This post is written by Adam Heenan, a Mikva Challenge teacher. Follow @Adam_Heenan on twitter.
When I ask my students who have never taken a civics course, if they want to vote, volunteer, or debate issues in their community, I often get a response similar to “Why should I vote/care? Nothing will change anyway.” However, across the board those numbers jump when young people have a chance to participate in action civics and service learning in the school setting. This is why Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner signing into law a requirement for all high school graduates to have equal access to high quality civics courses starting in school year 2016-17 is such a crucial act.
The new law defines high quality as a “one semester course” that teaches the “skills, knowledge, and attitudes” need to become “competent and responsible citizens” in the 21st century. The Illinois Civics Requirement inherently recognizes that Civics must be an active learning process calling for “simulations, service learning,” and opportunities for youth voice and empowerment.
The urgency for the law is apparent: only 49% of Illinoisans voted in the most recent gubernatorial election, and only 31% of the votes came from millenials (18-35 yr olds.) Even beyond voting, there is a general feeling of in-efficacy and non-agency in government and politics.
If we want to ask young people to engage in our democracy, we have to show them why their engagement matters . If we as a society believe school really is for everyone, than civics – like driver’s ed, health, or math- should be required, and particularly so in a time of heightened racial and economic discord. Engaging young people in an action civics approach in the classroom can provide a safe space for young people to explore issues that matter to them, and engage in democratic methods to impact society.
Unlike other states such as Arizona, which have recently reduced Civics to another high stakes test, the Illinois law purposefully omitted a testing component because of the recognition that meaningful civic education happens beyond pencil and paper. This provides classroom educators the opportunity to generate engaging, meaningful lessons that are responsive to the needs of each student and school community in Illinois.
As we know well, mandates alone can be problematic for schools, educators, and of course students. Successful implementation will require tremendous support in the form of professional development. Chicago and some suburban schools have gotten a head start from the body of curriculum developed by teachers, professional development support network like the Illinois Civic Mission Coalition, and content specialists.
Already Chicago Public Schools is in its third year of employing the innovative and adaptive Global Citizenship Initiative. The GCI curriculum combines action civics and financial literacy content, and outlines different “tracks” teachers may choose depending on the goals of the class. Curricula like this combined with high-quality professional development is what will support teachers in making this new Civics requirement a success. We need to insure that all teachers across the state have access to high quality curricula and professional development.
This could not have been achieved without the demand from young people, and the engaging instruction of educators with the energetic support of civics-oriented non-profits collaborating across Chicagoland and Illinois like the Mikva Challenge, Constitutional Rights Foundation, and the youth-led Chicago Votes Education Fund. Brought together by support from McCormick and similar civic-mission foundations, and led by Shawn Healy of the McCormick Foundation, the Illinois Civics Requirement Law is really a collaborative effort of everyone from young people and teachers in the classroom to curriculum developers to foundations and government supporting the health of our democracy today and for generations to come.
John Dewey once declared that “in order for democracy to thrive, it must be reborn each generation, and education is its midwife.” I applaud the Governor and General Assembly’s foresight and expediency with which they acted, as well as the educators, and educator support network that worked hard to design strong language that honors what high quality civics should look like in our schools in the 21st century.