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Classroom Management: Handling Sensitive Topics

Jordan Catapano

“Is religion going to be, like, in every book we read?” she asked.

I thought about it for a moment, and then replied, “Yes. More or less.”  

I hadn’t intended for that to be the case, but realized this student was onto something: Discussions and themes related to religion showed up in nearly all of the stories we would read that year. These themes were main themes in “Brave New World,” “Life of Pi,” “Inherit the Wind,” “Antigone,” “The Stranger,” and “Lord of the Flies.” In all texts, in various ways, religion-related concepts manifested themselves. And in fact, I hadn’t even selected this set of books for our accelerated sophomores: The titles had been pre-approved over the course of several years prior to my taking on the course.

So what was so much religious discussion doing in our literature course? Or, in the words of some students, “Isn’t it, like, not OK to talk about God in school?”

I take this question seriously. Religion is a serious topic, and how we deal with it in public school is no laughing matter. And as I examine the materials we cover in a range of English classes, I see that other issues – like race, gender, sexuality, violence, politics, class, freedoms, and philosophy – permeate our curriculum.

But wait – aren’t schools supposed to avoid these issues? Aren’t English classes supposed to focus on literary devices, argumentation, public speaking, and grammar? Aren’t history classes supposed to stick to the facts and figures of our past? Shouldn’t psychology leave these contentious topics to the pundits? Shouldn’t science focus on experimentation and not the implications of its discoveries?

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Shouldn’t we leave students’ minds unadulterated with references to these issues?

Well, no. And, if you want my honest answer, we can’t. In an environment that’s increasingly focused on delivering instruction with real-world implications, there occurs an inevitable intersection between what we study in school and these potentially sensitive areas of discussion. And while we have to carefully consider how to approach these in class, it would do our students a sore injustice to pretend like these core components of society don’t exist.

Classroom Management: How to Approach These Challenging Topics

In an interesting classroom management experiment, I did an activity where I asked students to cross to the other side of a taped line on the floor if they agreed with statements I was making. At one point, I made these statements:

  • “Cross the line if you consider yourself to have an ethnicity.” Every student crossed.
  • “Cross the line if you are proud of your ethnicity.” Every student crossed.
  • “Cross the line if you like it when others who are not your ethnicity acknowledge unique aspects of your race or culture.” Most students crossed.
  • “Cross the line if you consider yourself “colorblind” when it comes to how you view other people.” Most students crossed.

These questions made for a thrilling discussion afterwards as students excitedly shared their cultures and related to one another. But their answer to the fourth question sparked a curious quandary: If we viewed one another with “colorblind” eyes, how could we acknowledge one another’s ethnicities and cultures we were supposedly so proud of?

The students were a little tongue-tied. After all, they had been taught that being colorblind was good; you’re not supposed to look at someone for qualities based on their ethnicity or culture. But on the other hand, talking about and acknowledging these differences led to rich conversations and deeper understandings about our society. Our discussion explored how to strike a balance between these issues.

This particular class was American Literature – a course whose textual inclusions of race, culture, class, politics, gender, and religion are nearly impossible to avoid.

So how do we address these central issues without crossing any lines? Here are a few approaches that help foster enriching discussions and explorations while avoiding pitfalls that turn these into contentious, uncomfortable, or inappropriate moments:

No Teacher Opinions. A teacher’s role in the classroom implies that they cannot use their position for spouting out their personal opinions. First, as an employee of their school district, their freedom of speech is generally restricted to covering content necessary for the approved curriculum. Second, young minds are more susceptible to conforming to an authority figure’s perspective. Where sensitive topics arise, I avoid inserting any personal thoughts or feelings into the discussion.

Class Guidelines. It’s helpful to establish a few guidelines for how your students should generally interact with one another. Better yet, try having students help develop these guidelines. In general, guidelines that focus on respect, on sharing of personal experiences, on listening politely, and on understanding multiple perspectives help facilitate positive dialogues. It’s also easier to correct student behavior when you can refer directly to established expectations.

Focus on Exploring Perspectives. What’s nice about examining issues like these is that you can’t really narrow them down to “the answer.” What you can do, however, is encourage students to recognize a variety of perspectives, backgrounds, and differences that relate to these issues. My favorite verbs to use regarding these issues include “explore,” “examine,” “consider,” “discover,” “compare,” “listen,” and “question.”

Facilitate Comfort for Developing Own Perspectives. School is a time for students to explore, to figure out who they are. In many ways, teachers can lay out a menu but allow students ultimate control over what they delve into. Give students opportunities to consider the “What do you think?” question. Create a safe space where students can discuss – and even disagree – with one another, yet still positively share their thinking. Encourage students by letting them know that their perspective matters. Provide them with access to an enriching array of resources for deepening their understanding.

Keep Parents Informed. Part of what makes these issues difficult to discuss is that parents have already inculcated their children with perspectives on them. Children typically don’t come to school with, say, deeply rooted convictions about the Oxford comma. But they do about religion, race, class, and other personal matters. When we approach these issues in class, consider what methods you’ll use to let parents know what you’re addressing, and how you’re addressing it. Ideally, this will spark conversations for parents and their children at home as well.

Not What To Think, But How

I remind myself often that it’s not my goal to teach students what to think, but how to think. To discuss potentially sensitive or contentious issues can certainly be a tricky path, but to ignore them means ignoring a big part of society and humanity. As these topics come up in class, I try to focus on three things:

  1. Show students these topics are present and relevant.
  2. Provide students with time, resources, and discussion to explore their understanding.
  3. Offer opportunity to think, write, and share their personal perspectives.

Nowhere in there does what I think get in the way. Nowhere are students guided to one conclusion or another. Nowhere are their perspectives disregarded or discredited.

The ultimate goal is that whatever we teach – whether literature, history, science, psychology, world language, even math or physical education – our students see the value of an informed perspective, of thoughtful dialogue, and of their own opinion. We don’t want them to grow up thinking that these issues aren’t allowed to be discussed. We don’t want to focus on superficial aspects of our curriculum and gloss over the deeper content. We want students prepared to think, to talk, and to respect.

How do you approach more sensitive topics in your classroom? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below!

Jordan Catapano is a high school English teacher in a Chicago suburb. In addition to being National Board Certificated, he also has worked with the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and has experience as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website www.jordancatapano.us.