Stevenson civics teacher's influence reaches beyond the classroom

Stevenson civics teacher's influence reaches beyond the classroom

  • Stevenson High School teacher Andrew Conneen says the great thing about teaching civics is there's "never been a dull time" to teach it. Conneen, a finalist for Illinois Teacher of the Year in 2012, has been at Stevenson for more than two decades.

      Stevenson High School teacher Andrew Conneen says the great thing about teaching civics is there's "never been a dull time" to teach it. Conneen, a finalist for Illinois Teacher of the Year in 2012, has been at Stevenson for more than two decades. Joe Lewnard | Staff Photographer

 
 
Posted3/9/2020 5:00 AM

Stevenson High School civics teacher Andrew Conneen remembers exactly when he became enamored with the political process.

It was Nov. 4, 1980 -- Election Day. President Jimmy Carter was about to get ousted from the Oval Office by Ronald Reagan.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Conneen was 9 years old, and his family was moving from the Pacific Northwest to Chicago. On the way to Portland International Airport, his parents stopped to vote.

"When we arrived at the hotel in Chicago that evening, I remember my dad being excited watching the election results," Conneen recalled. "I'm still impressed they stopped to vote on one of the busiest, most stressful days of their lives."

Stevenson High School civics teacher Andrew Conneen works with senior Sam Wang at the Lincolnshire school. Conneen's lessons often expand outside the classroom -- his students have visited the Iowa caucuses, held campaign fairs, moderated candidate debates and served as election judges.
  Stevenson High School civics teacher Andrew Conneen works with senior Sam Wang at the Lincolnshire school. Conneen's lessons often expand outside the classroom -- his students have visited the Iowa caucuses, held campaign fairs, moderated candidate debates and served as election judges. - Joe Lewnard | Staff Photographer

Forty years later, Conneen is something of a legend at Stevenson, a teacher who helped craft election-related legislation and has become recognized nationally as a civics expert.

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The subject remains dear to him.

"Learning about civics is learning how to advocate in life," said Conneen, a 2012 finalist for the Illinois Teacher of the Year Award. "It's about getting involved in different communities and different groups, having strong ideas for improvements, building supportive evidence for changes, and listening to alternative perspectives and responding to those different viewpoints."

Conneen's teaching career began 26 years ago at Waubonsie Valley High in Aurora.

Stevenson High School civics teacher Andrew Conneen works with a student. "Learning about civics is learning how to advocate in life," said Conneen, a 2012 finalist for the Illinois Teacher of the Year Award.
  Stevenson High School civics teacher Andrew Conneen works with a student. "Learning about civics is learning how to advocate in life," said Conneen, a 2012 finalist for the Illinois Teacher of the Year Award. - Joe Lewnard | Staff Photographer

After four years there, he moved to Stevenson, and the Lincolnshire campus has been his professional home ever since.

Conneen has taught students during some incredibly turbulent political times: the Clinton impeachment; the controversial 2000 presidential election; 9/11 and the wars that followed; disgraced Gov. Rod Blagojevich's trial; and now the presidency of Donald Trump.

"The great thing about civics is that there's never been a dull time to teach the subject," Conneen said. "We don't teach civics as a current events class, but it's always important to use news stories to help teach students how current events connect with the core concepts of the course."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Conneen strives to connect students with real-world opportunities.

Stevenson High School civics teacher Andrew Conneen speaks with students, including Ari Shibata, right, as they work on a project.
  Stevenson High School civics teacher Andrew Conneen speaks with students, including Ari Shibata, right, as they work on a project. - Joe Lewnard | Staff Photographer

With his leadership, his students have held campaign fairs, served as election judges, participated in early-voting drives and moderated candidate debates.

Stevenson school board member Terry Moons said Conneen is passionate about civic participation.

"It's not just book learning -- it's doing," Moons said.

Last month, he took a group of teens to Iowa to observe one of that state's local caucuses for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination. The unusual process experienced reporting problems, leading to nationwide criticism and some calls for change.

"It was great for students to see a small part of a complicated system, and how reporting caucus results accurately is easier said than done," Conneen said.

Stevenson High School civics teacher Andrew Conneen was a finalist for Illinois Teacher of the Year in 2012.
  Stevenson High School civics teacher Andrew Conneen was a finalist for Illinois Teacher of the Year in 2012. - Joe Lewnard | Staff Photographer

Conneen's impact has been felt outside Stevenson's walls.

He and fellow Stevenson teacher Daniel Larsen helped craft the 2013 state law that allows 17-year-olds who turn 18 before a November general election to vote in the preceding primary.

The teachers, students and supporting lawmakers lobbied for the "Suffrage at 17" legislation for nearly 10 years.

"It was the best civics lesson that I've ever been part of," Conneen said.

Conneen and Larsen also created a TV show called "Cram for the Exam" that's a review for the Advanced Placement Government test. It's aired annually on C-SPAN for a decade.

Stevenson Superintendent Eric Twadell called Conneen "an untiring advocate for the importance of civics education."

"It's been a pleasure to watch him flourish and have such an impact on so many students, not just at Stevenson, but around the country," Twadell said.

• • •

Civics teacher Andrew Conneen's tips for teachers

• Enthusiasm is an essential lesson plan.

• Teach students how to own their learning.

• Make civics part of an everyday lifestyle.

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