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With Larry Ferlazzo

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Social Studies Opinion

Mock Trials? Debates? Here’s a Better Way to Approach Supreme Court Decisions in Class

By Larry Ferlazzo — July 07, 2023 7 min read
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Christie Nold offers educators advice today on how to teach about last week’s U.S. Supreme Court LGBTQ+ and affirmative action decisions and “controversial” topics.

No ‘Debates’

Christie Nold (she/her) teaches 9th grade social studies on unceded Abenaki land in South Burlington, Vt.:

Although it is “summer break” for many educators in the United States, for those following the Supreme Court rulings, we might already be working to draft lessons and plans for the fall. While it might be tempting to embrace a mock trial or debate format, I feel it is important to caution against approaches that open the door to debating the humanity of our students and presenting information as though there is an ultimate “winner” and “loser.” Instead, I believe there are ways to bring the events of the past few weeks into the classroom while working to embrace complexity and center those for whom these rulings have already had impacts.


As a social studies teacher, a part of my practice involves bringing in current events, ideally in connection with historical movements and moments that made these events possible. I lovingly refer to this as the “throughline approach” named for one of my favorite podcasts. Together with my students, we’ve lamented that the conversations we hold could have my license revoked in states removing references to “hard history” in their standards and curriculum. Instead, our leaders in my public school district have worked to affirm thoughtful instruction for all students in our classrooms.

So, what does thoughtful instruction look like at a time when rights are being stripped away and student identities called into question? I believe it begins by carefully interrogating both the “what” and “how” of our pedagogy.

I’ve often heard the framing “teaching controversial issues” and would like to begin by asking what that frame might be a shortcut for and how it can already bias the conversation? I’ve often seen “controversial issues” stand in for a discussion about the historical and contemporary oppression of minoritized and regularly silenced groups. Subjects like the history of enslavement, rights for migrant workers, and trans youth participation in sports are regularly coded as “controversial.” Further, with this additional coding, I’ve seen the encouragement of “debate” as a pedagogical tool for learning and exploration.

My first two years of high school were spent at a Catholic school in Vermont. It was in that exact moment that Vermont introduced civil unions, our precursor to marriage equality. I was fortunate to have been steeped in positive messaging about the newly introduced law through my family, home church, and former schooling experiences. It was because of this that the messages sent in my classroom led to a sense of disequilibrium. What I was hearing was antithetical to everything I’d come to understand about queer people and their rights.

Further, because of the “debate” format favored by two of my teachers at the time, the messaging was not just coming from instructors but also from peers. Through use of debate, the instructors had set up a format in which there would be a winner and loser and there was room for only one right answer.

As educators, when we put the rights of people up for debate, what have we communicated? Both to those who identify as members of the group at the center and to those removed? When only certain topics are given the label of “controversial,” what messaging are we sending about those who see themselves in these topics? What does it mean then when “other” topics are not given the label? Are there patterns to what is labeled and by whom?


So, what can be done? I’d like to restate that I believe current events are an essential part of the social studies classroom. I also believe this includes discussions that might exist on our growing edges of comfort. I’ve found that carefully curated protocols lend a way into conversation that doesn’t prescribe an outcome and allows room for multiple perspectives. When paired with thoughtful classroom norms and facilitation that calls attention to bigotry when it arises, rich discussion can easily become standard.

In the recent Supreme Court rulings, there have been powerful statements shared. If I were to base discussion on a shared statement, I might use one of the School Reform Initiative text-based protocols (4As, Text Rendering, Save the Last Word, Block Party). If I hoped to open conversation about the cases and go down the pathway of student curiosity, I might use the QFT Method from the Right Question Institute. If my goal was to have students explore the rulings through the lens of different questions, I might engage in a World Café Method.

In classrooms that are already well practiced in conversation protocols, Harkness Method or Socratic Seminar might also be appropriate. Importantly, each of these methods encourages students to go deeper, sharpen their understanding, and they do not create the conditions of “winners and losers.”

However educators might structure their discussion, it is my hope that they will make clear that a student’s humanity is not up for debate. As educator Jess Lifshitz describes in her 2017 piece following the white supremacist gathering in Charlottesville, Va., this work might not be as overt in your first weeks of school. Instead, building community, trust, capacity for identifying bigotry, and practice in conversation will create a thoughtful foundation for the work moving forward.


Thanks to Christie for sharing their thoughts.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

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