MENDOTA - Mendota High School social science teacher, Jason Artman, recently finished participation in a three-year Illinois Civics Mentors program. Sponsored by the Robert F. McCormick Foundation, the Mentors program was created to support implementation of a civics education law for high schools that was signed in 2015 by former Governor Bruce Rauner.
The 2015 law requires that a semester of civics be taught to every high school student. The act was implemented in 2016 and took effect beginning with this year’s high school seniors, the Class of 2020. Because this was one of the state’s “unfunded mandates,” the Robert F. McCormick Foundation stepped up and pledged $1 million a year for the three years of the Mentors program.
Artman became involved with the Mentors program after being recommended by Regional Superintendent of Schools Chris Dvorak, who Artman knew from his student teaching days. Because working with the Mentor program could mean sometimes being called away during the school year, Artman first got permission from MHS administration. “We knew it would help MHS for me to be involved,” Artman noted. “We would know what to expect and make sure we had it in place.”
Once his application for the program was approved, Artman became one of a network of Mentors who were chosen to help schools throughout the state comply with the new law. The plan was to have one Mentor for every Regional Office of Education in the state. “I don’t know how many we actually ended up with but a good core of us stayed in it for the whole three years, although we only had to commit for one year at a time,” Artman said. “We first met in the summer of 2016 and did the training to learn about the law and how to help schools find ways to be unique and still accomplish what was expected.”
Why is civics important?
Civics is defined as a social science dealing with the rights and duties of citizens. Although basic civics was already being taught in most schools, test results in recent years showed that most U.S. students had a considerable lack of civic knowledge. In a national assessment, only 24 percent of 4th, 8th, and 12th graders were at or above the proficient level in civics. A 2010 National Center for Education Statistics NAEP report card for civics stated that “levels of civic knowledge in U.S. have remained unchanged or even declined over the past century.”
Historically, civics classes taught facts about the constitution and the process of government, but students were not given experiences that would show them how to actually participate as good citizens.
In an effort to make civics education more meaningful for students, the National Council for the Social Studies developed the College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies State Standards. Part of the focus of this framework was to “build critical thinking, problem solving and participatory skills to become engaged citizens.” The hope is that students will learn to “analyze public problems, discuss with others ways to define and address issues, take constructive action together, reflect on their actions, create and sustain groups and influence institutions both large and small. They vote, serve on juries when called, follow the news and current events and participate in voluntary groups and efforts.”
While many schools in Illinois - including MHS - already offered a civics course, the law stated that civics must be a required, semester-long course taught through best practices. That included a combination of direct instruction, simulations of democratic processes, service learning and current and controversial issues.
Artman explained that a “simulation” could be a town hall meeting, court argument, voting, or lobbying. The service learning component would mean extending the curriculum beyond the classroom through informed action. “It’s using what was learned in class and taking it into the community,” he said. “It’s different than community service, though. It’s paying attention and finding a problem such as voter suppression, for example, and then reaching out to the government to correct it. There are many ways to engage students through service learning, both large and small.”
After their training was complete, the Mentors began traveling around the state giving presentations and holding conferences for high school educators in July of 2016. The first step was to find out what type of civics course, if any, a high school already had in place. Some schools had a required course and only needed to make some additions to comply with the law while others had a course that was not required, so that change had to be made. Although Artman found that most schools at least had an elective civics class, some schools did not offer civics at all. In those cases, the school had to implement an entire course right away. “We were fortunate at MHS,” he noted, “we just had to make a few changes.”
There were instances when the Mentors ran into a bit of resistance from schools unhappy about the changes but over time, Artman said they were accepted as helpers. “The law really wasn’t outrageous or unheard of,” he said. “We weren’t trying to force schools to do anything, we were just trying to help.”
The Mentors reached out to schools by giving presentations at individual schools and also holding larger conferences that could reach larger groups of people. “We gave presentations wherever there were groups of people interested,” Artman recalled. “We also sent e-mails and messages to teachers in our area and there was some one-on-one interaction as well.”
Over the three years, the Illinois Civics Mentors delivered more than 1,300 hours of professional development to more than 10,000 teachers across the state. One of the bonuses for Artman was being able to work with some great organizations and individuals.
The program also opened other opportunities for him including involvement with the creation of OnlineImpact workshops. The workshops offer online courses for professional development for teachers. “Five of us from around the state wrote the first workshop on civics with two of us facilitating the course a total of eight times over the last two years,” Artman explained. “The same two of us who facilitated the first workshop then wrote the new service learning workshop.”
Both workshops are currently taking registrations for an October-November session and they will rotate facilitating the courses up to four times this year, as long as there is demand. Artman said not only has it been gratifying to share the online course with other high schools, but the course has also been taken by middle school teachers, special education teachers, and Spanish teachers, so it has crossed interdisciplinary lines.
Middle school civics
This June when the three-year program ended, the Mentors held their final reunion thinking their work was over. “Then we heard about the newest law,” Artman said.
The new bill, which was passed by the House and Senate last spring with strong bipartisan support, was signed by Governor J.B. Pritzker in August. The law requires that a semester of civics education be taught in middle school between grades 6 and 8. Artman soon learned that he was one of 10 Civics Instructional Coaches who, starting in 2020 and over the next three years, will help middle schools get the training they need to meet the mandate. This newest law will also be funded each year by the Robert F. McCormick Foundation.
“Active participation in civic life in our communities begins with the lessons we learn as children,” said David Hiller, President and CEO of the Robert R. McCormick Foundation. “Our investments in teachers and students will pay high dividends when these kids grow into engaged adults.”
In addition to his work with the new Instructional Coaches group, Artman is scheduled to give a civics presentation at the Raising Student Achievement Conference in Schaumberg this December.
Artman, who is in his 18th year teaching at MHS, looks forward to continuing his work as an Instructional Coach in support of the middle school law and is very grateful for his experience with the Mentor program the past three years. Not only will the new civics laws benefit students in this state but the Illinois Civic Mission Coalition, which supports civics instruction in Illinois, is networking with teachers in Florida and Massachusetts, among other states, to create models of effective support for civics education.
“Professionally it’s been one of the neatest things I have been involved with,” Artman emphasized. “It has been a great organization to work with. I’ve met many great teachers and I’ve made some good friends through this.”