Refuse to be Silent About Things That Matter

by Mary Ellen Daneels, Lead Teacher Mentor

This past week, I joined many in my outrage over a controversial remarks by Iowa Congressman Steve King (R-4th) in a New York Times interview where he pondered, “White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization — how did that language become offensive? Why did I sit in classes teaching me about the merits of our history and our civilization?” The statement was just the latest in a history of racially charged comments and divisive actions by the Iowa politician.

The comment drew outrage from both the right and left of the spectrum, and resulted in King being stripped of his committee assignments in the U.S. House of Representatives. The House also passed a resolution rejecting white supremacy and white nationalism by a vote of 424 to 1. Congressman Bobby Rush of Illinois (D-1) was the one member who voted against the resolution, saying it did not go far enough. Rush has introduced his own censure resolution, which represents a stronger condemnation focused on the Iowa Republican.

As I reflected on these events, I also pondered on how well I have done as an educator in helping my students understand what was wrong with King’s statement. According to Congressman King, it was in history class that he learned that white supremacy and white nationalism was okay. As we near a holiday celebrating of a very different man named King, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, I wonder how we can use the proven practices of civic education to honor his legacy and continue his work for, in Dr. King’s words, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

While it can be uncomfortable, it is incumbent upon classrooms to address essential questions related to race, equity, justice and related themes that permeate social issues of both the past and present. This week, Teaching Tolerance published an article, Steve King Shows Why We Need Black History Month, citing, “King’s comments indicate not only a shocking willingness to express his personal racism but also how far we have to go when it comes to sharing the truths about the founding of the United States and the history of civilizations around the world.”

For classrooms looking for resources to honor the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and counter the narrative proposed by Congressman Steve King-here are some places to start:
How are you addressing essential questions relating to Congressman King’s comments? How are you honoring the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Black History Month? Please comment below. Together, we can equip all student for college, career and civic life.

Civic Education Systems Map Suggests Schools and Government Must Prioritize Subject

by Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Democracy Program Director

It is no secret to readers of the Illinois Civics blog that we believe sustained, school-wide commitments to civic learning will lead to the long-term resuscitation of the state’s civic health. The McCormick Foundation and Illinois Civics team are also active in the national movement to strengthen the field of civic learning through support for, and membership in, the CivXNow Coalition led by iCivics. The CivXNow Coalition prioritizes stronger state policies incentivizing school-based civic learning, expanded research and measurement of civic learning outcomes, and refined communication strategies to better make the case for the civic mission of schools.

As part of this effort, the Coalition fielded a two-part survey last year to determine why civic learning is so marginalized in schools, and what can be done to insure its prominence for posterity. More than 7,000 individuals participated, and Tufts University researchers produced a “Civic Education System Map” revealing the findings. The map identifies fourteen nodes representing interventions where there is broad agreement that these actions will improve the state of school-based civic learning (see below, and please click on the map and explore the nodes and relationships to one another that I explore in brief below).


Perhaps the ultimate goals of civic learning are represented by three of the nodes: youth are knowledgeable, youth are civically engaged, and civic life is healthy. Ten of the remaining eleven provide evidence of how we might go about achieving them. Multiple factors lead to improved youth civic knowledge, most prominently schools and government prioritizing civics, teachers’ capacity with civics instruction, and structured engagement with current and controversial issues (see the size and direction of the arrows).

Youth civic engagement is also a byproduct of schools valuing the subject, combined with schools’ overall quality. As is true of the knowledge side of the equation, the resource-starved civics field would benefit from increased funding to spur youth engagement.

A healthier civic life in the context of civic learning comes from greater government support. Given these commonalities, what can be done to strengthen schools and governmental support for civics? Government can ensure that schools teach civics in innovative ways inclusive of current and controversial issues through favorable policies and embedding it within accountability systems.

Societal support for civic learning is also key to schools prioritizing the subject and unlocking funding from government, philanthropy, and the private sector. A major driver of greater public support for civics is the way it is taught. Moving beyond lecture-based classrooms, we must engage students in discussions of current and controversial issues, service learning and other forms of action civics, and ensure that students’ diverse identifies are represented within curricular content.

These findings should give Illinois civics educators and champions a vote of confidence as daily efforts in classrooms, schools, and districts are fueling a positive feedback loop that leads to positive student outcomes and a stronger democracy statewide. However, our work is by no means complete.
  • We must drive civics instruction down to the earlier grades where it is most marginalized and explore opportunities to teach civics across the K-12 curriculum.
  • Teachers in all corners of the state need ongoing access to high-quality professional development and materials, and civic learning content and pedagogies should be embedded within pre-service programs.
  • And the state’s philanthropic and business communities must provide schools, districts, and nonprofit organizations with the supplemental resources necessary to scale and sustain effective civic learning practices.

Understanding Executive Orders

by Mary Ellen Daneels, Lead Teacher Mentor

One of the most prevalent current and controversial issues in the news to date is President Trump’s possible use of executive orders to proclaim a national emergency to secure funding to build a wall along the United States-Mexico border. The use of executive orders is one of the more confusing concepts within the system of separation of powers. The legislative branch makes the law, the executive enforces the law, and the judicial branch interprets the law—right? So, where does the power of executive orders to create public policy (i.e. to fund the building of a border wall) come from?

The essential question, “to what extent can the president use executive orders to create public policy?” is an enduring issue throughout our nation’s history. There are a number of resources teachers can use to help their students investigate and deliberate this enduring issue.
  • IllinoisCivics.org has an inquiry that helps students gather evidence to engage in a Socratic Seminar around the question, “Should the president use executive orders to create public policy?”
  • Civics 101 from New Hampshire Public radio has a short episode explaining executive orders.
  • The Annenberg Project has a video that examines Youngstown Steel & Tube Co v. Sawyer (1952) and the limits the U.S. Supreme Court put on the use of executive orders.
  • The National Constitution Center has a brief article called Executive Orders 101 that gives an overview of the history of executive orders.
  • The National Archives has a listing of past and present executive orders beginning with Franklin D. Roosevelt.
  • The History Channel has a wonderful summary of executive orders throughout history and resource links.
  • Our friends at icivics have a mini-lesson on the topic of executive orders.
  • Here is a TEDEd resource to explain executive orders.
  • Teaching Tolerance has a brief breakdown of executive orders to give teachers context to address this enduring issue.
Do you have a favorite resource to help student understand executive orders? Please comment below. Together, we can prepare all students for college, career and civic life.