Critical Conversations

Grade Level: 
6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12
Current Events
Group Discussions
Talking about important topics sparks the best critical thinking as well as the strongest opinions. When conversations about critical topics are based on a sensitive and structured approach, teaching what’s current helps young people grow and contribute as informed, responsible, and generous citizens. We provide tips and resources about addressing challenging issues to establish a safe environment, promote respectful dialogue, leverage facts, and talk about news and current events with young people.

Guidelines for Discussing Challenging Issues with Youth 

Teaching a current event may just become your best day ever. Young people of all ages have opinions and get animated when talking about what’s in the news. 

But these conversations can also be tricky. Young people usually need a fair amount of support, and facilitators can get nervous. What will parents say? 

When conversations about difficult topics are done through a knowledgeable, sensitive, and structured approach, teaching what’s current in your community/state/nation/world will engage youth in ways that day-to-day curriculum often doesn’t. Plus, it helps young people grow and contribute as informed, responsible, and generous citizens. 

Getting started 

  1. Check whether your organization or school has written policies about teaching controversial subjects. 
  2. Consider sending a letter to parents about the planned topic of conversation. See sample attached below.
  3. Be aware of your own biases (we all have them) for culturally responsive teaching.

Set Groundwork for Planned and Spontaneous Discussions 

  • Prepare the culture of the classroom or group first: Establish safety before engaging with tough issues; build trust with non-controversial discussions first; teach skills of respectful disagreement; teach young people to support statements with evidence 
  • Identify a clear purpose: Provide discussion objectives and link to other course goals; make the discussion outcomes clear and make sure students know why the topic is important 
  • Establish ground rules: Involve your students in developing a list of 5-7 group norms that are clearly displayed (i.e., listen without interrupting, avoid blame, allow everyone the chance to speak, listen and speak respectfully, seek to understand before seeking to be understood, how to ask thoughtful questions); Teach youth constructive sentence starters like "Say more about...," "What makes you say that?" and "Clarify..."
  • Know your group: Be proactive about what issues set them off; know which participants will escalate and situation without thinking and which are prone to angry reactions. Know which ones won't speak up easily.
  • Provide a common basis for understanding: Assign readings, watch a video, or conduct a research day to help participants become informed about the topic prior to the group discussion; prepare yourself academically and make sure you know your own biases  
  • Include everyone: Establish routines that involve all participants like "turn and talk" or "write a question about something you don't understand"; work with your group to respect different perspectives; talk about language that is hurtful and personal; speak your mind without making offensive statements or dominating conversations; hold discussions in small groups to give everyone a chance to share their perspective and separate those who set each other off
  • Be an active facilitator: Be careful to maintain some control - but not to over-control - the discussion for the participants; refer to the agreed upon ground rules as often as necessary; talk with youth about emotions and respect emotions, while encouraging them to listen carefully; support with historical examples  
  • Summarize the discussion and gather feedback: Ask youth to respond to reflection questions (i.e., What important questions remain unanswered for you?); share stories that create hope; discuss positive actions students can take

The above list is derived from the Guidelines for Discussing Difficult or Controversial Topics curated by the University of Michigan. 

Having Civil Conversations

This resource written by Learning to Give educators provides language, videos, and tips for civil conversations.

Better Arguments

The Better Arguments Project seeks to guide people to have better, not fewer, arguments.

Here are the steps to better arguments that are grounded in context and emotional intelligence:

  1. Take winning off the table.
  2. Prioritize relationships and listen passionately.
  3. Pay attention to context.
  4. Embrace vulnerability.
  5. Make room to transform.

Learning to Give Lessons and Resources

  • To ensure a constructive and robust discussion, use Learning to Give's resource guide for Media Literacy to help students identify credible sources, evaluate the role of media, recognize bias, and use critical-thinking related to current events and controversial topics.
  • This Learning to Give guide "Using Advocacy for Change" helps you teach youth at the earliest ages about using their voice and prepares them to be civically engaged as adults. It teaches them to learn more about issues and see each person as a valued member of society with an equal vote and an important voice. 
  • The Learning to Give lesson plan Resolving Conflict with Respect teaches students to seek common ground. While differences may cause conflict, for the sake of the common good, we practice empathy and respect for others.  
  • The Learning to Give lesson plan Making our Voices Heard explores the importance of freedom of speech, as a principle basic to a democracy. The learners encouraging eligible voters to make their voices heard at the polls.
  • In the Learning to Give lesson plan Citizen Participation learners identify the ways citizens can become active participants in the community through political parties, interest groups, voting and providing public service.
  • The whiteboard illustrated video Understanding Advocacy and Action defines and shows the power of advocacy and action. Students learn there are many ways to make a difference, and that they have the strength and power to give time, talent, or treasure for the common good.

Links & Attachments