Guidelines for Discussing Challenging Issues in the Classroom
Teaching a current event may just become your best day ever. Students of all ages have opinions and get animated when talking about what’s in the news.
But these conversations can also be tricky. Students usually need a fair amount of support, and administrators 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 your students in ways that day-to-day curriculum often doesn’t. Plus, it helps your students grow and contribute as informed, responsible, and generous students and citizens.
- Check whether your district or school has written policies about teaching controversial subjects.
- Consider sending a letter to parents about the planned topic of conversation. See sample attached below.
- 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 first: Establish safety before engaging with tough issues; build trust with non-controversial discussions first; teach skills of respectful disagreement; teach students 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 students constructive sentence starters like "Say more about...," "What makes you say that?" and "Clarify..."
- Know your students: Be proactive about what issues set them off; know which students will escalate and situation without thinking and which students are prone to angry reactions
- Provide a common basis for understanding: Assign readings, watch a video, or conduct a research day to help students 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 students like "turn and talk" or "write a question about something you don't understand"; work with students 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 students who set each other off
- Be an active facilitator: Be careful to maintain some control - but not to over-control - the discussion for the students; refer to the agreed upon ground rules as often as necessary; talk with students about emotions and respect emotions, while encouraging them to listen carefully; support with historical examples
Summarize the discussion and gather student feedback: Ask students 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.
Content Resources for Presenting "Both Sides" of an Issue
- ProCon is a free resource that presents sourced arguments on a variety of topics. Check out the Teacher’s Corner portal which includes a section on teaching critical thinking.
- Close Up has a Controversial Issues in the News library with issue briefs that present central questions and pro-con arguments. Note: Access to the library must be purchased, but teachers can preview what is available with a free sample.
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.
- 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.