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Democracy Schools Network

Monthly Update


Spring has arrived...well, kind of; not the storybook kind of spring--the Chicago kind of spring. Hope that you find some moments to enjoy it.

We are starting to wind down the 2021-22 school year: both our new applicant schools and our renewal schools are wrapping up their yearlong process, we celebrated several of our DSN school successes in a webinar on April 14, and our Civic Learning Across Disciplines (CLAD) series has concluded. (But you can still view recordings of all of them here.) We are eagerly looking towards the 2022-23 school year--especially by planning our Annual Convening in September, "Civic Learning and Media Literacy Across Disciplines". (More details below.)



DSN announcements, upcoming events, Professional Development opportunities, and information about activities in our Democracy Schools:

~Mark September 15 on your calendars as the date for our 2022 Annual Convening!! (Details were sent out on April 11; here is a summary if you missed that email.) We look forward to seeing you as we explore "Civic Learning and Media Literacy Across Disciplines". You can register here. Also, please consider submitting a proposal to present at this conference.

~C.L.A.D. (Civic Learning Across Disciplines) Series

The last installment of our year-long series was held last Thursday, April 14: Sharing Our Successes. This session featured nine different projects from our DSN members, funded by the DSN Grants. If you're looking for inspiration, unique ideas, and innovative civic learning, please view the recording of the session here. Our gratitude to all the presenters from the following schools who generously shared their experiences: Hinsdale South, Granite City, Collinsville, Hinsdale Central, Neuqua, Metea, Waubonsie, Curie, Sullivan, Wheaton-Warrenville South, Hancock and Normal West.

~Civic Learning Across Disciplines database

This is our final ask for examples from our schools that demonstrate civic learning across the curriculum. Whether it is a project that has already happened, is being planned, or is simply a hope for the future, we are interested in hearing about it. Just a few details would help build this network resource. Thank you.

~New timeline for DSN Grants (formerly known as RFP Stipends)

The Democracy Schools Network (DSN) offers a grant program on a yearly basis so active Democracy Schools have an opportunity to apply for funds to support work that enriches the civic learning experiences of students and improves the school’s organizational culture to provide a more democratic landscape. This has been a very successful program, and has enabled many of our schools to innovate in ways that would not have been possible otherwise. 

In order to reflect more accurately the timeline that our teachers work with, we are shifting the submission periods. This will allow our members to consider projects they would like to have in place at the beginning of the school year, as well as projects that will not be considered until after school has resumed in the fall. 

·     First funding period: May 1—June 15

·     Second funding period: September 15--November 1

We hope that this shift will allow more of our DSN members to think about new possibilities for civic learning opportunities in their classrooms and schools. We look forward to hearing your ideas! You can access more details and the application here.

~Carolyn Pereira Civic Leadership Award

Interested in acknowledging someone's extraordinary efforts with enhancing civic learning in his or her school? Nominations are now open! This award recognizes a DSN member who has exhibited an exemplary commitment to strengthening schoolwide civic engagement and learning; someone who exhibits initiative, creativity, persistence and integrity in modeling and promoting the Illinois Democracy Schools model.  

We welcome your nomination here. Please submit by Friday, May 13, 2022. The recipient will be honored at the Democracy Schools Network Annual Convening on September 15, 2022

~Seeking new members for DSN Advisory Council

We are looking for DSN members who are interested in serving in a leadership position (with a stipend) in our organization. The Advisory Council provides insight, energy, and outreach to promote the vision of the Illinois Democracy Schools. More details are available here. Please submit by May 20, 2022.


Resources to assist our members in implementing best practices in civics:

  • Doing Democracy Day: A Colorado school brings students and community leaders together to consider local problems.
  • National Geographic Society Citizen Science Projects: Around the world ordinary people of all ages engage in citizen science—participating in projects in which volunteers and scientists work together to answer real-world questions. Here are some of their projects.
  • Urban Agriculture Education programs can be an important aspect of youth civic engagement. Read more here.

Enhance your classroom practice with these 5-week asynchronous, microcredential courses hosted on Canvas. Explore strategies and resources to create a classroom climate in which there are equitable opportunities for ALL students to engage in the proven practices of civic education delineated in the middle and high school course requirements: current and controversial issue discussions, simulations of democratic processes and informed action through service learning. Learn from academic experts like Dr. Diana Hess, Dr. Paula McAvoy, Dr. Joe Kahne, Dr. Jane Lo, Dr. Walter Parker and more! Collaborate with fellow participants to support brave, civil and reflective civic engagement. More details and form to sign up here.

Cohorts will begin May 23, 2022 and end June 30, 2022. DSN members who successfully earn their microcredential will earn a $300 stipend. Space is limited. Spots will be allocated to represent the diverse regions and disciplinary contents in the DSN.


Tell us about a success with civic learning during this past school year.

