Remembering 9/11

by Mary Ellen Daneels, Instructional Specialist

Image by PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay
On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was preparing to chaperone a field trip of 120 freshmen to Chicago when the first plane hit the World Trade Center. In the hallway, my friend Jim exclaimed, “There has been a terrible plane accident in New York!” We proceeded to walk the students over to the local train station to make the trip into the city.

As the train stopped at our station and students were lined up to board, my department chair screeched into the parking lot and flew open the door to her car. “Get off the train! America is under attack. Get off the train!” There was no field trip that day. Everything changed.

One of my former students is now an administrator in our building. He recalls the confusion and unease in the days that followed and my attempt to create a safe space for students in those troubling times. He mused to me, “I remember that you were calm, but we could tell that you were kind of freaked out too. You answered all our questions and were honest. I felt better.”

Two years ago, Dr. Shawn Healy, the Director of the Democracy Program at the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, reflected on how the echoes of the attacks of September 11, 2001 continue to shape American politics. Shawn concluded, “...the implications of the September 11th attacks remain with us today, and the Trump presidency is a natural culmination of the reaction and counter-reaction to this fateful day.”

The events of 9/11 are history to students in today’s civics classroom. The tension between civil liberties and homeland security, the War on Terror at home and abroad are their “normal.” As we reflect on both the past and present to mourn all our nation lost on that fateful day, here are some classroom resources to support this work.
  • Marking the anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, C-SPAN Classroom has aggregated a number of resources, including oral history and testimonial videos, to help your students learn more about the day and the aftermath of the attacks.
  • The 9/11 Museum and Memorial have commemorative lessons for K-12 classrooms.
  • KQED has a lesson concerning the impacts of 9/11.
  • Teach Hub has several hyperlinks to resources from Scholastic and PBS Education to support instruction.
  • The 9/2 Social Studies Chat tackled the topic of Teaching Rememberance and Significance of 9/11 in which teachers shared their go-to resources to commemorate the day.
How do you mark 9/11 in your classroom? Please comment below. Together, we can prepare ALL students for college, career, and civic life.

Asset Mapping for #CivicsInTheMiddle

by Mary Ellen Daneels, Instructional Specialist

Starting in the 2020-2021 school year, civics will be required “in the middle.” Public Law 101-0254 requires at least one-semester civics within grades 6,7 and 8. This mandate not only prescribes what is taught in the classroom per the Illinois Social Science standards and school code requirements but also how it is taught, using four proven practices of civic education.

Anytime a new initiative is added to the required curriculum, it can be daunting. To begin this process, schools would be wise to identify the assets already in place and build on these foundations to meet the middle school civics requirement with fidelity. To this end, we have developed a simple Asset Mapping Tool for Middle School Civics to start the conversation. Educators can make a copy of this document to discern areas of strength and opportunities for growth.


In the upcoming months, the IllinoisCivics.org web site, blog, and newsletter will feature free resources to support each area of this audit. We will provide professional development opportunities throughout the state to meet regional needs. Please subscribe to our monthly newsletter for timely updates to support #CivicsInTheMiddle.

Illinois and the Social Sciences: What Are Our Middle School Students Learning?

by Scott McGallagher, Research Intern

When outstanding advancements in education occur, it is a shame to be stingy and not spread the news far and wide. As previous blogs have mentioned, #CivicsintheMiddle is now officially Public Act 101-0254, signed into law by Governor Pritzker in early August.

Beginning in the 2020-2021 school year, all public middle school students will be required to complete a semester of civics in either 6th, 7th, or 8th grade. New civics instruction will also reflect the proven practices of civic education, engaging students in direct instruction, simulations, discussions of current and controversial issues, and service-learning experiences. This summer, after many moving conversations with educators across the state, I was able to establish a baseline on the course sequence for Social Studies in middle-grade schools. In conjunction, several educators shared with me unique units and extracurricular projects which engage students in deeper learning beyond the standard curriculum.

The goal of the research design was to reach a representative sample of the 1,344 public middle and junior high schools across the state, and I was able to get feedback from 8 percent, or 102 individual schools. As a fellow civic learning advocate, I hope that Social Studies educators across the state may find this research insightful as we all collaborate to inculcate the knowledge, skills, and dispositions for our young people to be civically engaged in our communities.


The above table shows the general units covered and/or offered in the 6th grade. The vast majority (85%) of schools are covering ancient world history and its governance structure as well as Medieval Europe. Many schools establish a foundation of civic knowledge beginning with their 6th grade students by introducing the U.S. government, the U.S. Constitution and Illinois Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. One school in the central region of Illinois takes this approach a step further by also discussing macroeconomics, microeconomics, and how federal and state taxes work.

Below are exemplars of civic learning practices that some schools are already engaging their students in:
  • A Chicagoland school draws current and controversial issue discussion topics through curriculum guides from Facing History and Ourselves and Junior Scholastic.
  • Social Studies teachers at another Chicagoland school take a hyperlocal approach to current events with their middle school students. This past school year, teachers structured discussions and debates around the Chicago Mayoral Election, how the Chicago municipal government functions, and voting rights across the world.
  • 6th and 8th graders at this Chicagoland school complete a “Democracy Project”, where students couple informed action research with solving school and community-at-large issues.

Of the 86 schools where I gathered feedback from 7th grade Social Studies teachers, a small majority (62%) are covering U.S. history from colonization up until the Civil War. As well, nearly one-third (31%) of teachers specifically outline in their curriculum or syllabus that students will complete a U.S. and/or Illinois Constitution assessment created by the said teacher.

Many schools are setting strong examples for how teachers can engage their 7th and 8th graders civically:
  • Two Chicagoland school incorporate economics into their civics unit which engages 7th and 8th graders in a deeper understanding of the movement of goods, people, and services as well as trade amongst nations.
  • Another pair of Chicagoland schools simulate democratic processes and role-playing activities with their 7th- and 8th-grade students. Students simulate mock Supreme Court cases, mock sessions of Congress, and debates where students consider multiple points of view.
  • One school in Central Illinois and another in Chicagoland stress the importance of media literacy in a digitally connected age with their students. How to find credible information, how to research scholarly databases, the importance of press freedom, and the threat of disinformation campaigns are all imperative topics discussed in this unit of study.

