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.