategies, subscribe to Cult of Pedagogy.

What podcasts do you listen to to inform your classroom practice? What should I add to my playlist? Please enter your ideas in the comment section below. Together, we can prepare students for college, career and civic life.

Creating Civic Spaces in Troubling Times

by Mary Ellen Daneels, Lead Teacher Mentor

This morning I awoke to a troubling Facebook post by a colleague of mine from the east coast. My friend is a well-respected, veteran educator who teaches high school social studies. He shared how there had been a fire drill the day before and in response, he froze. He directed his students to stay in their seats to make sure it was not a false alarm. One of his students responded, “yea, to make sure this ain’t like Florida.”

It was not a false alarm and eventually, the fire drill was completed. But, this teacher’s response, and the response of his students was not an isolated event. Streams of educators throughout the nation responded to his post that they too experienced similar events in their school in the past week. One elementary teacher lamented that she told her 3rd graders that they were staying put until further confirmation during a fire safety exercise and one 8-year-old quickly agreed, “Yes because if an intruder pulled it, we’d all be going outside where it’s not safe.”

Early in my teaching career, one of my students was killed in a horrific traffic accident. Being a young teacher, I did not know how to respond to tragedy, it was left out of my teacher preparation program. Should I go on with the lesson at hand and avoid the topic altogether- thinking I might give my students (and myself) a respite from the loss, or should I address the grief we were all struggling with? I called my mentor for direction and he advised me to address the tragedy. He encouraged me that it not important that I have all of the answers, but it was imperative that I be present, open, listen and create a safe environment for my students to do the same. It was a heart -wrenching class, full of tears, memories and anger towards what we all felt was a preventable loss. After much discussion, the students launched a letter-writing campaign to local papers and elected officials demanding traffic lights be installed in the dangerous intersection that took their friend’s life. Communicating their grief and taking informed action was a cathartic process.


As educators, we have a responsibility to prioritize our students’ lived experiences in informing the essential questions we address in our curriculum. The proven practices mandated in the high school civics requirement as well as the new Illinois social studies standards support such endeavors. We must create civic spaces that engage students like current and controversial issue discussions that lead to students communicating conclusions and taking informed action (service learning). The Parkland High School students and their peers from around the nation are not going away. They are demonstrating that civic engagement does not begin and end with voting at 18, but encompasses a wide variety of issues and strategies for taking informed action, from lobbying, to social media campaigns, to advocacy.

My story and that of my colleague also point to the fact that educators need support in addressing tragedy in the classroom. Here are some resources that I hope will be helpful.
How do you address tragedy in troubling times? What are some of the strategies and resources you can share with others? What questions remain? Please comment below. Together, we can empower the youngest members of our community for civic engagement.