A large majority (79%) of 8th grade students are covering U.S. History from the late 19th and early 20th century to modern times in their Social Studies classes. Nearly one-quarter (24%) of 8th grade Social Studies teachers structure a self-made assessment of the U.S. and/or Illinois Constitution in their curriculum.

Many middle and junior high schools across our great state have taken steps to engage with our young people in what it means to have healthy civic dispositions. Since the rollout of the High School Civics Law in 2015, McCormick Foundation civic education partners have committed their resources and time to high school civics and may now turn their supports to our middle-grade students.

Potential supports identified through this research project include promoting more simulations of democratic processes and role-playing, informed action/service-learning projects, and discussions of current and controversial issues through class and/or small group discussions. It is a very exciting moment in time for civic educators and advocates across the state, and the Democracy Program staff of the McCormick Foundation are resilient in our pursuit of high-quality civic learning experiences for all of Illinois’s young people.

#CivicsInTheMiddle Is Law in the Land of Lincoln - What Now?

by Mary Ellen Daneels, Instructional Specialist

As Shawn shared in last week’s blog, a required semester of civics within grades 6-8 is now Illinois law. Starting in the 2020-21 school year, middle school students are mandated to receive at least a semester of civics instruction that focuses not only on the disciplinary content outlined in the Illinois Social Science Standards, but also employs the proven practices of civic education. These methods include direct instruction on democratic institutions, simulations of democratic processes, current and societal issue discussions, and service-learning.

Schools that have embraced the pedagogical shifts reflected in the new standards are well-positioned to fulfill the requirements of this mandate. Many middle schools have redesigned their civics curriculum to go beyond teaching to the perceived “Constitution Test” requirement, but used the new standards to create essential questions that serve as a catalyst to student-led inquiries that result in more authentic performance assessments of civic learning.

Last school year, I had the privilege to collaborate with middle school teachers in a workshop titled, Inquiry to Informed Action: Engaging Students with Current & Societal Issues hosted by Skokie/Morton Grove School District 69. The workshop focused on how teachers can create a supportive classroom climate to engage in inquiry around current and societal issues that result in service-learning. Matthew Arends from Gemini Junior High in Niles attended the workshop and took a sample lesson from IllinoisCivics.org on arming teachers back to his classroom. This lesson was designed to help students practice citizenship skills in a problem-based case scenario that served as a simulation of democratic processes. After making a few “tweaks” to meet the needs of his students, the class engaged in a Structured Academic Controversy, a highly organized deliberation format to support current and societal issue discussions. Students took informed action through service learning, polling their peers and other stakeholders. Students shared the results with a school board member to inform his vote on a pending resolution at the Illinois Association of School Board Conference regarding arming teachers. The success of this lesson was grounded in the foundation Matthew created in direct instruction on democratic institutions the provided foundational knowledge to his students on the constitutional concepts of federalism and limited government.

This peek into a middle school classroom illustrates what implementation of the civics mandate might look like. Over the next several weeks, I will unpack the middle school civics requirement and illustrate how the proven practices of civic education embedded in the law reflect and enhance the standards work so many districts have embarked upon — with more examples of how teachers can put this new policy into practice.

#CivicsInTheMiddle Is Law in the Land of Lincoln

by Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Democracy Program Director

On Friday, Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker signed House Bill (HB) 2265 into law. Now officially Public Act 101-0254, the law requires a semester of civics in grades 6, 7, or 8, employing direct instruction, discussion of current and societal issues, service learning, and simulations of democratic processes. It takes effect at the beginning of the 2020-2021 school year.

We are deeply appreciative of Representative Camille Lilly’s sponsorship in consecutive General Assemblies of a middle school civics requirement. While she believed deeply and supported the high school requirement passed in 2015, Rep. Lilly felt that high school was too late to begin cultivating students’ civic development. Beginning next fall, middle school students for generations to come will benefit from Public Act 101-0254, entering high school, and later adulthood with the knowledge, skills, attitudes, and behaviors necessary for informed, effective, and lifelong engagement in the civic life of Illinois.

Senate sponsor Jacqueline Collins proved a fierce advocate in the upper chamber, shepherding the bill through a contentious committee hearing and ultimate passage on the floor with a bi-partisan supermajority.

A coalition of civic organizations mobilized behind HB 2265, but two deserve special recognition. CHANGE Illinois, led by Madeleine Doubek and recently-departed Jeff Raines, placed #CivicsInTheMiddle at the center of their policy agenda and actively worked the legislative roll call, helping to build a healthy list of House and Senate co-sponsors.

Our American Voice, led by Sheila Smith and John Fontanetta of the Barat Foundation, showcased their statewide middle school civics service learning program in both Chicago and Springfield. The latter event coincided with the final weeks of the legislative session and included legislative visits by student participants and a meeting with Governor Pritzker on the Capitol steps.


As was true of our high school push four years prior, students and teachers in the trenches were the heart and soul of the #CivicsInTheMiddle Campaign. This includes our statewide network of Illinois Democracy Schools, 74 strong, and Illinois Civics Teacher Mentors, a group of veteran civics teachers that led the charge for high school course implementation in their respective regions, 38 in all.

As with the high school course, we propose a three-year plan to help middle school teachers, schools, and districts incorporate a civics course in grades 6, 7, or 8. Highlights include:
  • Ongoing teacher professional development opportunities, both in person and online, offered in partnership with civic education nonprofits and institutional partners, including universities and regional offices of education.
  • A new partnership with the Lou Frey Institute at the University of Central Florida to build online learning modules for teachers centered on the proven civic learning practices: discussion, service learning, and simulations, respectively. Participating teachers will earn microcredentials in each practice. We anticipate the first module, focused on discussion of current and controversial issues, to launch this winter.
  • Illinois Civics Instructional Coaches representing ten Illinois regions. Civics Instructional Coaches will receive in-depth training both in-person and via webinars. Civics Coaches, in turn, will facilitate professional development for middle and high school civics/social studies teachers in their respective regions. Civics Coaches will also be responsible for ongoing engagement with Regional Offices of Education, teachers, schools, districts, and pre-service programs in their area via newsletters, social media engagement, workshops, and conference presentations throughout the school year.
  • As was true of our high school efforts, we will partner with Center for Information Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) to evaluate the impact of our implementation efforts, beginning with the online microcredentialing system. This spring, CIRCLE administered a survey to middle school teachers and administrators to further assessment implementation needs. Preliminary results are summarized here and will further shape these preliminary plans.

