Civics surprises students

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Since the institution of the civics requirement in Illinois high schools starting with the class of 2020, the civics classes have been met with mixed reviews from students and teachers alike.

There are three main ways to fulfill the civics requirement at New Trier: a student can take Civics (also available over the summer), Civics and Social Justice, or they can take AP Government & Politics in their senior year.

While an increasing number of students take the Civics or Civics and Social Justice class to satisfy the requirement, a large portion of students opt instead to knock it out with AP Government & Politics since taking civics itself would interfere with their schedule.
Junior Maddie Dieffenbacher faced this issue, prompting her to have to take Civics the summer before her junior year.

“I agree that this requirement conflicts with our schedule,” explained Dieffenbacher. “Although it seemed like less work than other history classes I have taken, there was still projects, essays, and readings assignments that would be hard to balance with five other classes going on at the same time.”

Though cumbersome for some, it has proven to be interesting where topics are applicable to the real world. For sophomore Caroline Cody, a Civics and Social Justice student, civics is fascinating.

“I love Civics, and the reason I decided to take it was because it sounded like a class I would really enjoy,” said Cody.

Cody said the class is non-typical in the way it prepares students to understand what happens in the real world, not just within the context of the classroom.

“We did a unit on the people in charge and we’ve learned about social justice and how to see the minority’s perspective,” explained Cody. “Everything I have learned so far I use and will continue to use in the future.”

Social Studies teachers Lindsay Arado and Alexander Zilka were the duo at the forefront of the implementation of the civics curriculum at New Trier. According to Zilka, Illinois mandates that four main ideas have to be taught in civics classes: government institutions, civic engagement, discussion of current and controversial issues, and simulations of the democratic process.

“It’s important for students to be able to talk about current issues in an educated way and in a civil way,” explained Zilka. “Part of what I’m trying to do in Civics is to help students do that—to hear alternative points of view, think about them, and not necessarily agree with them but to listen.”

Though the civics classes learn the same fundamental topics, there is only a set standard for what needs to be taught; there is none for how the civics topics should be taught exactly, giving teachers leeway to approach teaching the mandated elements of the curriculum as they see fit.

Civics teachers Christopher Van Den Berg and Zilka take a very “hands-on” approach in order to teach students the application of civics.

“We want students to feel like they’re engaged in this process of being good citizens, so as teachers, we need to model that to help them see how their engagement is going to produce a more open, thoughtful society,” said Van Den Berg.

In Van Den Berg’s classroom, when he surveyed his students to see where their opinions on the class stood, he discovered that though many of the students had initial exasperation or low expectations for civics, after being in the class for a couple of weeks, they have been able to derive the inherent value from learning civics.

While civics may be mandatory, it no longer feels like a “dumb requirement”—a common assumption. “Across levels, there is a consistent message coming from the students that this [class] is valuable, that there’s a connection to their lives and the world,” noted Van Den Berg.

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