A Student Reflection on the Illinois Civic Mission Coalition Convening

by Christopher Kim, ISBE Student Advisory Council Member, Northside College Prep HS, Chicago, Illinois 

foreword by Sonia Mathew, Civic Learning Manager, Democracy Program

In planning for the 6th annual Illinois Civic Mission Coalition annual convening, I wanted to be intentional with including experiences that would interest a variety of stakeholders that would be in attendance, including teachers and administrators in the Democracy School Network, civic education partners, and students. I especially wanted to engage students with additional leadership roles in the event and to give them a platform to share their perspective on their learning from the event. As we work with schools across the state to strengthen student voice, the convening was a perfect opportunity to also have student voices heard. One of the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) Student Advisory Council Members, Chris Kim, accepted my invitation to share his reflection of the event with us. It is a powerful testimonial to the outcomes of strong civic learning experiences in high school and I am excited to share his thoughts with you.

This year’s Illinois Civic Mission Coalition Convening continued a great conversation on civic education and the unique ways that young people are entering into this conversation. The first session I attended was the Elections in Action Panel which primarily discussed how to expose students to real world experiences in order to enrich their understanding of civics. The three panelists, including a high school senior from George Westinghouse High School, shared their experiences in engaging students in elections, whether by travelling to the Iowa Caucus, running a mock election, or hosting a complete mock debate. One thing I gleaned from the panel discussion was the need for all parties to be “all in”. Chris Wolak, a social studies teacher at Waubonsie Valley High School, spoke about taking his class to the Iowa Caucus and how none of it could have happened without the collaboration of teachers, administrators, and students. He underscored the role of teachers in providing the “foundation and opportunity” for students and opening the doors not only to an educational experience, but to an empowering application of concepts learned in class. As a student, I immediately identified with the effectiveness of hands on learning as useful for school and life after school.

The second session I attended was a panel on teaching controversial current events. Three social studies teachers shared the ways in which their schools and civics classrooms reacted to current and extremely personal events, namely the release of the Laquan McDonald video, the shooting of Michael Brown, and the death of a local police officer. In light of the Laquan McDonald video, teacher Cyriac Mathew from Uplift Community High School shared his goals of opening discussion, making space for emotional processing, connecting the incident to larger issues, and offering hope to his students. I could not help but snap to these goals which not only helped the students to process such injustice in a healthy manner, but also empowered many students to contemplate and stand in solidarity against the larger issues of flawed law enforcement and socioeconomic disparity. One key point that resonated with me from this panel was the importance of bridging civic education with the passions of students. Reaffirming the morning keynote speaker Cathy Cohen from the University of Chicago, I recognized that civics education must account for the lived experience and knowledge of the students in order for it to resonate within them and inspire action.


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