#CivicsInTheMiddle is the latest of several policy wins for Illinois’ civic learning community and reason to celebrate. But now the hard work of implementation begins in earnest. We are grateful for the longstanding and deep commitment to youth civic development among our civic learning and institutional partners and most importantly, teachers in the trenches. We look forward to continued collaboration in the months and years ahead. The long-term prognosis for Illinois’ civic health is promising because we have collectively chosen to invest in high-quality, school-based civic learning.

Broad Public Support for Civics Transcends Ideological Divides; Parents Must See Value Proposition

by Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Democracy Program Director

PDK’s 51st annual Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools (N=2,389) produced a promising finding of near universal support for the teaching of civics (97%), with 70% agreeing that the subject should be required. This is a timely data point in Illinois with Governor Pritzker signing House Bill (HB) 2265 on Friday, legislation to require a semester of civics in Illinois middle schools. Now Public Act 101-0254, it takes effect next July prior to the 2020-2021 school year.

Until recently, civics has been increasingly marginalized as schools focus narrowly on literacy and numeracy, tested subjects that arguably correlate with success in college and careers. According to the PDK Poll, a plurality of teachers rates the civic mission of schools as the primary goal of public education, while most parents prioritize academics.


Parents are also less supportive of required civics courses than the adult population at large (60% versus 70%) and public school teachers (81%). One issue may be some parents’ (29%) concern that courses include political content they personally disagree with. Clearly, the civic learning community must do more to build support among this critical stakeholder group, including making the case for structured engagement with current and controversial issues.


Moreover, despite the ideological rift among civics practitioners centering on teaching patriotism and building attachment to government institutions versus empowering students to build a more perfect union, the survey data suggests that this is a false choice. The vast majority of parents (78%), adults (79%), and teachers (855) believe that civics embodies both facts and values, including honesty, civility, respect for authority, and acceptance of people of different religions. Large majorities also back an emphasis on patriotism (81%) and acceptance of people of different sexual orientations (74%).

Illinois is increasingly becoming a model for state and district policies supportive of students’ K-12 civic development. Civics has flourished from Chicago to Carbondale and across student demographic groups. Our collective work is by no means finished. With Governor Pritzker’s assent to HB 2265, we have the implementation challenge of a career. Along the way, we’ll continue to cultivate public support for civics, acknowledging that the civic mission of schools can only be fulfilled when all stakeholders, parents included, rally to the cause.

Guest Blog: Student Voice = Essential Questions + Memorable Conversations

Dan Fouts has taught AP government, philosophy and US history in the Chicagoland area and is a member of the Social Studies Department at Maine West High School, an Illinois Democracy School. Dan has served as a member of the committee on pre-collegiate instruction in philosophy through the American Philosophical Association from 2012-2016. Additionally, he has presented at several National Council for the Social Studies conferences and has instructed online courses since 2004 through Aurora, Quincy, and Adams State University. To fuel his passion for teaching teachers how to create and use essential questions in their classrooms, Dan manages a blog with Teach Different and a personal blog SocratesQuestions, both of which celebrate the power of inquiry-based classrooms.
Having a good classroom conversation is hard these days.

Consider what we’re up against.

Outside school, amidst the polarization of political views and clutter of social media, our students have few places to go to see what good conversations look like, not to mention the fact that they are already distracted by technology. And then in the classroom, we compound the problem inadvertently by racing through our curriculum and never setting aside enough time to digest big ideas.

The greatest benefit to conversations is the long term — they give our students the feeling that their voices matter and that they have something meaningful to add to the community. When student voice is validated through classroom conversations, a road is paved for future participation in the political process. Political efficacy grows and our national discourse improves. There’s a ton at stake here.

Teach Different, a teacher professional development organization in Chicago, has developed a process that teachers can employ to do two things:
  1. Set up great conversations
  2. Formulate provocative essential questions
The process comes in three steps and draws its inspiration from philosophy, borrowing most from the wisdom of the greatest questioner and conversation artist of them all, Socrates. He knew way before all of us that asking profound questions and engaging people in dialogue was the best way to establish and nurture student voice.

Here’s a quick 2-minute cartoon summarizing the process, beginning with a provocative quote from the Chinese philosopher Confucius: “If you want to embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.”

 

 In steps one and two teachers and students think deeply about a provocative quotation and consider claims and counterclaims surrounding it. The essential question, designed in step three, then becomes the hitching post for a memorable conversation connected to the curriculum. The key to the essential question is accessibility — it must coax students to draw out their own lived experiences, which in turn invests them emotionally in the ensuing conversation. In this way, the essential question promotes student voice by tending to the social-emotional needs of all learners. ( Beyond accessibility, there are other important criteria of essential questions that are outlined nicely in Mary Ellen Daneels' post a few weeks ago).

Good conversations are difficult to have, but not impossible. Like anything else, their success is dependent on careful planning and adherence to a consistent routine over time.

What strategies and routines have you found successful in creating better conversations and promoting student voice? Please comment below and share your ideas!

Additional Conversation Resources
  1. More examples of the 3-step process taken from Teach Different blog
  2. A sign-up form to request a Teach Different teacher training video which explores the 3-step process more in depth. In a follow up email, there is information on an online course through Adams State University for teachers who want to customize the process to their own curriculum.
  3. A great resource from Facing History and Ourselves which shows how to create a respectful classroom community before having conversations. It’s called Classroom Contracting.
  4. A strategy from Edutopia called “Talk Moves”, which promotes academic thinking and social connectedness.

