about Controversial or Difficult Issues
essay was written by Jinnie Spiegler for the New
York Times Learning Network, a great resource on teaching
and learning. The
piece offers many examples of resources teachers can use from
both TeachableMoment and the Learning Network, including ideas
for teaching on the Trayvon Martin
1983, ABC aired "The
Day After," a film depicting the fictional day after
a nuclear war and its impact on several Midwestern families. Everyone
was encouraged to watch it,
teachers were worried that their students would see the film and
not be emotionally prepared. So we at Morningside Center for Teaching
Social Responsibility developed a teaching guide about the film.
After that, Morningside Center, then named Educators for Social
Responsibility Metro, became known as an organization that helps
teachers bring up difficult and controversial topics in the classroom.
Almost 20 years later, after 9/11, Morningside Center again moved
to support teachers in addressing a sensitive and complex topic.
This time we launched a new website called TeachableMoment.org,
which offered a myriad of lessons and approaches aimed at helping
students grapple with both the emotional issues evoked by 9/11
and the many social and political issues surrounding it.
mission is to help teachers looking for ways to encourage critical
thinking on issues of the day, as well as foster a positive classroom
environment. Our approach is to integrate social and emotional
skills with an exploration of interesting and relevant content.
we know that teachers often avoid "hot-button" topics
because the issues are so complex, or because they don't feel
prepared to handle the strong feelings and opinions discussion
might stir, below we offer 10 suggestions for how to take some
of these issues on in constructive, thoughtful and sensitive ways.
1. Create a safe, respectful, and supportive
tone in your classroom.
Sometimes students don't participate in discussions about sensitive
issues because they worry that they will be teased, their opinions
will be ridiculed, or strong feelings will arise because the topic
hits close to home.
To create a safe and supportive environment, make group agreements
at the beginning of the year. These might include guidelines like"
no name-calling," "no interrupting," "listen
without judgment," "share to your level of comfort,"
"you have the right to pass," and the like. Remind students
that when they talk about groups of people, they should be careful
to use the word "some," not "all." Do community-building
activities to create a positive and respectful classroom environment,
and resolve conflicts proactively. Most importantly, model how
to talk about sensitive and controversial topics by being honest
and open yourself, respecting different points of view and accepting
of students' feelings.
2. Prepare yourself.
Before you delve into a difficult topic with your students, educate
yourself with background knowledge.
Times Topics pages, which collect all Times news, Opinion
and multimedia about a subject, can be helpful, as can the
Room for Debate blog, on which experts with a range of points
of view are invited to discuss topics in the news.
For example, if you are going to discuss the Occupy Wall Street
protests and their connection to income inequality, get a basic
overview from the Times Topics page or read the Room for Debate
It Effective to Occupy Wall Street?" to explore different
points of view. To understand how socioeconomic class operates,
you could study this infographic.
TeachableMoment.org also has up-to-date lessons on many key issues
that provide both background information and suggested activities.
articulate your own point of view on the topic for yourself so
that when students ask for your opinion-and they will-you'll be
prepared. Though many teachers keep their own points of view out
of the classroom entirely, if it is appropriate to share yours,
wait until the end of the discussion.
Also consider in advance the possible "triggers" for
your students. For example, if you are discussing gay marriage,
remember that you will almost certainly have students who are
L.G.B.T. themselves, who have gay parents, relatives or friends,
or who have religious beliefs in conflict with gay marriage. Some
of these students may feel relieved to discuss a topic so relevant
to their lives, while others may feel embarrassed. This doesn't
mean you shouldn't discuss the topic, but you also should never
highlight those students' situations. Be aware that strong feelings
could arise and plan in advance for how to handle them. Remind
your students about the ground rules and explain that this issue
may affect some students very personally. Depending on the topic,
you may even want to tell those students, or their parents, who
have a very personal connection to it in advance.
3. Find out what students already know or have experienced about
Start with what the students already know. You can assess their
prior knowledge in a variety of ways: create a semantic web as
a whole class and brainstorm associations with the topic; have
them talk with a partner; or have them write in response to a
prompt. (If the topic is very delicate, you might ask them to
write anonymously first, then use that writing to decide how to
proceed in a later class.) Make a list of all the questions they
have, either publicly or for your own planning. These questions
are an additional window into what students already know, or think
they know, and what they don't. Be sure to ask them to articulate
where they got their information and opinions, and invite them
to talk about how they know their sources are reliable. Remind
them that, when learning about or discussing sensitive information,
they should always ask, "What do I know and how do I know
4. Compile the students' questions and examine them together.
After giving students basic information about your topic, elicit
questions they still have. If they are focusing on content questions
(who, what, where, why, when), expand their inquiry so they think
beyond the basic facts and dig into deeper or "essential"
questions. For example, if you are going to discuss the killing
of Osama bin Laden, content questions might be: Who was Osama
bin Laden? Where did he grow up? What did he believe? Why did
he plan the 9/11 attacks? How was he captured? These questions
are important, but questions like "Why do people take violent
actions?" push students to go deeper, make connections beyond
one news story and lead to a more complex understanding of the
situation. Another fruitful line of questioning might be to ask
how the issue affects the individual involved and how it affects
society at large.
