Civics Education Is Evolving, And On The Verge Of Being Mandatory For Illinois Middle Schoolers
Jim Vera teaches government at Oswego East High School. He often has his students, mostly sophomores, stand in all four corners of the classroom. The corners are marked "Agree," "Disagree," "Strongly agree" and "Strongly disagree."
He starts small. Do we have good sports programs here? They all pick a corner. Then the debate escalates until, eventually, they're discussing topics like if it's okay to burn the American flag.
Several years ago, Illinois overhauled how it taught civics to high schoolers. A new measure would add the same requirement for middle school students.
This is one of the four mandatory components of the civics class. The others are government institutions, service learning, and simulations. The flag burning conversation is part of "current and controversial issues."
"I always tell our younger teachers, if you see something going bad -- don't be afraid of it," said Vera. "Give a kid a voice, but don't be afraid to challenge the kid: 'Okay, where's your information on that from?'"
Vera acknowledges these conversations can be hard. For students, certainly, but also their teachers, who don't want to be called into the principal's office because of a parent's complaint that their kid is talking about burning flags in class. That's happened to Vera.
"Doing an activity like the four corners might give that quiet kid who maybe has strong feelings on something -- but doesn't necessarily want to speak out on it -- at least then that way they still feel like they have a voice," he said.
Members of the first class affected by the 2015 high school measure will be seniors this year. And since many schools offer civics as a senior course, a lot of students across the state will be taking it for the first time soon.
And that's just in time for all of them to turn 18 before next year's presidential election.
Vera says for both high school and middle school civics, it's smart to keep things as local as possible, especially for those "service learning" projects. Vera's students have talked to village and school board members about installing lights at intersections and changing backpack rules at their school.
"It's just a good way to get them to learn about how things work," said Vera. "I think the most important part of those projects is the research and finding out who to go to. You know, I don't write a letter to the president when you want to get a stoplight put in."
After the high school civics mandate passed, regional mentor teachers, including Vera, went to Springfield for training with the News Literacy Project.
"Information is the most basic ingredient in civics," said Peter Adams. He's the senior vice president of education at the News Literacy Project. He was also the one who helped train teachers.
"It's daunting. I mean, we're all sort of grappling with the largest and most complex information landscape in human history," said Adams. "And that's incredibly daunting for the young people who are inheriting that landscape, but it's also daunting for educators who are trying to teach them about it."
For the NLP, it's not just about high school and middle school kids being able to identify what is and is not a credible source, although that's important -- especially on social media. Adams says it's also about understanding why a post appears in your feed at all.
"Even though they may not have smartphones at those younger grades, by middle school they certainly do," said John Silva, a news literacy and civics team leader for the News Literacy Project. He taught civics for over a decade at Chicago Public Schools.
"It's at that age where they are much more curious about the world. But they're also at a developmental age where they're not able to quite so easily recognize when they're being manipulated by misinformation, or propaganda, or conspiracy theories," he said.
YouTube and Instagram algorithms that allowed conspiracies to spread rapidly to younger viewers have gained a lot of attention in the last year.
So the organization wants to help students unlock the architecture of these social platforms to see if they can see who's behind a questionable post and if they can report them.
"So for example, on Pinterest you can report posts or pins as medical misinformation, which is a very specific, but I think very important, possibility that there's a label for that. If you try to report something as being medical misinformation on Twitter, it just doesn't exist as an option in the menu," said Adams.
Silva says once young students have the tools to maneuver the social media information minefield, then they can move forward into civil discourse.
"When you find something that you want to get involved in whatever civic action you feel drawn to, you can do that from an informed position," said Silva. "And you can advocate in an informed way."
Jim Vera at Oswego East agrees it's important to build confidence for kids as young as middle school in those arenas. "I think that's what it is -- you're making informed decisions on things. And that's really what you want civics to be," he said.
He says getting middle schoolers involved in service learning projects can also show them how to make their voice heard, even in local government. This could look like a group of 7th or 8th graders trying to get a park put in or talking about school safety.
"In a lot of ways, the younger kids are able to handle those concepts better than things like, you know, memorizing the chain of command for the executive branch," said Vera.
Advocates with the literacy project say they hope civics training can also help root out the cynicism that has grown out of social media, get students out of their "bubble" and be able to have civil discussions both online and off.
If signed by the governor, the plan for middle school civics would take effect in the 2020-21 school year.