Do you REALLY want to hang that poster? Creating Civic and Collaborative Spaces

by Mary Ellen Daneels, Lead Teacher Mentor

There is a new teacher poster that is making the rounds on social media (see image to the left). I would say that the majority seem to “like” the message of the piece. I dissent.

The poster reads:

NOTICE TO ALL STUDENTS
Leave the excuses at the door.
If you didn’t do your homework, just admit it.
If you didn’t understand the assignment, ask for help.
If you didn’t study for the test,
Accept the grade and resolve to do better
(with my help if necessary) next time.
If you refuse to follow my rules, accept the consequences.
This is not a democracy.
This is MY classroom,
And I’m here for one reason and one reason only:
TO TEACH YOU
TO INSPIRE YOU
TO HELP YOU GROW
I’ll do my part. The rest is up to you.

I have to admit, I connect with the frustration and issues the poster addresses. I would also say that at one point in my practice, on a very bad day, I might have considered hanging this up in my classroom. But now, when I reflect on this image, I am sad for both the teacher and students in the classroom where this hangs. I think “right problem, wrong solution.”

Is it important for students to take responsibility and ownership of learning? Yes. Is it important to have clear norms and expectations of how the classroom will be run? Yes. Is this poster the way to create a civic and collaborative space for learning and engagement? I say no.

One of the proven practices of civic education is the role of student voice in school governance. The Guardian of Democracy report states, “A long tradition of research suggests that giving students more opportunities to participate in the management of their own classrooms and schools builds their civic skills and attitudes.” This poster silences student voice and emphatically declares, “this is not a democracy,” implying student participation in classroom management is not welcome.

In my experience, if you are the benevolent dictator of your classroom, you are missing a vital learning opportunity for students to experience the power of democratic processes to address the essential question, “How should we live together?” in the classroom and in society at large.

Further, when self-advocacy in times of difficulty is seen as “an excuse”, or worse, insubordination, we, as teachers, are doing our students a disservice and ignoring our responsibility to, as the poster says, “teach, inspire, and help students grow.”

If you choose to set the tone for the year with the statement, “this is MY classroom,” you absolve students of any pride or ownership of success. They are simply there to do what they are told. This goes completely against “establishing a culture of learning” per the Danielson Framework for Effective Teaching and other best pedagogical practices that prepare students for college, career, and civic life.

Speaking of best practice, how does this poster align with Social Emotional Learning Competencies? What about Culturally Responsive Teaching practices? How well does this poster support the tenents of Restorative Justice? What message does this poster send about privilege and power, especially to students systematically impacted by the civic empowerment gap? Meira Levinson, in her widely acclaimed 2012 book Leave no Citizen Behind, outlines a "...profound civic empowerment gap...between ethnographical minority, naturalized, and especially poor citizens, on one hand, and white, native-born, and especially middle-class and wealthy citizens on the other."

ALL educators are civic educators. The way we run our schools, our classrooms, the climate we create with our practices and policies all send messages students about power, identity, equity, justice — key concepts that are core to civics. To ignore the role of democratic classroom practices that engage students in the management of their classrooms and schools denies them the opportunity to build their civic skills and attitudes. To this end, these undemocratic practices widen the civic empowerment gap and do a disservice to the civic mission of schools.

So, what can replace this poster? How can we create a civic and collaborative space for students to thrive during the school year in which clear norms and expectations are clearly defined to create mutual respect and responsibility for learning? Here are some alternatives.
How are you planning to “set the tone” this coming school year? Please comment below. Together, we can prepare all students for college, career and civic life.

Let's Talk About the "Required" Constitution Test

by Mary Ellen Daneels, Lead Teacher Mentor

Photo by Ben Mullins on Unsplash
As I have traveled around the state of Illinois to support implementation of the high school civics requirement and pending middle school civics legislation, one of the biggest concerns I have heard is, “How will we have time to prepare students for the required Constitution test? I will never have time to cover all 200 questions on the test if I have to make time for student-centered inquiry, discussions, simulations, and service learning!”



The Illinois State Board of Education states:
American patriotism and the principles of representative government, as enunciated in the American Declaration of Independence, the Constitution of the United States of America and the Constitution of the State of Illinois, and the proper use and display of the American flag, shall be taught in all public schools and other educational institutions supported or maintained in whole or in part by public funds. No student shall receive a certificate of graduation without passing a satisfactory examination upon such subjects. 105 ILCS 5/27 3 (from Ch. 122, par. 27 3)

This provision requires that students receive instruction and examination on the U.S. and Illinois State Constitutions - but does NOT mandate a 100-200 question multiple choice examination of disparate facts. The choice of how to measure student growth is left to local control.

The new Illinois Social Science standards and civics mandates require new thinking about assessment. Just as passing the Rules of the Road exam does not sufficiently demonstrate a person is ready to operate a motor vehicle; the ability to pass a 200 question Constitution Test does not illustrate adequate preparation for civic life.

One of the key questions when designing instruction and examination based on the standards and the civics mandate is, “how will we know students have learned it?” A select-item multiple choice exercise could be a starting point to measure aspects of knowledge, but what about the skills and dispositions associated with civic engagement? Educators have identified the need to create assessments where students can demonstrate competency in these areas “beyond the bubble,”

To this end, Illinois Civics is partnering with the American Institutes for Research - Midwest Comprehensive Center to support teachers in creating performance assessments that not only measure student growth in civics, but enhance the learning process. These one day workshops will introduce educators to strategies to build classroom performance assessment tasks in civics aligned to the standards where students get opportunities to demonstrate what they are learning. Educators will walk away with resources, tools, and templates to create their own classroom performance assessment tasks in civics. Two workshops are scheduled this summer and more will be available throughout the state in the fall. The workshops are based on The Center for Standards and Assessment Implementation Assessment Design Toolkit - a great resource for educators looking to rethink how they assess student learning.

What are some ways you are rethinking assessment per the Illinois Social Science standards and civics requirements? Please comment below. Together, we can prepare students for college, career, and civic life.

