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Teaching Opinion

Response: ‘Don’t Avoid Controversial Topics’ in School

By Larry Ferlazzo — November 05, 2016 23 min read
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(This is the fourth post in a five-part series on this topic. You can see Part One here ; Part Two here and Part Three here.)

The new “question-of-the-week” is:

What are good strategies teachers can use when exploring “controversial” topics?

Part One‘s contributors were Lorena Germán, Adeyemi Stembridge, Stephen Lazar, Jen Schwanke, and Aubrie Rojee.

You can listen to a ten-minute conversation I had with Lorena, Adeyemi, and Stephen on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

In Part Two, Gabriella Corales, Tom Rademacher, Martha Caldwell, Oman Frame, Danny Woo, Paul Barnwell, Kathleen Neagle Sokolowski shared their responses.

Dominique Williams, Matthew Homrich-Knieling, Meg White, Kristina J. Doubet, Jessica A. Hockett, Vance Austin, Stephanie Smith were guests commentators in Part Three.

Today’s answers are provided by Sara Ahmed, Jennifer Borgioli, Kevin Scott, Erik M. Francis, Phil Hunsberger, Jackie Walsh, Beth Sattes, Dave Stuart Jr.

Response From Sara Ahmed

Sara Ahmed is co-author with Harvey “Smokey” Daniels of Upstanders: How to Engage Middle School Hearts and Minds with Inquiry. She has taught in urban, suburban, public, independent, and international schools and designs her classrooms to help her students to consider their own identities and to take action in their world in socially responsible ways. She will be spending the 2016-2017 school year at NIST International School in Bangkok, Thailand as a K-6 Literacy Coach:

So long as we live in a democracy, “controversial” topics are around every corner. With respect to our profession being ever-mindful to the hearts of our students, let’s reframe this and change the term “controversial” to just “relevant” topics. Once we hear controversial, we undergo a Pavlovian response of defensiveness or avoidance. District-wide emails go out on how to not address topics with students. Parents may feel uneasy or push back and insist that schools leave the “parenting” up to them, while suggesting teachers should just teach the mandated curriculum.

As always, the kids are the most vital part of our curriculum. If we are really listening to them, we know that current topics weigh on them every day. We cannot label a thirteen-year-old whose gender is in question, or a nine-year-old who was just told his family is getting sent back across the border and paying for “The Wall” controversial—this sends the message that we are scared to talk about them. Instead, we must send the message that aligns with the beliefs that brought us to teaching: that all of our students are relevant and valued.

But how do we help our learning communities explore the news that scurries in with the open backpacks and untied shoes just as the bell rings each morning? Here is an accessible start:

1. Give kids time to introduce their news.

As adult readers, we are more than aware of the current topics that society is debating on a daily basis. As much as we feel obligated to keeping our young citizens informed, we always want to be aware of how our own bias accompanies us when we walk into our classrooms. Giving kids time to bring current topics of relevance and what is on their mind to the class helps us to see events from students’ perspectives.

I use this chart (adapted from National Louis University professor James Beane’s book, Curriculum Integration) to model what is in my news and what I may be struggling with understanding better. Then, I turn it over to the students and have them do the same in a Think, Pair, Share with a partner.

For a more in-depth approach, pairs or groups of students can find similarities in their notes and embark on inquiries. Student voice and student choice, the heartbeat of inquiry-based teaching, are also the tools for humanizing and understanding relevant topics.

2. Provide multiple lenses.

Leaving our own personal agenda at the doorif kids are asking about a topic that is difficult for them to discuss or process, then we, their main resource for learning, have to offer them multiple voices and outlets to explore. Fortunately, we are in the business of coaching kids how to think with multiple lenses:

  • Inquiry: asking questions as a way into any story
  • Critical thinking: being analytical and skeptical readers of text and media
  • Empathizing: learning about humanity from a story, the news, history, an experiment
  • Honoring multiple perspectives: hearing, reading and making meaning of multiple voices, whether we or the kids agree with them or not
  • Synthesizing information: piecing together information, emotions, and compassion that makes sense in their world

Facing History and Ourselves, an organization that has been an integral part of my teaching career for over a decade, provides a wealth of professional development, classroom resources, and case studies to help educators see issues through these lenses first. When we live the reality of approaching this work as a learner, we teach topics with curiosity rather than rigid certainty.

3. Commit to a learning discussion as a community.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we have to understand that topics are deemed “controversial” because they are relative and current to the human beings in the room. Feelings, self-esteem, and identity are always as stake. In our co-authored book, Upstanders, Harvey “Smokey” Daniels and I discuss the importance of identity work in the classroom, getting to know your students as human beings before you “teach” them. When students engage in an exploratory dialogue of identity together, they can use it as a resource to frame conversations and questions down the road. Once this groundwork is laid, co-creating norms for discussion around relevant topics that arise in class is an ideal place to begin a commitment to the learning discussion. Some places to start may be: respect everyone’s identity in the room, ask a question if you need to understand something better or if you disagree, and listen before you interject.

