Touching Hearts and Minds with Social Studies

By Mary Ellen Daneels posted 08-31-2017 09:18:50 AM


This summer, I facilitated 25 days of professional development to support Illinois’ renewed commitment to the “civic mission of schools”. With the backing of the Robert R. McCormick Foundation Democracy Program lead by Dr. Shawn Healy, Illinois has adopted new Social Studies standards and a civic education requirement for graduation.  After organizing and implementing double digit workshops with the help of 35 regional mentors, mid August brought time for much needed rest for both me AND my car.  My tires needed a realignment and so did I!  When I checked my car in for its service appointment, I was reminded why this work is vital to health of our democracy- his name is Joe.

Joe is a former student that who taught me one of my most powerful lessons as a teacher.  To set the stage, a small group of students conducted an inquiry into school climate and were communicating their conclusions for informed action.  The students were using parliamentary procedure to engage in a simulation of a democratic process to deliberate the merits of the proposal.  Some in the class saw their proposal to train students to be upstanders as “over-sensitive” and the need for clearer guidelines in the student “unnecessary”.  Others shared stories and data that demonstrated the need for such measures.  That is when student voice turned the tide in the class- Joe shared his story.

When Joe spoke, people listened--mostly because participation by Joe was so rare!  Joe was involved in the school’s off campus auto mechanic program and wasn’t really “into school”.  Joe did what was necessary to pass the class and was an engaged listener, but not a frequent contributor.  When Joe made his “request to yield”, it was filled with emotion.  Joe shared how this policy issue affected his family with the recent suicide of his cousin in another country.  Holding back tears, with a broken voice, Joe explained that one of the contributing factors to his cousin’s death was the relentless persecution by school bullies.  Joe lamented how distance prevented him from protecting his cousin, and how he could not just sit by and let someone else needlessly take their own life.  We needed to do something at our school.

It is hard to describe how the tone and mood of the room changed in that moment as the class reflected on the power in Joe’s words and the experience we had just shared.  I thanked Joe for his honesty and for trusting all of us with his story and others in the class echoed the same.  

When I checked in for my car appointment this summer, Joe asked me if I remembered him.  I did.  My experience with Joe reminded me that, according to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, people do not learn (self-actualize) until their need for safety is met.  Joe reaffirmed that as a teacher, it is my responsibility to provide a safe environment for students to deliberate the most compelling questions facing our communities involving justice, freedom, liberty, tolerance and the like.   Students have questions and I do NOT have all the answers, but I can scaffold opportunities for inquiry, investigation and deliberation.  Finally, words are not enough.  I must give students like Joe the opportunity to engage in service learning that leads to informed action.  As one educator reflected at one of our summer workshops, “We (Social Studies teachers) can take students from asking ‘So what?’ to ‘Now what?’! “

If you would like to follow our initiative in the Land of Lincoln to prepare all Illinois students for college, career and civic life, visit and subscribe to our weekly blog where we share ideas and resources to support teachers in this vital work for the Joes in your classroom.

Mary Ellen Daneels, National Council for the Social Studies Board of Directors, Lead Teacher Mentor, the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, Teacher, Community High School, West Chicago, Illinois.