Illinois Middle School Social Studies Teachers Thirsty for Professional Development Opportunities

by Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Democracy Program Director

On Tuesday, I analyzed data from a spring survey of Illinois middle school administrators to inform our presumptive implementation plan should Governor J.B. Pritzker sign legislation to require middle school civics (House Bill 2265) this summer. This companion post will summarize the findings of a parallel survey of middle school social studies teachers conducted by our research partner, the Center for Information Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tufts University. One hundred eighty-two teachers completed the survey as of June 11.

A middle school civics requirement would be a game-changer as only 10% of survey respondents report the subject is addressed in a stand-alone course. Thankfully, 80% suggest it’s integrated into other social studies courses, and only 6% claim it isn’t explicitly taught at all (see chart below).


Turning to key course content, the U.S. Constitution, governmental structures, federalism, and major themes of U.S. history are a major emphasis of one or more units in existing courses. However, the relationship between the U.S. and other nations is underemphasized, as is the role of citizens in shaping public policy, media literacy, and service learning.

On the pedagogical side of the equation, teachers are most comfortable with group projects, discussions of current and controversial issues, and critical media analysis (researching, discussing, and writing about news from multiple sources and perspectives). Teachers report less confidence in facilitating simulations of democratic processes, service learning, and public policy analysis.

While service learning and simulations are among the instructional practices teachers prioritize for implementation, current and controversial issues discussions top the list. Echoing their administrative colleagues, teachers find that discussions generate “student buy-in,” ensuring they are “informed and educated on hot topics in our world today.” Moreover, controversial issues discussions “allow…students to share differing points of view” and “…see the importance and connections to their own lives.”

Teachers are less apt than administrators to see civic learning emphasized across academic disciplines at their schools, or to identify civics-related professional development (PD) opportunities, collaboration time, or curricular resources. In fact, the vast majority of teachers have never received training on a range of civic learning content and pedagogies or have learned how to incorporate them only informally (see graph below).


Like administrators, middle school teachers are eager to take advantage of PD opportunities centered on integrating civics across the curriculum, aligning curriculum with current standards, and proven civic learning practices that foster students’ civic development. This may help to combat indentified barriers like teachers’ limited buy-in, the larger marginalization of the social studies, lack of coherence in the existing social studies curriculum, and a perceived lack of support among families for addressing “hot topics.”
Rest assured that this valuable feedback provided by Illinois middle school civics teachers and administrators will inform development of our presumptive implementation plan, and that we will measure progress against this baseline, reporting regularly on what we are learning and the extent to which the new course requirement is implemented with fidelity.

Illinois Middle School Administrators Identify Opportunities for Course Integration

by Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Democracy Program Director

Legislation to require middle school civics (House Bill 2265) awaits consideration by Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker, and the Illinois Civics team is hard at work designing a presumptive implementation plan. As I mentioned in the spring, we partnered with the Center for Information Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tufts University to determine the presumptive implementation needs of teachers, schools, and districts through a survey of middle school social studies teachers and administrators. This first post of a two-part series will dissect the findings from 45 administrators who completed the survey as of June 11.

As with the high school civics course requirement, Illinois middle schools would begin implementing a parallel requirement from a position of strength. A majority of those surveyed “strongly agree” that their school or district emphasizes civic knowledge (69%), participatory skills for active citizens (62%), commitments to upholding democratic ideals (59%), and intellectual skills for informed citizens (57%) for all students, regardless of their backgrounds or achievement levels.

On the other hand, service learning has been the greatest challenge with high school implementation, and less than one-third of middle school administrators report that it’s currently required for all students (30%; see graph below). However, administrators also identify service learning as a future priority as it develops student engagement and enthusiasm in the subject area and connects direct instruction and discussion with active citizenship.


While half of administrators “strongly agree” that civic learning is reflected in writing or reality in their school missions, a full quarter disagree and a fifth aren’t sure. These findings parallel those of a national Education Week survey of school administrators that I analyzed in April.

However, broad alignment of current and controversial issues discussions across academic disciplines (66% “agree”) and “strong encouragement” for teachers to discuss political issues in their classrooms (51% “agree”) provide solid grounding for a middle school civics course centered on discussion.

There was no consensus on the state of teacher professional development (PD) in civics (see graph below; the teachers have a decidedly different view on this subject, which we’ll take up in the next post). Acknowledging the challenge of adding a new course to an already-packed curriculum, many administrators see an opportunity for middle school civics implementation through PD, ongoing support, and “grade level appropriate materials,” a mix central to our three-year plan.


Reflecting on the Spring 2019 Democracy Schools Network Convening

by Scott McGallagher, Research Intern

The Spring 2019 Convening of the Democracy Schools Network brought together many familiar faces, and some new, who hold a stake in the civic development of young people in Illinois. Democracy Schools are high schools recognized for consciously promoting civic engagement by all students, focusing intentionally on fostering participatory citizenship and placing an emphasis on helping students understand how the fundamental ideals and principles of our democratic society relate to important current problems, opportunities, and controversies. Since 2006, 74 high schools have been recognized throughout Illinois for making this commitment to schoolwide civic learning.

The theme for this year’s convening revolved around “Lived Civics in Democracy Schools,” where the day provided opportunities to engage Democracy Schools Network (DSN) team leaders, administrators and Democracy Program partners to engage in this topic and reflect on Lived Civics principles as a foundation for Democracy Schools. Program Officer Sonia Mathew presented new indicators of civic efficacy that embed a Lived Civics framework and launched a new Democracy Schools assessment process to those gathered. Democracy Program Director Shawn Healyrounded out the day by energizing Network stakeholders with an overview of the Middle School Civics Bill, which is now heading to Governor Pritzker’s desk for signing!

The morning started with a warm welcome that set the context for Lived Civics with brief remarks from Chief Education Officer LaTanya McDade from Chicago Public Schools. Afterwards, a panel discussion moderated by Jessica Marshall, PhD candidate from Northwestern University (and one of the co-authors of “Let’s Go There: Making the Case for Race, Ethnicity, and a Lived Civics Approach to Civic Education”), included panelists Michele Morales, CEO of Mikva Challenge; Courtney Barnes, UIC Graduate Student and Lindblom Math and Science Academy Alumni; Homero PeƱuelas, Assistant Principal of Curie Metro High School; and Jason Janczak, Social Studies Department Chair at Grayslake Central High School. Panelists were asked to reflect on the Lived Civics framework and how it affected their work.