Keeping your co-created anchor chart up in the room like this one, which @teresagross uses with her class In New York, is a good visual reminder for kids.

If educators are going to be on the front lines of helping children make sense of the news they bring to school and the news that our world keeps delivering to them, we can stop framing topics as controversial and start asking why they are relevant to our kids and to our society. With this reframing, we get to delve into the complexities and design our schools to be habitats of trust where kids (and adults) always participate in a learning discussion; where expression, identity, and inquiry matter.

Response From Jennifer Borgioli

Jennifer Borgioli is a Senior Consultant at Learner-Centered Initiatives, Ltd. where she supports teachers, schools, and districts with designing assessments that capture evidence of student learning in ways that are meaningful for students and teachers. She also assists districts with auditing or reviewing their tests and assessments in order to better support balanced assessment systems. Her Twitter handle is @JennLCI:

As I edited my response to this question, I heard no fewer than 5 newscasters refer to statements by a presidential candidate as “controversial.” Two things about this struck me. First, we tend to use actual or implied quotes when we write or say the word, as it’s a nebulous concept. Second, adults are surrounded by controversial statements and topics, which means the young people who move through the world alongside us are as well. Helping students navigate controversial topics requires thoughtful planning, research, and clear structures.

Diana Hess, in her book Controversy in the Classroom, makes a plea for teaching students how to talk about controversial topics. “When schools fail to teach young people how to engage with controversial political issues, or worse, suppress, ignore, or deny the importance ... they send a host of dangerous and wrongheaded messages” (pg. 6). Our responsibility to teach students how to engage in controversial topics doesn’t mean tackling every issue that’s sure to generate strong opinions. Rather, it’s about being strategic and thoughtful as we ensure students have the resources to understand their opinions and the tools to successfully navigate conversations when friends and family share theirs.

When thinking about strategies, it’s helpful to think about those students are exposed to, as well as those that are missing. The strategies students see are things like protocols for discussions, ground rules and explicit norms, and knowing what language is and isn’t acceptable during discussions. When it comes to the logistics of discussions, there are a variety of structures that can be adapted for a given class size or dynamic. Socratic Seminars, Town Meeting Model (Hess, 2009), and Intelligence Squared debates are just a few that have been used successfully with older students. Younger students can negotiate challenging conversations through protocols like “Two Cents,” in which students start with two pennies and spend them in exchange for making a comment or writing prompts like, “I used to think.... and now I think...”

The importance of strategies students don’t see is best summarized by Hess who says, “preparation is paramount.” She goes on to explain, “successful controversial issue discussions are intricately planned ... These discussions are not ad hoc, nor are they scheduled at the last minute.” Part of this preparation includes determining if a particular topic will be approached from a controversial perspective, in that it’s worthy of discussion, or a non-controversial one, meaning instruction will be limited to facts. Hess calls this distinction, “teaching in the tip,” referring to the tipping point between seeking out controversy or avoiding it. One way a teacher can prepare to address this is by reading case studies in books like Hess’s or collaborating with administration and colleagues. Finally, it’s essential that any content students see is accurate and well-sourced. There may be a need for pre-teaching specific skills like citing sources and reading a bibliography, as well as using information from resources to support an opinion or response. It is critical to successful discourse on a controversial topic that the discussion remains focused on the topic at hand, and is not waylaid by wrong or misleading information.

Dealing with controversy in the classroom can help students see that it is possible - and even healthy - to disagree with one another, that even heated disagreement can be respectful. We can walk away from controversy the better for having engaged with it. Knowing how to navigate controversial topics and conversations is a life skill that will endure far beyond the structured opportunities teachers can provide and has the potential to influence how students deal with controversial situations and topics outside the classroom.

Hess, D. E. (2009). Controversy in the classroom: The democratic power of discussion. Routledge.

Response From Kevin Scott

Kevin Scott is director of member engagement at ASCD and works with members and constituent groups to increase awareness and action for educators. He spent seven years in Fairfax County (Va.) Public Schools as a middle school history teacher and has been a director of education and membership manager at other associations in Washington. Connect with him on @Edu_Kevin_:

As a history teacher, there was no shortage of controversial topics for me to uncover. And as a middle school history teacher, there was never a shortage of eager kids to disprove some common theory. “Mr. Scott, I heard the moon landing was really just a Hollywood studio, is that true?” While that may be a simplistic example (yet a true story), teaching American history of the 20th century invited tough topics and tougher imagery. For my students, reading about the Civil War and slavery in their 6th grade year was very difficult and brought out a lot of emotions. When we discussed the Civil Rights Movement in 7th grade, it wasn’t just illustrations and still photographs to view, they got to see raw video footage of the brutality that many black Americans suffered. Those videos are hard to watch, but they were also important for all the students I taught to see.