Jim Plaza, Sociology and World History teacher, Grayslake Central (2014)

Through our work with the Loyola Culturally Responsive Pedagogy (CRP) cohort, we learned about a variety of strategies to use in our classrooms and were encouraged to try them out with our students. One of the strategies that I have found to be useful and meaningful to students is the Identity Wheel, which asks students to consider various identities that they carry, including race, gender, social class, religion, physical abilities/disabilities, and more. They then reflect on identities that they think about most often, those that bring them joy, those that have the strongest effect on how they see themselves, and those that they usually do not put much thought into. In my Sociology classes, I incorporate the Identity Wheel into a beginning-of-the-semester survey that includes other “getting to know you” questions. Then, I schedule one-on-one meetings with each student and use their surveys as conversation starters and points of discussion. Through the surveys and interviews, I am able to get to know my students as people and understand how they see themselves so that I can plan meaningful and culturally appropriate classroom experiences for them. Students have said that they find it interesting and thought-provoking to think more about who they are in deeper ways.

To build on the Identity Wheel later in the semester, we discuss the impacts of socialization on the creation of identity, culminating in students writing an “I Am” poem, which is another strategy we learned in the Loyola CRP cohort. In this activity, students reflect on their identities, adding in other aspects, such as hobbies, interests, family structures, “homelands,” and more, thinking about how all of their life experiences and agents of socialization have contributed to the development of who they are. Several students have mentioned that this is a rather emotional experience for them, especially after reading their finished poems from beginning to end. I have found that this activity has created a stronger classroom community because when students read each other’s poems (with their permission), they realize that they have connections to each other that go beyond the things they see in each other every day. It also creates a culture of risk-taking and openness that becomes important when we have difficult discussions about controversial topics. When students see each other as people and respect each other’s stories, these conversations become respectful, constructive, and more meaningful

Valerie Xanos, Art Teacher, Curie High School (2016)


The Guerrilla Art Collective is comprised of the teacher (a practicing artist), students and alumni from the advanced ARTivism (II-H & III-H) courses at Curie H.S. In addition, the collective membership includes local artists, activists, and teachers who partner with the students on various levels. This partnership has been fostered for the past 6 years through the SPACE program (School Partnership for Art and Civic Education) of the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago and has included an embedded resident artist from 2017 - 2022. The 2017 GAC class was the pilot for this powerful program that now functions in several schools in Chicago. GAC students work with the teacher as collaborating artists and have input as to the curriculum and projects planned for each year. Our guiding concepts are: social justice, student voice, collectivity, interdisciplinary artistic process, contemporaneity, and community engagement. 

The 2022 GAC is developing 4 collaborative installation artworks as part of our final exhibition. Each will focus on a different social justice issue and includes interactive and community engaged components. Read more about the exhibit here.

Chris Wilbur, Social Studies Teacher, Hinsdale Central (2017)

I have handed this out to students before discussions and telling them that they have to use 2-3 of the sentence starters in the discussion. You can also assign categories to different students and make them practice a certain type of discussion skill. 

Jen Conlon, Social Studies Teacher, Maine East (2013)

Rethinking civics from an engagement perspective instead of from a 'teaching government' perspective emphasized the dynamism of the process. Simply stated, the focus is on building efficacy. Thinking through that lens continues to shape my teaching. Now when I begin my civics class I ask students on day one to tell me about themselves including issues that are concerning to them. I form a set of groups that I will use off and on during the semester based on those identified common interests. In an early meeting, I ask students to identify five questions they have about their topics and they put those in a class flipgrid. After we do our next unit on news literacy, I ask them to research, on their own, two of those questions and to save the research they collect. While we study Congress, I ask them to use to locate a bill addressing their topic. By time we get around to writing a letter to a public official, their letters can be based on an issue significant to them, using their research, and speaking to particular committees and bills. The letters my students create are terrific and much more meaningful to them. There may be something in the executive branch and bureaucracy that is relevant as well, and by time we get to the Illinois General Assembly and they are using, they can again look for relevant legislation, and they learn to file a witness slip as well. It was the change to a civic engagement perspective that made me rethink my teaching and, while some of the basic topics and exercises are similar, students' efforts are now much more meaningful.


Carl Brownell, Maine East (2013) and Tracy Freeman, Normal West (2016) have both been strong contributing members of the Democracy School Network for many years. And, in fact, both have served on the Advisory Council for the past several years. They are both retiring this year. Congratulations to both of them! And our deepest gratitude for their generous and steadfast service to their students, their schools and the Illinois Democracy Schools. Some final thoughts from them:

Could you share a brief summary of your teaching career?

Tracy: I graduated from Illinois State in 1988 and got my first teaching job in Fisher, Illinois (yes, I was a Bunny) for two years. The exhaustion and near-poverty wages lead me to turn in my resignation after year two. As luck would have it, my cooperating teacher ate lunch where I waitressed in the summers (Avanti's) and discovered I had resigned and reached out to fill a last-minute opening in Unit 5; the rest is history! I returned to Unit 5 in 1990 and after 5 years at middle school, I moved to Normal West when it opened in 1995. I am currently the building chair of the department.

