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.