Student voice and its relationship to identity and lived experiences was a key takeaway from our panelists. The panelists also reaffirmed that it is an educator’s duty to teach students how to listen with empathy, value everyone’s point of view, and be more comfortable with being uncomfortable. Another takeaway that not only spoke to me, but was shared with so many others, is that so many schools and educators are struggling with similar obstacles and that the pursuit of equity is an ongoing, yet worthwhile, battle. We need to recognize that biases and prejudices exist even in more inclusive and diverse schools, so continuously holding ourselves accountable is a must.

Breakout sessions after the morning panel discussion split the administrators, teachers, and partners into various groups where each explored Lived Civics at a deeper level and tasked the groups to identify strengths and opportunities of their respective schools or organizations. In synthesizing the evaluations from the convening, some teachers expressed that knowing their students is not the same thing as truly understanding them. If teachers are to build a more meaningful connection with their students, the intentionality should be coupled with time and resources to devote to individual students.

Administrators shared a similar sentiment with teachers in that practicing intentionality will help lead to more meaningful student-teacher relationships. Also, some administrators shared one idea of including students more in the school decision-making process by inviting students to interdepartmental meetings.


Partners expressed that they were exposed to civic engagement opportunities that had been previously shrouded to them. One made a point to say that we — educators and practitioners alike — are not “frenemies,” we are all on the same path together.

The overarching goal of the day, and arguably the Lived Civics framework, was to give those gathered the tools of knowing “what to do next.” Educators and practitioners understand the “how” and the “why” of Lived Civics, now the framework gives them tools for action. Sharing the tools and approaches acquired with colleagues is not only a step that many ascribed to taking, but also sharing this with decision-makers above them. Others recognized the need to couple Lived Civics practices with social-emotional learning in classrooms, both supporting each other. Lastly, but certainly not least, many expressed the desire to be the catalysts in sparking constructive conversations in their work environments around issues of power, privilege, race, and lived experiences.

I want to leave us with some questions that the groups from the convening posed as what comes next and how we should approach it. These questions will hopefully help guide us in how we can professionally and personally strive towards molding communities that are equitable, just, and responsive.
  • How do we use Lived Civics to get white students on board with truly grasping students of color’s lived experiences? How do we tackle “white fragility” with both young people and adults?
  • What does Lived Civics look like in different schools/communities around the state of Illinois?
  • What will Lived Civics look like in classes outside the social sciences? How will we create “buy-in” at an interdisciplinary level?
  • How can we increase school-community partnerships in environments that are perceived as “polarizing” or not open to change?
  • Where are there opportunities to bring young people from across the state (urban, suburban, and rural) together for these conversations?

Constructing Curriculum with Essential Questions

by Mary Ellen Daneels, Lead Teacher Mentor
As the school year comes to a close, construction season descends. While most of people equate “construction season” with road delays, orange cones, and detours, many educators embark on their own season of construction with curriculum design. Summer is the time to reflect on the successes and challenges of the previous school year and redesign curriculum to better meet student needs.

The new Illinois Social Science Standards require that curricular design be guided by inquiry which is grounded in essential questions. So, what makes a great essential question? Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins, in their book Essential Questions, provide the following considerations in curating essential questions to construct curriculum.
  1. Is open-ended; that is, it typically will not have a single, final, and correct answer.
  2. Is thought-provoking and intellectually engaging, often sparking discussion and debate.
  3. Calls for higher-order thinking, such as analysis, inference, evaluation, prediction. It cannot be effectively answered by recall alone.
  4. Points toward important, transferable ideas within (and sometimes across) disciplines.
  5. Raises additional questions and sparks further inquiry.
  6. Requires support and justification, not just an answer.
  7. Recurs over time; that is, the question can and should be revisited again and again.
The standards are not prescriptive how many essential questions should be used in curriculum design, but the prompts should guide how students will communicate conclusions in the summative assessment. Further, the BEST essential questions provide a platform for taking informed action or engaging in the civic proven practice of service learning.

The C3 Framework from the National Council for the Social Studies makes reference to “compelling questions” for inquiry design. C3Teachers maintains that compelling questions must meet two requirements.
  • First, they have to be intellectually meaty. That means that a compelling question needs to reflect an enduring issue, concern, or debate in social studies and it has to draw on multiple disciplines. For example, “Was the American Revolution revolutionary?” works as a compelling question because it signals a continuing argument about how to interpret the results of the Revolution.
  • The second condition defining a compelling question is the need to be student-friendly. By student-friendly, I mean a question that reflects some quality or condition that teachers know students care about and that honors and respects students’ intellectual efforts. The American Revolution question above seems to fit these qualifications as well: It brings students into an authentic debate and it offers the possibility that adults may be confused—how could the American Revolution not be revolutionary? The latter is a condition that students tend to find especially fascinating.
The summary of compelling questions from S.G. Grant points to a key distinction between compelling questions and essential questions that Illinois educators wrestle with in curriculum design. While all essential questions are compelling, not all compelling questions are essential. Compelling questions are open ended and debatable, but often they are contextualized. “Was the American Revolution revolutionary?” applies only to the American Revolution, it does not meet McTighe and Wiggins consideration of a prompt that recurs over time.
I have found that Essential Questions lead more easily to the informed action of service learning. I am not sure how a student would take informed action on the question, “Was the American Revolution revolutionary?” However, if I gave that question a bit of a “makeover” to really define the “why” or the enduring understanding of this unit of inquiry on the American Revolution, I might craft a question that is both compelling and essential. Some examples might include:
  • What makes an idea “revolutionary?”
  • What principles are worth fighting for?
  • When does a “moment” become a “movement?”
  • When should one question authority?
  • Is conflict inevitable?
  • Can one person make a difference?
  • To what extent have we lived up to the ideals of the American Revolution?
You can see how these questions meet the requirements of a compelling question, but also recur over time in multiple contexts, making them essential as well. The queries also point to possible informed action. Students can communicate their conclusions to the question using the curriculum content and go a step further and engage in meaningful service learning to apply their conclusions to take informed action in the community, local or global.

