By Emma Humphries and Lora De Salvo
Poignant moments for teaching controversial issues arise when students reveal how an issue has affected their lives. In today’s world, these moments are no longer distant ideas and events that are directly impacting our students —mentally, emotionally and physically —they are happening almost every day. There is also an added layer: acilitating thoughtful discussions and keeping students engaged and on topic are increasingly challenging in virtual or hybrid classroom settings.
This may seem like a lot to take on, but if we, as educators, avoid discussing difficult topics, how will our students ever grow as individuals or gain new perspectives? Teaching controversial issues allows students to formulate and express their ideas in a safe setting. It also lets students learn to appreciate diverse viewpoints and to ask difficult questions that may challenge their own perspectives.
With the right approach and strategies shaped for remote environments, you can create a welcoming space for students to test-drive their ideas and to see disagreement as an opportunity to learn, not as a form of conflict. It just takes some planning, skill-building and knowing what strategies are in your toolbox that you can employ at the right time, in any setting.
5 Tips on Teaching Controversial Issues
- Nurture Your Classroom Community. The key to successful discussions is to first establish classroom ground rules and the consequences for breaking them. This can still be done virtually. Have students come up with the ground rules. Use an acrostic that’s easy to remember, and have them brainstorm words or phrases that start with each letter of the word. Explain to them that they are making a contract to agree to these rules. On a slide you share with the class, list any rules you want to add (like no backchanneling via text or G-chatting each other), and list your consequences for breaking them. What could be a virtual consequence? Maybe they get an extra writing assignment, or have to make a video explaining why respect is important, or maybe they have to issue a formal online apology. You’ll have to be creative, but it can be done!
- Plan, Plan, Plan. This is always true for discussions of controversial issues, but we think it's doubly true when hoping to hold these discussions remotely. Can you imagine if the conversation got heated and multiple kids were trying to talk over one another on Zoom or Microsoft Teams? It’s not a pretty picture. To avoid this, plan the details. How will you call on students? Do they have to raise their hands? How will you grade participation? Is there a formal way you want them to respond to someone, such as: I hear you say _________, but I believe _________. What written or research assignments do you want to go along with these discussions? And if an online conversation gets out of control, what will you do? (Tip: Let the mute button be your friend. Mute everyone and assign students a five-minute writing exercise to get their feelings out on paper. It forces everyone to breathe and allows you to get the conversation back under control.)
- Provide a Pre-reading. One of the most critical skills we can teach our students is to use evidence to support their claims. But we probably shouldn’t expect our students to go hunting for evidence before class discussion and, even if they did, they would seek out information that supports their side. That’s why it’s always good to provide a balanced, fact-based pre-reading that explores multiple sides of the issue. Sometimes this will require using more than one source, and that is perfectly fine. What matters is that the students enter the discussion with a “shared reading” to which they can refer when they contribute to the discussion. In fact, you may set that as one of your ground rules for discussion: Students must refer to a piece of evidence from the pre-reading when they state a claim.
- Communicate Ahead of Time. Here’s a first-person story from Emma to help illustrate this tip: Last spring, I was a virtual guest speaker for a middle school history class, and I was delivering a talk about the census. At face value, the census may not appear to be a controversial topic, but when you talk about who we count and what we ask, the conversation can quickly move into the political. For instance, we all remember the controversy over whether to include a question about citizenship. As I was discussing this, I noticed a few adult family members walking behind their students, and it quickly occurred to me that I had no idea how many people could hear me speaking. Of course, nothing I was saying was inappropriate, but it wouldn’t be difficult for someone to overhear one random, out-of-context remark and misunderstand my message or intent. So be sure to communicate with parents/guardians ahead of time. This can be a beautiful thing in that (1) you’re talking with families, which is always a good idea; (2) you’re providing some “cover” for your activity; and (3) you can use it as an opportunity to invite folks to discuss the issue with their student, which is a most excellent reinforcement activity!
- Debrief. Again, this is something we always recommend in the wake of a controversial issues discussion. No matter how perfectly the discussion goes, you will have students who did not feel completely heard. Maybe they were too shy to speak out, maybe someone else made their point and they didn’t want to repeat it, maybe the conversation went off on a tangent before you were able to call on them, or maybe their view was in the minority and they didn’t want to get “attacked” by stating it. A written debriefing/reflection assignment is the perfect strategy for ensuring that all students can be heard and, more important, that they feel heard. Reinforce that there’s no right or wrong response, only well-supported or unsupported ideas!
Discussing and teaching controversial issues during a time of social distancing and isolation could not be more important. Students have questions and concerns, and teachers can provide that structured, supportive environment for them to express how they feel and what they are experiencing. For example, students will need an outlet to discuss and learn about the presidential election on Nov. 3.
If you want to dive in deeper than the five tips above, iCivics has designed five free Teacher Guides and a series of brief videos that address more challenges and concerns educators face when thinking about teaching controversial issues.
Now’s the time to lace up those boots and climb the mountain. The view is worth it.
About the Authors
Emma Humphries is the chief education officer at iCivics where she serves as the organization’s pedagogical expert, leads the curriculum team, and supports teachers in deepening their engagement with iCivics’ products. She taught high school civics and government in north central Florida and later earned her Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction from the University of Florida with an emphasis in civics.
Lora De Salvois a curriculum associate at iCivics. She has 16 years of experience teaching U.S. history and U.S. government courses at the two-year college and high school levels. She has also worked as a training specialist with the Anti-Defamation League facilitating anti-bias and anti-bullying programs with middle and high school students.