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.