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NCSS Member Spotlight: Mary Ellen Daneels and Shawn Healy

1. What was your favorite take-away from our 98th Annual Conference in Chicago?

Mary Ellen: Earlier this fall, I was part of a conference put on by Dr. Diana Hess, the Dean of Education at the University of Wisconsin- Madison.  The conference t-shirts read, “Teach like our democracy depends on it - because it does.” The 98th Annual Conference highlighted this message throughout with the vital issue sessions and keynote speakers.   

More importantly, the special strand of Illinois programming around “Inquiry as Engagement: Connecting Across Differences” had the message, Engage students like our democracy depends on it - because it does.”  All who attended these sessions learned how deliberation, student voice and informed action could be leveraged to connect classrooms across cultural, geographic, and socio-economic differences to promote culturally responsive teaching. I was especially impressed by the Better Arguments Project sponsored by Allstate, the Aspen Institute and Facing History and Ourselves for the tools they modeled to engage in critical conversations around compelling questions that face our communities.

2. What was the biggest opportunity in conference planning?

Shawn: Echoing Mary Ellen, the Illinois-specific strand on Friday provided an opportunity for local teachers to make the case to their administrators that attendance on this day, and not the weekend only, was imperative to their teaching assignment, specifically implementing the state’s new high school civics course requirement and revised K-12 social studies standards. More globally, we are living in what has been called a “Sputnik moment” for social studies. The annual conference provides an opportunity for leverage and national coordination of our respective work.

3. What was the biggest challenge in conference planning?

Mary Ellen: Chicago is a wonderful resource for social studies teachers.  Its history, culture, and civic institutions are vast—so I am sure it was a challenge for our President, India Meissel, to narrow down what would be features in special events, tours, and pre-conference clinics!  As Local Arrangements Chair, my job was to leverage the most valuable social studies asset we have in Illinois - our teachers. Educators in the Land of Lincoln really shined as volunteers and presenters!

4. What is your “day job”? How was conference planning a lot like your day job? How was it different?

Shawn: I serve as Director of the Democracy Program in Illinois, where we use grantmaking, direct programming, convening, and advocacy strategies to strengthen youth engagement, local journalism, and public institutions. My worlds collided in planning for this conference as we provided a grant to NCSS to support first time attendee conference scholarships to 50 Chicago Public Schools teachers.

5. What advice would you give a first-time attendee after the Annual Conference?

Mary Ellen: First-time attendees should continue their learning by becoming part of an ongoing NCSS Community that can be a source of ideas and encouragement.  I follow the Pre-Service Community on Facebook and participate in webinars from the Technology Community throughout the year.

6. What is one thing about the Annual Conference you want every reader to know?

Shawn: NCSS’ return to Chicago reminded me of the first time I attended the conference as a young classroom teacher in 2003. It was a transformational experience and I benefited greatly from both breakout sessions and resources collected in the exhibit hall. In my current role at the McCormick Foundation, I have the privilege of attending NCSS every year. We "regulars" should do everything within our power to extend this opportunity to our younger peers, particularly those in the geographic region where the conference is held.

7. What has been a major benefit of your NCSS membership?  

Mary Ellen: As a result of my NCSS membership I have become part of a larger network of practitioners who have become mentors and friends.  Our work to revise social science standards in the state of Illinois greatly benefited from the partnerships that had their roots in the NCSS Community.  The leadership of the Citizenship Community, led by Janis Kyser, has been invaluable.

Mary Ellen Daneels is a National Board Certified teacher who has been recognized as the Law-related Educator of the Year from the Constitutional Rights Foundation of Chicago, Teacher of the Year by the 19th District of the Veterans of Foreign Wars and American Civic Education Teacher from the Center for Civic Education. Mary Ellen has presented on service learning, simulations, and the use of controversy in the classroom at the local, state, and national level as well as provided professional development workshops in Estonia, Angola, and Belarus. Mary Ellen has advocated for civic education before federal and state lawmakers. She served on the Board of Directors for the National Council of the Social Studies and led the civics team to revise the Illinois Social Studies Standards.

Dr. Shawn Healy leads the Robert R. McCormick Foundation Democracy Program, which strengthens democracy in Illinois through informed and engaged individuals and communities, and responsive systems of government. Healy recently chaired the Illinois Task Force on Civic Education and led the successful push for a required high school civics course in Illinois. He also led the Illinois Social Science Standards Task Force in 2014-2015. Its recommendations were adopted by the Illinois State Board of Education in June 2015.

Before joining the McCormick Foundation, he served as a social studies teacher at West Chicago (IL) Community High School and Sheboygan North (WI) High School. A 2001 James Madison Fellow from the State of Wisconsin, he holds a MA and PhD from the University of Illinois at Chicago in political science and earned a bachelor’s degree with distinction in Political Science, History and Secondary Education from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.