Updated: Summer Reading and Reflection for Democratic Classrooms

July 21, 2020 / by Heather Van Benthuysen

 This is a reposting with updated content and links.

A recent study involving rural farmers and urban activists in North Dakota asked each group to “select three terms that describe what ‘social justice’ means to you,” and then “select three terms describing what ‘autonomy’ means to you". The results, represented in word clouds, point to our own political divide and the challenges we face when trying to identify what we mean by civic skills.


If one group values individualism and the other interdependence, clearly their ideas on essential civic skills and habits might differ. So how do we plan for democratic classrooms when it seems at times our own values conflict?

What Civics Skills Should We Be Working For?

For classrooms that model democratic practices, we must be able to name what powerful civic actors know, think, and do, and how groups of people work to impact civic life, regardless of political perspective. My own understanding has evolved over time, and the following resources continue to serve as practical lenses for understanding civic skills.

  • What Kind of Citizen? Westheimer and Kahne explore what good citizenship is and what good citizens do by presenting three conceptions of citizenship: personally responsible, participatory, and social-justice oriented. Their work helps us to look beyond the traditional framing of civic participation as volunteering and voting.  Students use it to evaluate issues, policies, and develop solutions to problems they investigate.
  • How to Understand Power and You’re More Powerful Than You Think: In his TEDEd video, Eric Liu summarizes citizen power as being “an author of change,” and outlines powerful citizen acts as those of expression, action, and dissent. The idea of practicing citizenship is key, especially practicing conflict. Our ability to understand, consider alternative perspectives, advocate, compromise, and even change our mind through those conflicts is essential and takes practice.

In Chicago civics courses, we use these concepts so often that we made classroom posters:

Three Civics Posters

Download Liu Quotation Poster

Download Three Citizens Poster

Download Power Poster

Learning From What Inspires and What Works

Civic life is local and personal -- we have people and spaces that can show us how to reach across the divide and help us to see the different ways to participate and why they matter. These models of civic participation inspire us, and the skills, knowledge, and habits they exhibit can serve as learning tools for us all.

These groups have taught me a lot about what civic participation can look like and what we need to do it well:

  • DataMade: The Chicago organization that works to make civic data work for public civic use.
  • What Every American Should Know: An initiative that aims to answer the question, “What do you think Americans should know to be civically and culturally literate?” What most Americans think is most valuable would make an interesting deliberation. Here are some ideas for using this prompt with students.
  • The teachers we honor who fight for their students and public schools across the country.

Find Models of Civic Participation in Your Community

Election season is an opportunity to assess how our communities model civic participation. Here are some things to look for:

  • Three Kinds of Citizen: Who participates in the development and common good of your community? What kinds of citizenship do they practice?
  • Deliberation: Attend a virtual town-hall forum, community event, or other space where folks gather to hear candidates and debate issues. Are different voices/perspectives represented? Are there rules or norms in place to ensure equitable discussion?
  • Organizing and Advocacy: Who is organizing people in your community around candidates, issues, or policies? How do they organize? What tools do they use?
  • Equity of Voice: Do all people in your community have a voice? Are youth issues represented? Who is listening to young people?
  • Informed: Are voters informed about candidates? Do candidates know their constituents? How do you know when you are ready to vote?
  • Representation: Who runs for office? What does your community look for in a candidate? Do candidates reflect the diversity of the community?

To receive updates on new resources and information about civic learning, follow @Ed4Democracy on Twitter and sign up for the Educating for Democracy newsletter.

Please share your thoughts and ideas of what powerful civic action looks like in the comments below and on Twitter. Join me @VanCerny and the conversation as we explore ways to build #DemocraticClassrooms.

Topics: Professional Learning, Equity, Social Justice, Social Studies, Summer Learning, Educating for Democracy

Heather Van Benthuysen

Written by Heather Van Benthuysen

Heather Van Benthuysen is a veteran English teacher who has spent her career trying to figure out how classrooms and schools can help students realize their power as readers, writers, thinkers, creators, and community members. Heather is a National Board Certified English educator and trained administrator with almost 20 years experience as a teacher, coach, and youth advocate. She is passionate about teaching literacy skills for civic life, and the transformative effect of a civics learning culture on all school stakeholders. Heather is the Civic Education Manager for Chicago Public Schools and a Teaching Channel Laureate. She really wants to hear your powerful classroom stories. Connect with Heather on Twitter: @VanCerny.

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