Social Sundays: Teaching controversial topics

In October 2017 the Biloxi school district announced they would be pulling To Kill a Mockingbird from its middle school reading because the language in it makes some people "uncomfortable."  Teaching difficult books and topics isn't easy, but it is important.  I won't deny it.   I both love and fear teaching controversial topics.  From the issue of immigration to the death penalty to abortion to gun laws, lively and sometimes heated debate can ensue.  These discussions have a large impact on my students and are easily some of the most important classes we have all year. 

It took me a lot of reading (and mistakes) to approach these topics successfully. Teachers and schools can struggle to tackle these difficult topics from protest to free speech.   Rather than just eliminate them from your classroom, here's some ideas for working with controversial topics that I have learned:

  • Set the expectations:  first and foremost, its important for students to know and respect that it is okay to disagree.  To that end establish clear guidelines on a safe discussion environment.  
  • The 5 points activity.  A relatively neutral way to start thinking about difficult topics is to set up 5 points about equidistant apart in your room (or outside if you can as it is easier for students to move between points).  Designate (either with signs or a diagram) a viewpoint for each spot: strongly agree, agree, no opinion, disagree, strongly disagree.  Read a statement such as "the death penalty should be legally abolished."  Students move to the point that best fits their point of view.  Call on a few students to explain their point of view.  Then, move on to the next topic.  This is also a good activity to remind students of the expectations for thoughtful discussion in sticking to the topic and not directly attacking individuals. 
  • Argue the point not the person.  Students need to know that opposing viewpoints are not personal.  Different perspectives are okay.  Early in the year we use one of the profile series books to reflect on different perspectives.  These are individual stories within a war or time period.  (I particularly like the Peace Warriors, but more often I use World War II or Vietnam profiles for this introductory exercise).  Students work in groups, each taking on the perspective of different individuals affected by the war, and debate a question.  This is a good way for students to learn how to respect different perspectives and learn effective ways to communicate their opinions without attacking each other directly.  
  • Support your ideas with evidence.  With controversial topics opinions can run deep.  I give students ample time to share their opinions but remind them that their opinions came from somewhere.  Do they have evidence to support their ideas?  What is that evidence?  It is easy to say "I'm right", it's harder to say "I believe this because..."

  • Start with a statement; ask questions.  It's important to think about different types of questions that arise within different issues.  Use statements, such as those from the 5 points activity, to prepare students for discussions.  Students write questions about the statement including factual questions, ethical questions, and definitional questions.  Model this approach with a statement first either in small groups or as a whole class, and then set students to work on specific statements. Students work in teams to research responses to these questions, always looking for different viewpoints.  The strongest arguments recognize the weaknesses in their own arguments.  No solution is ever perfect.  I like to divide the class into different topics with two or three sets of partners working on individual topics.  We rotate discussions.  While one group is having their discussion, the other students are working on other class work or projects.  In this way, every student contributes to each discussion.  With larger groups the discussions can be dominated by a few voices leaving many out of the debate.
  • Debrief (student-led preferable).  Have students debrief their own discussions (again, model this first).  The purpose of the debrief is to evaluate what went well, what could be improved, and strategies to improve for future discussions.  A well-managed debrief leads to better discussions and debates in the future.

If you are unclear of the power of controversial topics, this is a great video from Edutopia on the impact of these topics on students.  

Social Sundays is a bi-weekly post sharing tips, ideas, resources, and products for teaching social studies.  If you have questions or think there is something I should share, you can leave me a message in the comments below or at the store in the question and answer section.  



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