Teachers play a vital role in helping students navigate our complex world. Many students view their classrooms as places to become more informed about controversial issues and to consider alternative perspectives. It is essential for students to have opportunities to interact with peers who hold opposing views in order to understand others’ positions and practice civil discourse skills.
In our increasingly politicized and polarized world, some teachers who want to engage in conversations about controversial issues may be concerned about divisiveness or losing control of the classroom. Others may worry about student, parent, or administrator feedback that they are seeking to indoctrinate students or that their classrooms are too politicized. Yet, it is possible to structure teaching and learning in ways that help students gain critical thinking and civil discourse skills.
This resource guide aims to provide teachers with resources and pedagogical tools so they can feel more prepared to address controversial issues in the classroom. It begins with why it is important to teach about controversial issues and then provides tools and resources for creating guidelines for discussions, facilitating discussions, teaching about controversial issues, and garnering support from administrators and parents. Be sure to preview all resources to be sure they are appropriate for use in your classroom.
Why Teach About Controversial Issues?
The Choices Program seeks to empower young people with the knowledge and skills to engage in discussions about international and national policy issues. By teaching about controversial issues, students learn about topics relevant to their lives, deepen their understanding of complex issues, and explore diverse perspectives. Students also gain opportunities to share ideas, listen carefully to their peers, and practice being open to and respectful of others’ viewpoints. Building knowledge and civil discourse skills are essential for effective participation in our democracy.
These recent publications also share helpful rationales for addressing controversial topics in the classroom:
- In a 2017 essay in the New Yorker, “James Baldwin’s Lesson for Teachers in a Time of Turmoil,” former high school teacher Clint Smith argues that teachers should help students explore the complexities of their world and consider how they might reshape it.
- In a 2018 edition of Social Education, Diana Hess introduces a series of articles, “Teaching Controversial Issues: An Introduction.” The articles below provide teachers with resources and ideas for teaching about topics including immigration and race. (Teachers need to be National Council for the Social Studies members to access some of the other articles in the series.)
Creating Guidelines for Discussions
While many teachers start the school year with conversations about broad classroom norms, consider spending time focused specifically on norms for class discussions.
- As part of the PBS “Super Civics 2020” series, Judy Woodruff interviewed author Arthur Brooks about why people sometimes express contempt for those who hold opposite political views – and how we can stop (“How to get along with our political opposites,” video, 6:41 minutes). Consider beginning a discussion about the importance of engaging in difficult conversations by watching and discussing this video. What aspects of the video do students agree with? Are there aspects they disagree with or that might be challenging?
- This brief activity, “Considering Ideas about Tolerance for Diverse Ideas,” offers an entry point to discussing tolerance for diverse ideas and establishing norms for class discussions. Since students invariably hold diverse views on important topics, it is helpful to create guidelines before you dive into a controversial topic. Discuss student responses to the questions on the handout and build a classroom set of discussion guidelines (these can be broadened to incorporate key points from different sections). Based on student input, teachers may wish to revise or add to these “Guidelines for Participating in Classroom Discussions” and should share with students and post the final version in the classroom. It is important to reference and adhere to these norms in future discussions.
- Once students have had opportunities to engage in discussions, teachers may wish to check in periodically with students to encourage reflection about their participation in class dialogues. This “Civility Self-Reflection Exercise” is adapted from the United States Federal Courts educational initiative, “Civil Discourse and Difficult Decisions.”
Preparing students for a meaningful discussion requires planning. Developing essential questions will help students prepare for the discussion and gain critical thinking skills. Teachers should select sources (news articles, op-ed pieces, infographics, etc.) carefully to ensure sources are credible and representative of diverse perspectives. Alternatively, help students learn important media literacy skills by asking them to select a source relevant to your discussion topic (see “Evaluating a Media Source”).
Teachers seeking to facilitate conversations about controversial issues know the importance of preparation in order to create a supportive learning environment for all students. Even with preparation and anticipation of a discussion’s trajectory, teachers may experience challenging moments when facilitating discussions. Having tools in your toolbox may help you to respond more effectively in a moment when you might otherwise be unsure of what to say or do. These resources may be helpful:
- These university resources offer helpful reminders about leading discussions and/or use of discussion protocols:
- Carnegie Mellon University’s Eberly Center – “Discussions”
- Brown University’s Harriet W. Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning – “Facilitating Effective Discussions: Self-Checklist”
- Stanford University’s Teaching Commons – “How to Lead a Discussion”
- Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education – “Starting the Conversation: High-quality discussion protocols to prompt collaborative, responsive learning”
- The University of Michigan’s Center for Research on Teaching and Learning has developed resources to help teachers manage discussions about controversial issues, “Guidelines for Discussing Difficult or Controversial Topics.” Of note is their helpful resource for “Making the Most of ‘Hot Moments’” that emerge in your classroom.