5. Make connections.
Help students make connections between the topic at hand and their
own lives. How does the issue affect them or their family, friends
or community? Why should they care? If there is no obvious connection,
help them find one. For example, if you are talking about the
in Haiti and the continuing crisis it has created, but most
of your students have no connection to Haiti, you might ask if
any have relatives in places where other natural disasters have
occurred. Often, starting with multimedia,
whether photos, video or infographics, can hook students. You
might also help them make connections by thinking about what else
they know about, in current news or in history, that shares some
of the same details.
6. Have students investigate and learn more.
It is critical that students have a chance to find answers to
their questions, conduct research, talk to people, and learn more
in a way that makes the topic meaningful for them. (First, however,
make sure your students understand how to tell the difference
between opinions and facts. You might make a T-chart and use examples
from a news article on a topic you're studying to demonstrate,
then invite students to find and share their own examples from
For example, if you were engaging your class on the topic of Joe
Paterno and the Penn State sex abuse scandal, students could
read and compare information and opinion from sources as varied
as sports fans to college journalists to groups devoted to victims'
rights. In The Times alone, they could find a range of fact and
opinion. For instance, they might start with this
news article for factual background information, then read
editorial to see how an Opinion piece about the same topic
is written. Students might then study this
timeline about the events leading up to the scandal or watch
a video about how Joe Paterno's tenure ended as a result of
Finally, they might learn about how the public felt by learning
about this poll.
Or, if you are discussing the Trayvon Martin case, students can
comb the Times
Topics page to find everything from news stories to an editorial
by Charles Blow to information on the "Stand
Your Ground" law. They might also look for related news
and Opinion, such as this Op-Ed
by a 23 year-old about being frequently stopped by the police,
and a Room for Debate discussion on "Young,
Black and Male in America". And for an opportunity to
hear other students' voices, see this Learning Network Student
Opinion question: Have
You Ever Interacted with the Police?
Remember to point students to sources with contrasting political
slants as well. For example, they might contrast reporting on
the same topic in The Progressive
versus The Weekly
Standard, or the
Center for American Progress versus the
Heritage Foundation. Encourage students to seek out a range
of people to learn more, including people who have strong opinions
or special expertise on the topic. While students are gathering
this information, emphasize that even "factual" information
has a point of view. While they are researching, they should ask
themselves: What is the point of view of this source? How reliable
is it, and why?
Explore students' opinions and promote dialogue.
they have researched a topic thoroughly, students are ready to
form and express their own points of view. It is important to
encourage them to be open to different points of view. You might
do an "opinion continuum" exercise where they show whether
they "agree," "strongly agree," "disagree,"
"strongly disagree" or be "somewhere in between"
or "not sure" on a variety of topics. (For an example
of this, see a lesson
we posted last year on the deficit debate, which includes an opinion
continuum activity.) Help promote dialogue, as opposed to debate.
Dialogue aims for understanding, an enlargement of view, complicating
one's thinking and an openness to change. Provide opportunities
for various kinds of group
discussion where different perspectives get aired. This can
include paired shares, conversation circles, group go-rounds,
panels, micro-labs, and fishbowls. (These are included in lessons
available on TeachableMoment.org.)
8. Be responsive to feelings and values.
Even though you've set up ground rules at the outset and developed
a respectful classroom environment, once a hot topic emerges you
need to continue to watch for classroom tone. Remind students
about the ground rules, especially if they are violated. Take
the emotional "temperature" of the classroom periodically
to find out how students are feeling, and encourage the discussion
of feelings throughout. Build in different ways for students to
participate, but also to opt out if a discussion is emotionally
difficult. Give opportunities for students to write their thoughts,
perhaps anonymously, instead of sharing verbally. Remind students
that while you want them to participate, they always have the
right to "pass" if they feel uncomfortable. Again, if
you anticipate that a certain topic may elicit too many strong
feelings for a particular student, talk with them in advance.
9. Make home connections.
Use parents and other family members as primary sources by having
students interview them as part of their research. Communicate
with parents about your approach to discussing controversial issues.
You can do this by sending a letter home in the beginning of the
year or by discussing the issue on curriculum night. Invite parents
to let you know if there are any sensitive issues for their family
so you will be prepared.
10. Do Something.
If students have gotten engaged in an issue you've discussed and
feel strongly about it, they may want to do something about it.
Your study should include an action component. This could involve
learning more and doing more focused research. It could also involve
helping students carry out a social action or community service
project related to the issue. Students can learn more about how
other young people did projects around recent issues in the news,
starting a petition, visiting
the Occupy Wall Street protest, organizing
large student demonstrations in Chile to improve education,
about anti-gay bullying. If the issue is a political one,
they can engage in writing letters, speaking at public hearings,
raising money, participating in demonstrations or writing articles
for a school or local newspaper.
Center's website TeachableMoment.Org
for hundreds of inquiry-oriented classroom lessons and teaching
ideas on everything from the 2012
election and the Occupy
movement to Who
Makes Your iPhone.
essay was originally appeared in the New York Times Learning Network.
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