What I learned is that controversial topics have a lot to offer, and require a lot more time than you plan for. At times, I would set a timer on my phone or on my watch to stick to a conversation for just five minutes. With that parameter, it forced us to be concise and answer just a few questions rather than go down the “what if” rabbit hole. In fact, one of my rules for discussion was we weren’t allowed to ask “what if” questions. Just imagine your class asking, “what if Hitler was never born?” and try to get back to your planned lesson after that!

Another lesson learned for me when getting into a controversial topic was being candid when you didn’t know an answer. Like many teachers, I’ll never forget 9/11. As a native New Yorker who was teaching in the Washington, D.C., area at the time, that day was the most emotional day of my life. We had students whose parents were in various departments of the federal government and nobody really knew what was happening. On that day and many days following, I learned that sometimes you have to say, “I don’t know” to students. It’s not a brush off and there are times when controversial topics are complex to explain to students--in those cases, you can always tell them you don’t know the answer and invite them to research and have a follow up conversation later. It’s best to be mindful of what your students are experiencing, how they’re feeling, and being aware that they could be going through a traumatic experience that you’re unaware of.

Finally, I would encourage all teachers to embrace the controversial topics. While it may not be what you focus on in the first month of the school year, as you get to know your students and develop the relationship, you will find these conversations to be among the best memories you have of a class or of an individual student. Students, especially middle school students, can be a challenge, but they are also eager to express their opinions and share the way they see things. It’s an amazing feeling when you witness a kid tackling a large concept that’s tough to talk about. It’s even better when you know you’re making them think like they never did before.

Response From Erik M. Francis

Erik M. Francis, M.Ed., M.S., is the author of Now THAT’S a Good Question! How to Promote Cognitive Rigor Through Classroom Questioning, published by ASCD. He is also the owner and lead professional education specialist for Maverik Education LLC, providing professional development on teaching and learning that address the cognitive rigor of college and career ready standards:

Controversial topics should not be avoided. These are known as “wicked problems” -- problems that do not have a clear cut solution and have so many different factors and circumstances affected and impacted by them. Global warming, education, poverty, immigration, the definition of marriage, and truly any topic discussed in the political arena are controversial topics that are considered “controversial”. However, these are the wicked problems students will encounter in their lives personally and professionally.

Most importantly, let the responses come from the kids. The teachers should be the facilitator and moderator of the discussions that occur in class. They should also never interject or impose their own opinions, perspectives, or topics. Teachers can also protect themselves by asking students good questions that will prompt and encourage students to think deeply and express and share their own ideas, opinions, perspectives, and thoughts about the topic. Pose argumentative questions that address all sides of the issue (I have a whole appendix in my book Now THAT’S a Good Question! How to Promote Cognitive Rigor Through Classroom Questioning that includes examples of argumentative questions that address controversial topics). Present hypothetical questions that ask students to think critically and creatively about what if, what would happen, or what could happen. Ask affective questions that prompt and encourage students to express and share what do you believe, feel, or think.

The most important thing teachers need to keep in mind is to stay out of the conversation. Be an unbiased moderator and guide the students through inquiry. Not only will that allow the students to be the one to express and share their ideas but also protect the teacher from any complaints that might come from parents. We cannot control what comes out of the mouths of babes. We can only guide and teach students to make proper choices and consider others’ feelings.

Response From Phil Hunsberger

Dr. Phil Hunsberger is Senior Partner and Co-Owner of Educational Equity Consultants of the Greater St. Louis area. Over the past 15 years, Dr. Hunsberger and his partners have worked with numerous schools and school districts to confront and dismantle oppressions within the school settings. Recently, his book: Becoming a Social Justice Leader; Using Head, Heart, and Hands to Dismantle Oppression has been published by Routledge Press. Follow him at philhunsberger@eec4justice.com:

Imagine a group of seventh and eighth graders having a conversation regarding the Michael Brown incident in Ferguson, Mo. This small group lives in the St. Louis area and this incident is relevant for their lives. Their conversation has depth, respect, and candor. They go beyond the issues of police brutality and gang behavior to raise questions of oppression, stereotyping, discrimination, corruption, and poverty. They challenge each others’ thinking in a respectful and thoughtful manner. Don’t panic if this scenario seems out of reach. Discussing controversial topics in the classroom is tricky; however, with some planning and preparation, it’s possible. It’s important to provide space for discussion of controversial topics. They offer the opportunity for students to learn and practice critical thinking and civil discourse. These are the skills absolutely necessary for our young Global Citizens. These three types of instructional activities are useful prompts for the classroom:

1. At a high school level, begin with a worksheet with four quadrants each labeled with: “What do you know about this issue?” What questions do you have regarding this issue?” “How have you been thinking about this issue as it applies to you?” “What steps would you take to resolve this issue?” Student responses will lead to conversation upon which civil discourse can be exercised in a variety of contexts.