- In a 2018 article for Faculty Focus, Tasha Souza describes a strategy for dealing with microaggressions in the classroom. Microaggressions occur when biases against marginalized groups result in painful comments, slights, insults, and/or actions. These experiences often occur casually and may or may not be intended. The article, “Responding to Microaggressions in the Classroom: Taking ACTION,” outlines suggested responses when microaggressions occur:
- Ask clarifying questions to assist with understanding intentions.
- Come from curiosity not judgment.
- Tell what you observed as problematic in a factual manner.
- Impact exploration: ask for, and/or state, the potential impact of such a statement or action on others.
- Own your own thoughts and feelings around the impact.
- Next steps by requesting appropriate action be taken.
- The Choices Program’s curriculum units offer students opportunities to learn about current issues, world history, U.S. history, and geography. Choices’ curricula and related videos make national and international issues accessible, engaging, and relevant for secondary students. The curriculum units provide context for understanding important issues today. Role play activities are built into most curriculum units to help students learn and practice deliberation skills. Additionally, the Choices Program’s Teaching with the News resources provide teachers with brief lesson plans to help students understand current global and domestic issues and engage in informed discussions. They are released at regular intervals throughout the academic year and will focus on promoting civil discourse about contested issues in the run-up to the 2020 election.
- American University’s School of Education provides data about the news sources children and youth access and the effects of that news consumption. The 2018 post, “How to Help Children Navigate Controversial Topics: A Guide for Parents and Teachers,” includes strategies for teachers and parents to help students understand and process the news.
- The Anti-Defamation League shares helpful anti-bias tools and strategies. Among them are ideas for creating respectful space and establishing ground rules for conversations, including “Can We Talk? Tips for Respectful Conversations in Schools, Workplaces and Communities.”
- Facing History and Ourselves has developed numerous resources related to teaching about controversial issues, including a resource guide, “Fostering Civil Discourse: A Guide for Classroom Conversations.”
- The National Institute for Civil Discourse at the University of Arizona offers numerous resources to foster civility in public discourse. The Revive Civility Program encourages discussions about reinvigorating civility and provides discussion and training guides and games for high school students, community groups, and families.
- Street Law has created numerous resources for deliberation topics using the structured academic controversy approach, which requires students to argue both sides of a controversial issue. Street Law also provides information and mini-lessons about social-emotional learning in deliberative discussions.
- Teaching Tolerance shares resources for K-12 educators on a number of important topics. Their publication, “Let’s Talk! Discussing Race, Racism and Other Difficult Topics With Students,” offers helpful strategies for preparing teachers and planning for student responses. Professional development and student resources are also included.
Garnering Support from Administrators, Families, and Students
- The recent article in Social Education mentioned above, “Teaching Controversial Issues in a Time of Polarization,” shares recent scholarship on the importance of teaching about controversial issues. The authors also discuss the strategy of engaging school administrators and conducting outreach to parents. Teachers may wish to read and reference this article in order to build support from administrators and parents for teaching about controversial issues.
- Teachers may include the issue of outreach to families at a departmental or staff meeting to develop a strategy tailored to the school and community. Consult your district policy to ensure you are following guidelines. In your communication to families, you might mention that your approach is one designed to encourage students to read and consider sources that share multiple perspectives, engage in critical thinking, and practice civil discourse skills. By being positive and proactive, you can help build a bridge to important partners in your students’ lives.
- It is helpful to remember that our students, too, value opportunities to discuss controversial issues in the classroom. Consider gathering and incorporating student feedback about the value of discussions in conversation or communication with administrators and parents. When a group of high school students discussed recently why it is important to talk about controversial issues, their responses included:
- “Teachers giving students the chance to air out controversial issues is so important because that’s what the world is like. Students need to be able to do that before they go out into the world. They need to be able to handle people having views that they don’t agree with and find ways to work it out and have civil debate. It’s really important that teachers teach them how to do that.”
- “You learn so much by talking to people as opposed to reading a textbook or a one-sided article. You actually get in depth and understand where people are coming from. You can see how people relate [issues to] their values, which is super important.”
- “The importance of discourse cannot be overstated, especially today. My generation has found that technology rules the way we communicate. Formal discussions in school have definitely decreased. There has been a lot of texting and less chatting face to face. When a teacher gives you the opportunity to engage in a conversation, it increases your ability to understand the topic.”
- “We live in an increasingly volatile, complex world filled with animosity. By having a secure, safe forum that gives kids an opportunity to talk respectfully about complex topics, it opens kids’ minds to the idea of listening in. And that’s important. When we don’t listen to the other side, we become ignorant to what could be and unable to compromise.”
Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg famously said of her longtime friendship with Justice Antonin Scalia that “you can disagree without being disagreeable.” Equipped with new tools and resources to engage students in learning about controversial issues, you can create an important space for dialogue in your classroom. Your students are counting on you.