When embarking on constructing your own essential questions to construct inquiry, here are resources I have found helpful.
What are some of the essential questions you are using in curriculum design? What are your favorite resources to support this work? Please comment below! Together, we can prepare ALL students for college, career and civic life.

I'll Jump First

by Mary Ellen Daneels, Lead Teacher Mentor

Podcasts are an integral part of my continuing professional development. Through podcasts, I can keep on top of current events, learn from other educators, delve deep into social studies related content as well as pursue other interests outside of the classroom.

Imagine my delight when I was asked to be a guest on the Park Ridge-Niles District 64 Podcast, I’ll Jump First! The podcast is produced “by teachers for teachers”. The topic of our conversation was Questioning in the Classroom, more specifically engaging student voice in inquiry.

The 30+ minute conversation with District 64 Technology Instructional Coaches Megan Preis, Kevin Michael, and Mary Jane Warden delved into the opportunities and challenges of supporting K-12 classrooms in questioning. We also shared a bevy of resources that can be used by teachers to scaffold instructional shifts around the new Illinois Social Science standards and civic education requirement.

I hope you will give the episode a listen and follow these amazing educators on social media. District 64 is a leader in meaningful integration of technology to support student inquiry leading to informed action.

If you are looking for some resources to help you “jump” into engaging student voice in questioning, here are some of the resources we shared in our conversation — but you will have to listen to catch them all!
What strategies have you used to support student inquiry and questioning in the classroom? Please comment below. Together, we can support ALL students in college, career and civic life success.

A Veteran Civics Teacher’s Case for #CivicsInTheMiddle

by Mary Ellen Daneels, Lead Teacher Mentor

The Election of 2018 has often been called a “Sputnik” moment for civic education. No matter where you fall on the political spectrum, both sides of the aisle have been increasingly alarmed by the effects of political polarization on our republic. One of the unintended consequences of educational initiatives related to STEM and No Child Left Behind is that social studies has been increasingly marginalized in grades K-8. By passing HB 2265 on Tuesday, the Illinois Senate Education Committee took a positive step towards returning to the civic mission of schools and putting “civics in the middle” through legislation requiring a least a semester of civics within grades 6, 7, and 8.

While the Illinois civics standards and school code requirements clearly describe knowledge needed to prepare students for civic engagement (content) — HB 2265 is needed to further define the skills and dispositions educators need to build in students through the use of direct instruction on government institutions, current and societal issue discussions, simulations of democratic processes, and service learning (proven pedagogical practices).

Why are these proven practices so powerful? When we engage students in:
  • Direct instruction of government institutions, young people learn about our federal system of government. They learn how local, state and federal governments divide power for efficiency and efficacy. Young people understand that they are important members of society with rights and responsibilities that they can exercise NOW to make their community a better place.
  • Simulations of democratic process, young people learn how government institutions work and how to navigate networks related to voting, jury service, the legislative process, criminal justice, and other complex systems. Students build an appreciation for the service of elected officials and participatory citizenship.
  • Current and societal issue discussions, students build important literacy skills related to reading, writing, speaking and listening. Students learn how to curate complex information and build media literacy capacities. Dispositions related to critical thinking, communication, creativity, collaboration, and compassion for others are employed and used as they work together to understand and address issues related to equity, identity, justice, power, and liberty.
  • Service learning, we are not waiting for students to turn 18 to practice citizenship — we provide an opportunity for them to take real world action in a safe environment NOW through investigation, planning, preparation, action, reflection, and demonstration of learning.


What might this look like in classroom practice? Consider Matthew Arends from Gemini Junior High in Niles. This past fall, his class engaged in an examination of the current and societal issue of school safety after preparation by Matthew through direct instruction. After engaging in a Structured Academic Controversy on arming teachers, students used a simulation of democratic processes to deliberate the issue. To communicate their conclusions, students took informed action through service learning, polling their peers and other stakeholders. Students shared the results with a school board member to inform his vote on a pending resolution regarding arming teachers.

Matthew’s students provide a snapshot of the work many middle schools have embarked on with the new Illinois Social Science Standards through inquiry leading to informed action. HB 2265 will ensure that ALL students in the state have equitable opportunities to build and use civic knowledge no matter their race, socioeconomic status, or geographic location.

In the past few years, the #CivicsIsBack team has worked with over 2000 middle school teachers throughout the state of Illinois. We have found that with no state mandated social science coursework requirements, some schools choose to “cover social studies” in double periods of Language Arts classes through the periodic use of historical texts taught as pieces of literature, but not necessarily in their historical context. In other schools, there is no explicit instruction of civics beyond a week of preparation for a multiple choice exam on the U.S. and Illinois Constitution. These realities are not an indictment, rather the consequence of social studies being squeezed out as a result of other initiatives. This is a disservice to the youngest citizens to our communities. ALL students deserve access to the knowledge and skills needed to navigate our political institutions and an opportunity to explore their rights and responsibilities in this republic.

The McCormick Foundation is taking the lead and using the successes of the high school course implementation to support middle school teachers, schools, and districts to incorporate civics in 6th, 7th, or 8th grade. This will be done through a three-year, privately funded plan in which $1 million dollars with be invested annually to support professional development and the development of resources for #CivicsInTheMiddle.

How can you support the equitable preparation of ALL Illinois students for civic engagement?
  • Contact your state senator and urge him or her to vote “yes” for HB 2265.
  • If you are a middle school educator, please take this online survey to assess needs for implementation.
  • If you are a high school educator, please take this online survey to assess the implementation of high school civics — this information will further guide our work in this space and in middle school.
  • Subscribe to our #CivicsIsBack newsletter to get connected to resources and updates on policy related to civics in the classroom.

Past is Prologue for Presumptive Implementation of Middle School Civics

by Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Democracy Program Director

As legislation to require a semester of civics in middle school moves to the Illinois Senate, this post will further elaborate on the McCormick Foundation’s presumptive plan to support statewide implementation. Like the high school course, we propose a three-year plan to help middle school teachers, schools, and districts incorporate a civics course in grades 6, 7, or 8.

