Illinois Issues: Civics Class In An Uncivil Time

Nov 3, 2016

A new state law requires that high school civics courses cover current and controversial events. The requirement kicked in during an election cycle when adults are struggling to have civil conversations about politics. 

Earlier this school year, a student in Chris Wolak’s classroom at Waubonsie Valley High School in Aurora said something to the effect that illegal immigrants aren’t following the law and should go back to their home countries. The student didn’t realize she was talking about a girl sitting on the other side of the classroom who has attended schools in Indian Prairie District 204 her whole life and is also an undocumented immigrant.

A nerve was struck, a heated exchange followed, and the girls did what many adults might do. They chose to avoid talking about the issue — not wanting it to become a “thing.” Wolak, who has been teaching social studies for 21 years, isn’t looking for the girls to agree, but hopes they continue to voice their passions, engage on issues that matter to them and understand how to dialogue with people who have different views. “I think civics education will help us as we deal with those challenges,” he says.

High schools across the state have to engage their students in discussions such as the one at Waubonsie Valley thanks to a new state law that requires at least one semester of civics for all Illinois students entering ninth grade this year and thereafter to graduate. The law obliges the course to tackle current and controversial issues. In addition, civics must include service learning and simulations of the democratic process, which could mean holding mock debates and elections or writing a letter to a government leader or organization. The course teaches young people how they can be citizens who engage government and how to have civil, thoughtful discourse on sensitive issues.

It’s a tall order in light of the current presidential election that has teachers and parents across the country shielding their children from debates only suitable for mature audiences. Wolak says his district discussed whether they should forgo a presidential debate watch party to shelter students. This is a district that sent students to the Iowa caucuses, holds voter registration drives and welcomes students to stand on soap boxes in their civics classrooms where they can share their personal opinions on issues. Ultimately the district decided to host a party figuring most students in the class are juniors and seniors who would soon have the right to vote. “The fact that there was a discussion shows where we are at as a nation with politics,” Wolak says.

Because sensitive topics like sexual assault and adultery would possibly be covered, schools considered whether to require that students watch the presidential debates.
Credit flickr/ Bill B

Meanwhile in neighboring Naperville Community Unit School District 203, a group of about 30 students, parents and teachers watched the second presidential debate as Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump were asked if they were modeling appropriate behavior for today’s youth. As the two candidates attacked each other’s character, there were some laughs, gasps and head shaking from the crowd at Naperville Central High School.

Civics teacher Donna Mohn says the contention has made it difficult for students to move their focus from the candidate’s personal attacks to the issues. “The election is stealing a lot of attention right now,” she says. Civics classes in District 203 discuss controversial issues, but in the context of lessons they are studying. Teachers take a neutral stand, but challenge students to explain the reasons behind their positions. Some offered extra credit for the debate event, but many students said they were there to learn. “I want to gain some sense of knowledge about each party and focus on who I want to vote for in the future,” says Payton Nesci, a 16-year-old sophomore. “It’s an important thing to do. It’s a right.”

Future engagement in democracy is the goal of the new school code, which reads that civics education must “help young people acquire and learn to use the skills, knowledge, and attitudes that will prepare them to be competent and responsible citizens throughout their lives.” Democratic U.S. Rep Bill Foster, whose district encompasses Naperville Central, answered questions before the debate and told students it is important for them to have an understanding of how government and politics work. School must be about more than helping students determine the best career path, but also give them tools to make “our country’s life better.”

Credit flickr/ Theresa Thompson

The requirement comes at a good time in Illinois. Nationally, millennials, defined as people between the ages of 18 to 35, make up about 31 percent of the electorate. That is the same as the Baby Boomers, according to the Pew Research Center. But, the youth vote yields less power because it has the lowest voter turnout of any age group.

In Illinois, those under 30 were in the bottom half of the country when it came to voter turnout in the last presidential election with about 36 percent of those eligible voting, according to the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE). Before the civics law passed last year, Illinois was one of 10 states that didn’t require a civics course for graduation. Still, about 60 percent of Illinois schools mandated a civics course with another 27 percent offering elective classes covering government. 

Larry Pahl, a civics teacher at Bartlett High School who helped write the law, is pleased there are resources for schools as they either create a new government class or beef up what they have in place. He serves as a civics mentor for Kane County schools. The McCormick Foundation and other groups have offered funds to pay for three years of teacher training across the state. Pahl believes the toughest part of the new code is the discussion requirement.

