Imagine a program that would simultaneously bring students from dramatically different backgrounds together from across the state of Illinois, help instill an interest in both history and current affairs, and give them a taste of what the college experience is all about.
Well, dream no further. The program exists, and it is called Capitol Forum.
Formally called Capitol Forum on America’s Future, the yearlong program provides free materials to participating high school social studies teachers from the Choices Program at Brown University that complement the social studies curriculum and meet the state’s standards. Then each year in April, at Illinois State University (ISU) in Normal, Ill., students from across the state deliberate case studies, meet with university professors and other experts on the issues, and engage in a simulation with their peers of four possible foreign policy options for the U.S.
Although it might sound like an overstatement, the results are potentially life-changing.
Caroline Madden, a senior at Homewood-Flossmoor High School in Flossmoor, has had one semester of the Choices Program curriculum. She says it’s changed her thinking about her future.
“This has changed my life,” says Madden, who plans to study engineering in the fall at Purdue University. “Seeing all of this, and connecting the dots between history and today, has changed my thinking. As an engineer, I want to work in villages to help solve problems and to build things, but now I appreciate how you have to understand the culture too. So now I want to live abroad and to minor in Spanish.”
Supported with grants from the Chicago-based Robert R. McCormick Foundation, the Forum got its name because for the first 10 years of the 17-year-old program it took place with sessions actually on the floor of the House in the Illinois General Assembly in Springfield. At that time, school groups would come to Springfield the night before, have pizza, and go through case studies. The next day, they’d do presentations and even see themselves on a big screen. When the state decided to discontinue its partnership with Capitol Forum in 2011, a small group of teachers – including Carole Cosimano of Illinois Humanities, a former teacher who has guided the Forum from its inception, explored options for it. In 2012, after taking just one year off, ISU agreed to take it in.
“Capitol Forum promotes the importance of listening to others, whose views may not coincide with our own,” says Cosimano. “The program attracts small to mid-sized schools in rural, suburban, and urban areas of the state, which means there always will be a diversity of viewpoints and experiences.”
Dr. J.D. Bowers, director of the University of Missouri’s Honors College, opened the day speaking to a room crowded with more than 150 students, their teachers and ISU teacher candidates on the topic of genocide (“nothing like starting your day with genocide, right?… I’m anti[-genocide], by the way”). He focused on Syria and Turkey, giving significant insider knowledge to a smart discussion on the ins and outs of current developments and possible policy responses. He didn’t seem to hold anything back, discussing for example the 6,000 women that have been forced into trafficking and will likely never be heard from again.
With genocide, he noted, “unless you put troops on the ground, you won’t make a difference, and even if you do it’s unlikely you’ll stop it.”
Students then moved into breakouts on the topics immigration, genocide, terrorism, nuclear proliferation, the global economy and climate change. Each was tasked with coming up with five-point plans on ways to address the issue. In the climate change breakout group, the discussion was sophisticated, as students debated ways to try to force countries to be more environmental versus trying to create incentives.
Nick Vassolo, a social studies teacher from Streamwood High School in Streamwood, Ill., has been coming to Capitol Forum since 2001. Here with 10 of his students, Vassolo has been using the Choices curriculum for many years, saying it is “very digestible and truly energizes the students.”
“It’s not your typical textbook,” says Vassolo, whose school has about 2,200 students, 60% of whom are on free and reduced lunch. “You look at a problem from every angle, ask ‘let’s come up with a solution together.’ It’s more of a deliberation process than a debate.”
Marty Green teaches at East Peoria Community High School, the lone school in central Illinois District 309, with about 1,000 students. While he describes the school as fairly homogenous, he says students range from the kids of Caterpillar execs to students living in severe poverty. About half are on free and reduced lunches, he says. This year he came to Capitol Forum with a group of nine students.
Green, who uses the Choices Program for his U.S. Government and U.S. History classes, likes the curriculum because it puts students into a historical situation, and lays out the options they – as the President of the U.S., for example – must weigh in order to make a decision. “What I like most is that it nurtures critical thinking,” he says. “It puts them in uncomfortable situations, where they have to weigh a situation and also defend positions that are not necessarily their own.”
What does Green, who has taught for 24 years and attended Capitol Forum for the past 10, think the Forum offers students? First of all, it allows students to engage in civil discourse, where they don’t feel attacked. Even more so, it allows students to meet their counterparts from different backgrounds all over the state. Finally there is some selection at play in deciding who will attend, so they are in an environment with other students who really want to be there. So it’s more like a college experience for many.
Emma Wilson came to Capitol Forum for the first time this year with a group of six students from Centennial High School in Champaign, Ill., a school of about 1,400 students in the city’s west side. Now in her sixth year at Centennial, she started teaching AP government, regular government and World History four years ago, and just started using the Choices curriculum last semester.
“As a new teacher, you’re trying to pull together different materials to create a curriculum,” says Wilson. “Since Choices has done that for you, it takes a lot of the legwork out of it.”
What’s more – teachers like the style of the Choices approach. “The real strength is the questions they pose to students, so it’s not just me lecturing. It frees the students to do make their own decisions.”
The Choices Program and Capitol Forum help reinforce things that schools are already doing to nurture civic interest.
Vassolo of Streamwood High says the school does a lot to nurture civic involvement in students – from being a Mikva school, to recently joining the McCormick Foundation’s Democracy Schools Network even to taking students to the Iowa caucus. This past Monday, he says, was Student Government Day for Streamwood High School seniors. Students in Streamwood and Hanover Park shadowed Village Board and staff to see what it takes to run local government. “It’s more than job shadowing – they got to run meetings,” he says.
How does ISU view the partnership? Dr. Richard Hughes, an associate professor in the Department of History at ISU and the Capitol Forum coordinator there, describes the program as win-win. “We get a lot out of it,” he says. “Our teacher candidates learn about the Forum, about the Choices units, get to work with master teachers and get to work with the students themselves.”
In fact, at this year’s Forum there were two teachers – Brad Christie and Kim Hoss from Pontiac Township High School – who were returning to the Forum after many years. They both themselves had facilitated Capitol Forum as part of a history course at ISU.
“We believe in it,” says Hughes. “We believe that it shapes their career and identity well into the future.”
In the final minutes of this year’s Forum, students from all across Illinois lined up to make closing comments.
“We are all gathered here from different places all over Illinois, but together we represent the state,” said Eric Loera of Streamwood High and the 2017 U-46 Superintendent Scholar Recipient. “Currently there is a big budget crisis in the capitol, and we have to push our state elected officials and representatives to get something passed. I assume we all represent public schools here and so this is really going to affect us. I’m from the second largest school district in Illinois, U-46, and we will close for 60 days if the budget doesn’t pass, so they need to do something up there.”
Reflecting on the Forum, Cosimano of Illinois Humanities imagines it continuing to provide teachers with curriculum resources, access to experts, and even opportunities for “mini-Forums” regionally or summer institutes on relevant issues teachers can use for their own enrichment.
But it’s clear the program doesn’t end when the bus pulls away from ISU’s Bone Center. “Our goal has always been to help young people develop their own ‘civic voices’ so they can be informed and active participants in the democratic process. If we truly are educating the whole person, then listening, thinking, speaking and understanding must be part of the process. That’s the way we form an engaged citizenry for the 21st century.”