The past three years provide a prologue for middle school implementation. I’ve written previously about the impact of high school civics implementation, from the fidelity by which teachers, schools, and districts have implemented the law to student civic engagement outcomes. I have also addressed the value provided by more than 1,300 hours of professional development (PD) to 10,000-plus teachers since October 2015.

Dr. Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, Director of the Center for Information Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tufts University, offered some additional, high-level take-aways from our multi-year implementation efforts during a presentation at the 2018 National Council for the Social Studies Annual Conference. Kei’s conclusions were published last month in the Success in High-Needs Schools Journal in an article co-authored by Lead Teacher Mentor Mary Ellen Daneels and me (beginning on page 58).


  1. Show Not Tell: Professional development should let teachers experience what the new pedagogy feels like as learners. Our mentor-led PD combines civic content and pedagogy and models their integration into teachers’ classrooms.
  2. Be a Yoga Master: Not all teachers are the same--show ways to adapt lessons. As Mary Ellen is wont to say: “Good teachers are mixers.” As PD providers, it is our duty to share suggested “ingredients” and allow participants to “season” to their liking.
  3. Teachers are Partners: Take teacher inputs seriously--they need voice before they can give voice. Teachers are central to our grass roots implementation efforts and have shaped our plans from start to finish.
  4. Words Matter: How you describe a practice can make or break the adoption. For example, the service learning component of the course requirement terrified many teachers at the outset. Mary Ellen wisely reframed it to “taking informed action” in alignment with the new Illinois K-12 social studies standards and offered a variety of means to pursue this end with students, lowering the collective blood pressure of civics teachers instantly.
  5. Use Other Assets: Know the broad educational landscape in the state and use other leverage points. The Danielson Framework is one example. Adopting the course requirement with fidelity indirectly affects teacher performance because the framework overlaps with civics pedagogy.
We currently have a survey in the field that we strongly encourage middle school social studies teachers and administrators to complete by May 15 to inform presumptive implementation plans. These findings, combined with our high school experience and evaluation results, will further shape our middle school implementation plans. Current highlights include:
  • Ongoing teacher professional development opportunities, both in person and online, are pivotal to our proposed effort. They will be offered in partnership with civic education nonprofits and institutional partners, including universities and regional offices of education.
  • We are especially excited about a new partnership with the Lou Frey Institute at the University of Central Florida to develop high-production learning modules for teachers centered on the proven civic learning practices: discussion, service learning, and simulations, respectively. Participating teachers will earn microcredentials in each practice, and our goal, through a combination of in-person and online professional development opportunities, is to reach teachers or instructional coaches in each Illinois school and/ or district serving students in grades 6-8. We anticipate the first module, focused on discussion of current and controversial issues, to launch this fall.
  • Illinois Civics Teacher Mentors have been central to our high school course implementation efforts, and we intend to continue the program with modifications to account for lessons learned and the unique needs of middle schools.
  • As was true of our high school efforts, we will partner with CIRCLE to evaluate the impact of our teacher professional development offerings and, reciprocally, the fidelity of middle school course implementation. At the end of the implementation period, we will also assess the impact the course has on student civic development, measuring growth in knowledge, skills, attitudes, and behaviors.
  • In addition to the McCormick Foundation’s ongoing investments in youth civic education and engagement in Illinois ($4.2 million in grants in 2018), our course implementation efforts have an annual operating budget of $1 million. We pledge to contribute an additional $400,000 to this effort each year and are working to raise the balance through local philanthropic partners.

Middle School Leaders Claim Civic Learning Marginalized in Their Buildings

by Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Democracy Program Director

As legislation to require middle school civics (House Bill 2265) moves through the Illinois General Assembly, the Illinois Civics team is partnering with the Center for Information Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tufts University to determine the presumptive implementation needs of teachers, schools, and districts through a survey distributed earlier this month. We encourage middle school social studies teachers and administrators to weigh in and complete the survey by mid-May.

The need for middle school civics is profound. Only 23% of 8th graders demonstrated proficiency in civics on the 2014 National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), with a stark civic achievement gap evident along racial and ethnic lines (see below). This coincides with a report from the Council of Chief State School Officers that 44% of school districts have reduced time spent on social studies since the advent of No Child Left Behind in 2001.


School leaders concur that the social studies, and civic learning specifically, have been unfairly and dangerously marginalized in an era where what is tested is taught. Last spring, Education Week surveyed 524 school leaders nationally about the state of civic learning in their districts. Fifty-seven percent of middle school leaders contended that their schools spend too little time on civic learning (not a single respondent said “too much”). And only 23% of middle school leaders reported that their schools offer a stand-along course in civics.

House Bill 2265 prescribes a mix of teacher-led and student-centered civic learning practices including direct instruction, discussion, service learning, and simulations of democratic processes in alignment with what school leaders consider most important. According to the Education Week survey, K-12 school leaders prefer current events discussions, instruction on the Constitution and related civil liberties, and modeling civic participation and voting.

Given the value that K-12 school leaders place on civic learning, they rank the pressure to focus on other tested subjects as the greatest challenge. The intensity of this pressure is most pronounced in middle and elementary schools.

A related challenge is that civic learning is not a district or school priority. A lack of civic learning resources and the political, controversial elements of civics present lesser challenges. Student interest, and somewhat surprisingly, teacher training, are deemed the least challenging among the survey options listed.

As demonstrated in my January post on the Civic Education System Map published by the CivXNow Coalition, the way civics is taught can help change public perceptions about its importance. In turn, public support drives state and district policies and related prioritization. The curricular mix embedded in House Bill 2265 will help propel a virtuous cycle, directly addressing the challenges surfaced by K-12 school leaders in the Education Week survey.

Overall, these findings underline the need to drive high-quality civic learning opportunities down to the earlier grades. We look forward to collecting the analyzing the Illinois-specific data from our middle school civics survey currently in the field in the months ahead to design an implementation plan responsive to the needs of teachers, schools, and districts in our demographically and geographically diverse state.