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 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.