Adults often struggle to have civil conversations on controversial, political issues. But the skill must be imparted to students. “Sometimes you have these serendipitous moments in class where all of a sudden you have a good discussion going, but trying to craft that or force it to happen is a hard thing to do. It requires more skill,” Pahl says. Six civics classes in his school recently held an election simulation where students acted as candidates, pollsters, reporters, editors and campaign workers. Candidates had to learn positions on immigration, guns, Syria and ISIS. The student body became residents of the states and participated in a mock vote to see who won the electoral votes. Pahl’s students crowded around the map as returns came in — taking selfies. His next steps will be to teach them how to evaluate source materials and use some frameworks for discussion.

Bartlett High School students
Credit Larry Pahl

The best way to engage students is to have them take on issues they confront in their day-to-day lives, says Jessica Marshall, director of social science and civic engagement for Chicago Public Schools. “What better way to get students to take ownership over their learning than to let them learn about issues that are impacting their lives,” she says. “I don’t think we can make students sit in school buildings all day long learning about things they feel aren’t responsive to what they face on their walk to and from school or that they are talking about at the dinner table with their families at night.”

Every unit in the CPS civics course has current and controversial topics embedded within it covering issues like Black Lives Matter, voter identification laws, gender and immigration. Overall classroom goals ask students to question who has power, how they get it and how they use it. “At the end of the course, students will really think about what is their power in our democracy and how do they intend to utilize it and be engaged,” Marshall says.

But discussions can’t be a free-for-all, she says. Students have discussion tools like the Socratic method, which uses questions and evidence as a way to examine issues. They must evaluate sources as well. “In terms of the long-term outcomes for our democracy, we want people to consider different perspectives, to analyze evidence, to think about what they value and to engage respectfully,” Marshall says.

All of those skills meet Common Core requirements as well and support critical thinking skills. “I think we get high returns on that,” Marshall says. “If you are reading something or analyzing text on an issue that you care about anyway, that makes you more persistent and enthusiastic to think about learning.”

Those skills are even more important during an election season that has taken discourse to a new low, says Scott Ehlers, chairman of the social studies department at Moline High School. He sees the value of a citizenry that participates in elections and democracy, and worries students and others will disengage from the process because of it. “We have a lot of interest from students in this election, but a lot of pessimism too,” he says.

Ehlers encourages students to go to neutral web sites to fact check information, but also has them explore their own beliefs on issues. Students have gone on isidewith.com where they take a survey on their views of issues like foreign policy, gun control, education and others. The results are then matched with the candidates that share the same opinions. During the primary season, some students who fancied themselves Republicans discovered they most identified with Bernie Sanders. “It makes the students think and hopefully make an informed decision,” he says.

Democratic Sen. Tom Cullerton (pictured) and Democratic Rep. Deb Conroy sponsored the law laying out new civics education requirements.
Credit Office of Sen. Tom Cullerton

Greg Turner, who is the social science content specialist for East St. Louis School District 189, says teachers in his district often find themselves playing devil’s advocate during discussions. With 98 percent of students African Americans, most come from the same background and have the similar views. Students confront issues like public assistance, socialized medicine, access to college and the interaction between community and police. He says his community hasn’t had the problems with police that St. Louis has faced, so students discuss it as a national issue.

Turner says his greatest challenge is getting students to value their citizenship and to understand that they should plug into their community on a political level. “A lot of African American communities that are also struggling with poverty … they don’t see themselves as an integral part of the system, but hopefully that will start to change,” he says. District 189 is holding mock elections in lower grades to introduce them to democracy. The move is paying off as parents have become involved as well.

Democracy is a foreign concept to many students in civics teacher Brett Burton’s class.

Some have families that go back generations in Beardstown, but many are immigrant students newly arrived from West Africa, Latin America and Mexico. Their parents have come to work in the town’s meat packing plant. “I’m teaching the very principle of civics to a third of the class. These are kids who have never lived in a democracy before 2015 or 2016,” Burton says. 

Immigration is the number one issue for his students with the right to bear arms second because of the popularity of hunting in the area. Students of different backgrounds have been respectful of each other. “We’ve had some pretty spirited debates and discussions, but I never felt it was hostile or coming from a place of hate,” he says.

One of his students who emigrated from the Congo several years ago had an opportunity to try out his newly understood rights. He asked Burton if he would get in trouble if he chose to sit one day during the Pledge of Allegiance. Burton told the student that he couldn’t just copy a widely televised protest, but if he explained his position, he could sit. A few days later, the boy cited his First Amendment right, said he wasn’t harming anyone by sitting out the Pledge and explained he was protesting racial injustice. He then sat. “I thought for a 15-year-old that he was very well spoken about the issue,” Burton says. “It’s one of those things you don’t plan for, but it came up organically.” 

Illinois Issues is in-depth reporting and analysis that takes you beyond the headlines to provide a deeper understanding of our state. Illinois Issues is produced by NPR Illinois in Springfield.