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.