Why We Can’t Shy Away From Talking About Controversial Topics in the Classroom
To engage students in their learning, we must find connections to their daily lives. But what happens when the current events reel overflows with “controversial” topics like gun violence, racism, homophobia, abortion rights, or other issues that straddle political divides? It may be more “comfortable” to continue with our planned curriculum, but if we do that, we’re doing our students a great disservice.
“When we shy away from these topics, we miss opportunities to help young people explore challenging topics with people they trust (i.e., their teachers and their peers); to connect current events with our own curriculum that students have been spending a considerable amount of time exploring; and to give young people a place to ask challenging questions that help them to make sense of the world,” says Dr. Liza Talusan, educator, facilitator, and author of The Identity-Conscious Educator.
The classroom is an ideal place to discuss difficult topics because teachers understand how to engage students in such conversations in developmentally appropriate ways, Talusan added.
Leaning Into Discomfort
If you’re feeling uncomfortable engaging in conversations around certain topics, take a step back and think about why. “I often find that teachers are very uncomfortable talking about ‘controversial’ topics and current events because the issues are so complex, or because they don’t feel prepared to handle the strong feelings and opinions such a discussion might stir,” says Shanelle Henry, Director of Equity and Inclusion at Greens Farms Academy in Westport, Connecticut, and co-founder of the Institute for Teaching Diversity and Social Justice, a professional development program serving hundreds of educators.
Do the Work
Prepare yourself by conducting research or finding colleagues to have honest conversations with. “It is important that we take the time to process our own thoughts and feelings (maybe with other adults and educators!) to prepare us for conversations with young people,” says Dr. Talusan. “I refer to this as ‘building an identity-conscious practice’ as a process for us, as adults, to see how our own identities and experiences inform and impact how we act, interact, and see the world around us.”
Henry also suggests considering the questions students may ask so that you can be prepared to respond. But know that it’s OK—in fact, it’s expected—for you to not have all the answers. “Teachers, historically, have been expected to have a correct answer, so when we enter into conversations that are ‘controversial’ or ‘hot topics,’ part of what I observe holding teachers back is fear that they’re going to say something wrong or harmful,” says Sara Wicht, instructional designer and independent consultant who served as senior manager of Teaching and Learning with Learning for Justice. It’s also OK to start the conversation and then “put a pin in it and … continue to check back in,” adds Wicht. “That reinforces that these are complicated, multi-layered issues that are not going to be wrapped up in a neat package in five minutes.”
Where to Begin
Making space for difficult conversations ideally should not be a reactionary measure. It’s important to build brave, safe spaces in your class from the start. “I set the tone at the start of the school year by creating classroom ground rules, community agreements, or charters. But it’s never too late to establish these agreements, especially right before you are about to engage students in a ‘controversial’ or challenging conversation,” says Henry. “You can determine the ground rules by asking students, ‘What do we need to feel safe and respected during this conversation?’”
As much as possible, weave in current events during a set day or time period on a consistent basis. “This type of schedule creates predictability for students,” says Dr. Talusan. “By having this set time, it opens up possibilities for the teacher to bring in current events, to use age-appropriate resources like Newsela, and for students to bring in issues they are hearing about at home.”
Henry adds, “Encourage students to be critical viewers of media, including print, television, internet, video, social media, and other digital spaces. Ask students questions like: ‘How do you know what you (think you) know? What is the perspective of the person writing or speaking? What don’t I see? After reading, what don’t I know?’”
In the Moment
Gauge how much and what information your students know coming into a discussion. “In times of crisis, a KWL chart is the go-to,” suggests Dr. Khyati Joshi, professor at the School of Education at Fairleigh Dickinson University and co-founder of the Institute for Teaching Diversity and Social Justice. “You’re figuring out what they know, what are the rumors going around, and it allows you time to process, too. My formula is after every event like [the Buffalo supermarket shooting] or the shooting in the Asian church, the next morning ask, ‘How are you all feeling? What’s on your mind? Can you give me one word?’ And make that one word mandatory, because everyone can give one word. And then use the KWL chart for a few minutes.”
After you’ve gauged what students know, that can help you frame the conversation. Remember, your role is to facilitate, not to be the only voice in the discussion. Allow students the space to lead the discussion with their peers. “When we’re supporting our older students in moving away from binary thinking, that’s where the magic happens,” says April Brown, a trauma-informed specialist. If the conversation starts to veer into territory that you know may cause harm, refer to your community guidelines. “Human rights aren’t debatable—period,” says Brown. “Within this community, we’re going to make mistakes. Speak your truth, but you have to acknowledge the impact of your words. That’s how we repair harm.”
There are many resources out there to support you in having these difficult conversations. Some go-tos are: Learning for Justice, particularly their “Let’s Talk Guide”; Facing History & Ourselves; Child Development Institute’s “How To Talk to Kids About Tragedies in the Media”; Child Mind Institute’s “Helping Children Cope With Frightening News”; and Kidpower’s “Helping Children Regain Their Emotional Safety After a Tragedy.” Great sources for age-appropriate current events include Newsela, Scholastic Magazine, Time for Kids, and The Week.
Ultimately, as educators, we must lean into difficult conversations because by not addressing these issues, you’re saying they’re not important. “Educators must have the courage to engage students in ‘controversial’ conversations—knowing that they may not be perfect and may make mistakes along the way—because it builds the foundation for understanding, inclusiveness, and long-term change,” says Henry.
How will you work to integrate these difficult conversations into your own practice? Tell us in the comments.