Rethinking the "Both Sides" Reflex

by Dr. Bonnie Laughlin-Schultz, Illinois Civics Instructional Coach

How often do we in American life talk about the need to represent both sides? I saw an intriguing interview last week in which a Congressperson complained to a member of the media that they were being unfair by not presenting “both sides.” We critique headlines, we talk of the silos in which we receive our news, and we discuss the importance of preparing our students to be smart consumers of media. But I confess, even with our good intentions I think at times we are led astray into thinking that presenting “both sides” is the best path towards objectivity and better news habits.

One example concerns the discussion of Confederate monuments. It might be tempting to set up an exercise in which students debate if monuments should be removed, with a reading representing “remain” and another posturing “remove.”

This feels neutral; we choose readings from two sides, structure student reading, and help them reach informed decisions, right? But are these both sides we as social studies teachers should represent? Or do we need to attend to nuance in this discussion, making sure to provide readings that accurately present the history of monument building and, moreover, to take into account the many possibilities that exist if monuments are removed?

A few years ago I read a memoir by Mitch Landrieu, former mayor of New Orleans who oversaw the removal of four monuments there. He spent a book outlining his and the nation’s history and thinking about the background and presence of the monuments in his city. His thinking is nuanced as well as a great example for students of how to mull and arrive at an informed opinion. He gave a famous speech on the topic, too, and that could be great to use. This is not to imply that his is the only right position; rather, it is to say that his is a position steeped in an understanding of the history of the monuments and thoughtful in consideration of their place in American life today.

Isn’t this what we really want our students to be doing? Asking students to carefully examine his opinion alongside three pieces: a news article about the specific sides in New Orleans, a progressive mayor calling for monuments to stand, and a writer highlighting African American protest against them takes thinking about “both sides” up a notch and is at the heart of an Illinois Civics lesson plan.

Note that an uninformed, knee-jerk “keep them” position is not reflected here, nor is this a Fox-versus-MSNBC-and-you-decide approach. Though some of the pieces offer compelling arguments of why they should stay, they are all nuanced in their reflection, deep in consideration of the issues involved in thoughtful consideration of the place of monuments in the United States, past and present.

In our classrooms, we are not just battling against fake news. We are fighting for nuance and careful attention to facts. I love the News Literacy Project’s bumper sticker: “Facts are democracy’s seat belt.” But it’s not just “facts” alone, it is nuanced consideration of issues in American life.
Bonnie Laughlin-Schultz taught high school in the St. Louis area prior to earning a PhD in history. She was a James Madison fellow, class of 1999, and graduated from Knox College with a BA in history and secondary education. She is the social science teaching coordinator and an associate professor of history at Eastern Illinois University, where she teaches social studies methods courses as well as the U.S. history survey, women’s history, research methods and writing, and courses in the online MA for teachers. She is the Civics Instructional Coach for Clark, Clay, Coles, Crawford, Cumberland, Douglas, Edgar, Edwards, Gallatin, Hamilton, Hardin, Jasper, Lawrence, Massac, Moultrie, Pope, Richland, Saline, Shelby, Wabash, Wayne & White Counties.

What to Look for in the Early Caucuses and Primaries

by Mary Ellen Daneels, Civics Instructional Specialist

The new year brings an opportunity to use the upcoming elections to engage students in the proven practices of civic education outlined in 6-12th grade civic course mandates. will provide a plethora of resources and lesson plans to support this important work.

Last week, Dr. Shawn Healy, Director of the Democracy Program at the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, hosted our first #Election2020 after school webinar that examined the candidates, polling data, the mechanics of caucuses and primaries in delegate selection, and what to look for with your students in early 2020. If you missed the 45-minute webinar, you can access a recording.

Register today for our next after school webinar on Tuesday, February 18th from 3:45 to 4:30 p.m. on Super Tuesday and the Illinois Primary. Those who register can join live or receive a link to view the recorded presentation and accompanying resources.

Each webinar concludes with classroom resources you can use with your students to engage them in current and societal issue discussions, simulations of democratic processes, and service learning during this election year. Here are some of the resources shared in the last webinar:
  • There are Iowa Caucus classroom simulations from the Iowa Secretary of State, one for Democrats and another for Republicans.
  • A brief video from Why Tuesday? illustrates how the Iowa Caucuses work.
  • PBS Learning Media has a lesson that explores the history of the Iowa Caucus and the benefits of being “first in the nation.”
  • PBS NewsHour Extra has a lesson called “What are Primaries and Caucuses?”
  • The Bill of Rights Institute has resources for “The Iowa Caucus and Beyond.”
  • iCivics has a curricular unit on Politics and Public Policy that includes a lesson on the election process.
  • Civics 101 has an episode devoted to explaining primaries and caucuses.
  • The Five Thirty-Eight podcast has launched a special series called The Primary Project. Its first episode features the 1968 Convention in Chicago and its impact on current events.
  • Stranglehold from New Hampshire Public Radio explores the history, personalities, and challenges of being the site of the first in the nation primary election.
  • Caucus Land from Iowa Public Radio explores, “Where the road to the White House begins!”
What resources are you using to engage your student in #Election2020? Please comment below. Together, we can prepare ALL students for college, career and civic life.

Guest Blog: Needing New Lesson Plans for the New Year? Check out Street Law

by Jane Hicks, Edwardsville High School

On New Year’s Eve 2019, Chief Justice John Roberts issued a warning in his year-end statement when he observed, “We have come to take democracy for granted and civic education has fallen by the wayside.” Many civics teachers across the country heartily agree. Thankfully the State of Illinois now requires both middle school and high school civics education. More social studies departments across the state are re-examining the importance of teaching about government and seeking ideas to help their students. In addition to Illinois Civics, what is another great resource for political science teachers? Where can they find numerous lesson plans that help teach democratic simulations and controversial topics? Street Law.

While attending Street Law’s Supreme Court Summer Institute in 2019, I gained incredible insight on the workings of the Court, met teachers from across the U.S., and walked away with meaningful activities for my students. Street Law’s mission, since 1972, has been to provide teachers of the law and government free materials in order to help students with these difficult topics. Their materials are easily accessible to anyone on their website. Their shopping cart format might initially give the impression that you have to pay. But do not worry, most materials have a price of $0.00. The cart system helps keep track of the lesson plans that are of interest to educators.

Two activities that really stood out for me were the moot courts and deliberations. A moot court is a simulation of an appellate court. It is not a mock trial. Students act as attorneys making oral arguments in front of the Supreme Court for a real case. The classroom should be divided into three groups: the petitioners bringing the case, the respondents defending the previous ruling, and the justices asking questions of each. The Street Law website has numerous and step by step instructions. Full moot courts may take a few class periods, but their mini-moot courts might only take a day.

Street Law’s 2019 Summer Institute practicing a moot court in a Georgetown Law classroom.

Another Street Law activity that I brought into my civics class is a deliberation. A deliberation helps students to grapple with controversial topics by examining various points of view. The concluding piece is to come to a consensus. At the summer institute, we deliberated a federal ban on assault weapons. We were given readings to sift through and then applied quotes from the readings to both sides of the argument. My group had a very engaging conversation and we were provided time afterward for individual reflection. In the end, I was surprised to realize I had slightly altered my own long-held opinion on this topic.

As our society grows in complexity, so the job of the social studies teacher becomes increasingly more challenging. Thankfully there are many professional development resources like Street Law and Illinois Civics to help educators wrestle with the times and help students to do so also.