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No Offense: Teaching Controversial Topics

Kim Haynes

NoFrom the elections to Michael Vick’s re-emergence as a starting quarterback, controversies are everywhere. They offer outstanding “teachable moments,” but these topics can be tricky to handle.

Here are some must-read teaching guide to tackle controversial topics in your classroom.

Why Teach Controversial Topics?

This is the first question to ask yourself because it’s the first question others will ask. When the kids whine, “Why do we need to know this?” or administrators wonder if this is a good use of class time, you’d better have an answer.

For older students, a controversial topic is a great way to energize class discussions. Telling students “You need to know the Bill of Rights” is one thing, but get them talking about the people who protest at soldiers’ funerals or the proposed mosque near Ground Zero and suddenly those First Amendment freedoms are a lot more personal.

Younger students may not understand the finer points of a legal argument, but they can still gain valuable character education lessons. Whatever your personal political opinions, it seems safe to say that our public discourse has some individuals (on all sides) who would rather insult their opponents than solve problems. Use the heated discussion about the election to help kids recognize the right way to communicate, and acknowledge that some grown-ups need those lessons, too.

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Picking Your Topic

There is no shortage of issues; besides the obvious ones we hear every day, any subject or special interest group has its own controversies. Choose one that suits your students and your subject.

 If you’ve never tackled a hot topic before, a “niche controversy” that’s unique to your subject might be the way to go. Few parents will complain about a classroom debate on “Who really wrote Shakespeare’s plays?” But don’t underestimate the value of real controversies, particularly with older students.

Keeping Controversial Debate Appropriate for Your Students

That’s okay for high schoolers, you might be thinking, but what about my kindergarteners? Of course there are many topics you won’t tackle with younger students. But sometimes you can find a variation on the issue that is age-appropriate.

For example:

Becca teaches first grade. She is passionate about vegetarianism and animal rights issues. She knows issues like dog-fighting or pet overpopulation are too complex for her students, but she wants to do something. So Becca focuses on related topics her students can handle.

She encourages them to eat more fruits and vegetables; they have a guest speaker from the local humane society to talk about how to take care of their pets, and when they do their science units she includes information about endangered species and habitats. In that way, Becca begins to introduce these issues to her students without overwhelming them or offending anyone.

Managing Discussion of Controversial Topics

Many teachers envision these discussions turning into a free-for-all in their classroom. To prevent that, establish clear discussion guidelines and review them with students before beginning the conversation.

Think about how you’d like thing to work. Ask yourself:

-          Will you require everyone to speak?

-          How will you handle differences in opinion?

-          Is there anything that is “off limits” or unacceptable in the discussion?

-          How should people indicate when they want to say something?

Establishing rules in advance is the key to a successful conversation.

Liz is a good example. She teaches high school English and frequently has discussions on controversial issues. Her rules are simple, and she reminds students of them before each conversation:

  1. Raise your hand if you want to speak -- no side conversations.
  2. Disagree without being disagreeable – just because you dislike someone’s opinion doesn’t make them a bad person.
  3. No insults.
  4. Remember: minds are like parachutes; they work best when open (Thomas Dewar). Challenge yourself to see things from the opposing side’s viewpoint.

You can also follow a structured discussion format like the Socratic Seminar. Whichever method you use, encourage students to do most of the talking. A “discussion” that ends up as a teacher’s monologue is no help to anyone.

The Teacher’s Role in Controversial Discussion

Your role will depend on the topic and the age of your students; younger students need more guidance. With older students, the conversation will be most effective if you avoid expressing personal opinions and stick to facts.

If you announce your opinion, some students will feel they have to agree with you, no matter what. Instead of broadcasting your own ideas, focus on encouraging students to make logical (and factually correct) statements. If they are simply repeating things they hear from adults or on TV, push them to think more carefully: how do they know those statements are accurate? By keeping your own opinions out of the way, you can teach students a powerful lesson: they need to make up their own minds and find their own information.

How to Handle Upset Parents or Concerned Administrators

The solution for handling parents and administrators? Advance notice.

If your students will read a book, watch a movie, write a paper, or do a project on a controversial topic, send home a note or email letting parents know. Most parents understand that controversial topics will come up at school; they just want a chance to share their views with their children.

Also, by letting people know in advance, you will find out ahead of time if anyone is going to be especially upset by your plans. It may require a meeting with an administrator or a phone call with a parent to address individual concerns, but better that than getting “called to the principal’s office” after the fact.

Like many valuable learning experiences, discussing a controversial issue requires some thought and advance preparation. But it can have a lasting impact on your students, and may even change your own opinion on these issues.

Do you tackle controversial topics in your classroom? Share your tips in the comments section!