Carl: I have been working in high schools for 33 years, but have been working with high school students ever since I graduated from Northwestern University in 1986. I worked for two years in Northwestern's undergraduate admissions, then got my teaching certification through Brown University's M.A.T. program. I taught at Evanston Township High School for 13 years, especially enjoying the teaching of African History. I moved on to a department chair position at Hinsdale Central HS for 5 years, and then have completed my journey for 15 years as department chair at Maine East. 

What person/experience inspired you to become a teacher? 

Carl: My inspiration for entering education was my grandfather, who worked in the field as a principal, superintendent and professor of education. He was also commissioner of education for the US under Dwight Eisenhower. 

Tracy: I had a few teachers in high school who really connected with me. I made personal connections with them and they helped me navigate the world of growing up in a single-mother household. I wasn't sure about teaching until I was in the late Dr. Larry McBride's classroom at ISU. He and Professor Sandra Harmon motivated me to go into teaching as a career!

What do you remember the most about your first year as a teacher?

Tracy: My first year... YIKES! I was making less money teaching and coaching 3 sports than I did waitress every weekend at Avantis back in Normal. I had late practice because (as the AD told me, I was single...) so I got to school at 7 am and didn't get home until often times 9 or 10 pm. I had 5 preps a day... one of which was actually 3 different classes throughout the year. As a Department of ONE, it was NOT my best teaching, by any means. However, I did take some students to the Model UN conference in Chicago and have stayed connected with 2 of these students to this day.  I also have stayed in touch with 2 of the staff members (a high school staff of 10 I think) to this day!

Carl: My first year was such a steep learning curve, but the most important lesson I learned was that my most important goal was to have the students learn, not to be their friend. I have carried that goal with me to keep the learning front and center. 

What will you remember the most about your last year as a teacher?

Carl: This year I have an incredible group of students who enjoy the learning and work so much that every day has been a joyful experience of leading them in their goals of understanding history and developing their skills. It has been the perfect group to end my teaching journey. 

Tracy: I think I will remember most...the students, my colleagues, and the amazing memories of my entire career! Our district is going through cuts (again) and the craziness of parents at Board meetings reminded me that I still love teaching students and working with my colleagues (especially my department) but will not miss the extras. I have told my students this year, "if I could teleport into my room, be with you all and teleport out... without the craziness of those outside our classroom... I would never retire." I feel if I could add teleport into my department's lunches/breakfasts/happy hour/dinners... it is a perfect summation.

What advice would you give to a person just beginning their teaching career?

Tracy: Find your people.... you will need support, a place to vent, and people to learn from and continue to grow. My people are 100% my department, Mr. Tom Eder (past Principal), and my Civics support system (Mary Ellen Daneels, Sue Khalaieff, Jill Bass, Dee Runas, the DS Network, and my incredible coaching colleagues through the Illinois Civics Hub). These people inspire me to do better and continue to “sharpen the saw” as S. Covey says! They also can offer a shoulder to cry on or an ear to bend when needed. I cherish each and every one of them!

Carl: The most important pieces of advice I would give a new teacher are to stay focused on the students and their needs. Don't get too caught up in teaching curriculum without reflecting on how it is interacting with the students. 

What are you most proud of from your years of teaching?

Carl: I am most proud of how I have always made the classroom and the departments I have led places where students and teachers feel comfortable, safe and supported so they are able to take risks. 

Tracy: This is a hard one, I believe it is that I tried to be open to trying new things when best for students. After going through the National Board Process, students and their learning (content and life lessons) are the focus. Doing what is best to open doors for others... trips to Iowa for kids, trying more engaging lessons, etc.. and not being afraid to grow (and fumble) along the way. I once heard a speaker comment that high school teacher refer to themselves in terms of what content they teach not the students. I have made it my mission to correct this belief! My students are the focus of what I do! This sometimes means supporting other professionals along the way to do their best as well for the students!

 What’s ahead for you?

Tracy: I will not have to wake up for school every day but plan on continuing my work as Civics instructional coach, be engaged with the amazing Guardians courses as a facilitator and student of new courses as well as a substitute at West. I have considered doing some work with ISU as a supervisor of student teachers but am not too sure. I also want to travel, take more time with my family and supportmy two amazing daughters as they begin their careers (as they supported mine!) 

Carl: I have no idea what is ahead for me, other than I will not grade, rate or evaluate another human being ever again. I have done enough of that for one lifetime.

Advisory Council Members, 2021-22:

Northern Illinois: Jason Janczak (Grayslake Central)

Central and Southern Illinois: Tracy Freeman (Normal West)

Northern Cook/Chicago: Carl Brownell (Maine East)

Western Cook/Chicago: Pat Riley (J. Sterling Morton West)

Southern Cook/Chicago: Melinda Wilson (Curie)

DuPage: Billson Rasavongxay (Hinsdale Central)

Kane, Kendall, Will: position open

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