2. In a middle school, put duct tape on the floor in a 15 - 20 foot line creating a continuum with the following possible descriptions at the ends i.e. Agree - Disagree / Fact - Fiction / Approve - Disapprove. Pose questions regarding the issue, asking students to stand on the line that represents their feelings or thinking. The continuum line gives students flexibility to express their thinking or feeling beyond polar extremes i.e. close to the middle, leaning toward either end, or no opinion (standing off the line).

3. For younger students, controversy can contain feelings of fear or threat. Using duct tape, outline a set of concentric circles on the floor to create another continuum. Label each circle with short phrases, i.e. “I don’t understand...” “I want to know more....” “I’m afraid of this.” Student can stand on the circle of their choice to reflect on their thinking or feelings.

These three activities can broaden students’ thinking, respect diversity, and explore issues with much more acuteness then the “sound bites” reflected in media and social networks.

Response From Jackie Walsh & Beth Sattes

Jackie Walsh and Beth Sattes, co-authors of Questioning for Classroom Discussion: Purposeful Speaking, Engaged Listening, Deep Thinking (2015, ASCD), and Quality Questioning, 2nd edition (in press, Corwin) work with teachers and leaders to engage them in reflecting on the value of research-based questioning practices that engage students in thinking. Walsh can be reached at walshja@aol.com and Sattes at beth@enthusedlearning.com:

Speaking and listening to others with respect, especially about controversial issues, are skills we rarely see demonstrated today. As we reflect on the current political climate in the country, it is no wonder that students don’t know how to listen to different points of view to learn and understand. Indeed, many teachers avoid controversial topics, fearful of students’ getting out of hand or of negative reactions from parents or community members.

We have found that one of the best ways to encourage difficult discussions with open-mindedness and consideration of multiple points of view is to begin with individual reflection followed by a small group structure to make meaning, leading to large group discussion, and ending with individual reflection on insights and questions. Our favorite structure for controversial topics is what we call “Data on Display.” The use of this structure allows students to see a visual display of the entire class’ ideas and to consider the implications of the group data, without getting involved in the rightness or wrongness of individual points of view. The group data become the focus, decreasing defensiveness that often erupts during conversation about controversial topics.

In Data on Display, students individually respond to a set of statements on a topic under study, each phrased for response on a scale of five, from strongly agree to strongly disagree. Students post results anonymously for each statement, forming bar graphs of the class responses. Then in small groups, students look for meaning from the data: What patterns do we see? What are the implications of the responses? Are there contradictions, and if so, what may be the reasons? Do we need more evidence? Where might we find it? What questions are raised by these data? The discussion that results is about the meaning and implications of the data; it is not about defending one’s own point of view.

In “Questioning for Classroom Discussion,” we advocate regular use of discussion in the classroom to help students make meaning and deepen understandingboth for increased academic learning as well as for improved social interactions. We advocate the specific targeting and scaffolding of skills for purposeful discussions and suggest three forms of discussion, one of which is the use of small group structures such as Data on Display.

Resonse From Dave Stuart Jr.

Dave Stuart Jr. (@davestuartjr) is a high school teacher who also writes and researches about literacy instruction, character strengths, and teacher flourishing. His blog is read by over 35,000 people each month, and he gives keynote speeches and workshops around the country. He believes that all students and teachers can flourish, and he hopes his work helps you toward that:

Last February, I showed an Ezra Klein video on the rise of Donald Trump to my AP World History classes, and the video’s thesis was that Trump is “the most dangerous major presidential candidate in memory.” My stated purpose was that the video was a timely example of how one’s thesis need not always come at the very start of an argument (we had been learning about how, in APWH essays, the thesis point can be earned in either the first or final paragraphs). Also, the topic was relevant to that particular group of kids, as many of them had been conversing about the political primaries with me every chance they had.

Later that night, a parent called my principal stating that he was concerned about me pushing my politics on students through showing the video, especially since the course I was teaching was APWH, not Current Events. My principal spoke with me, and I submitted a written explanation of why I shared the video, and we moved on.

But honestly, a part of me felt guilty as charged because, truly, I whole-heartedly agreed with the video’s argument, and I hadn’t even attempted to find a similar video representing a counter-view.

The keys to teaching controversial topics

The First Imperative for teaching controversial topics (or “teaching the conflicts,” as Gerald Graff wrote about years ago in his Beyond the Culture Wars: How Teaching the Conflicts Can Revitalize American Education) is that we must be as even-handed as possible. This advice isn’t my own; it comes from a recorded conversation I had with Dr. Graff (and his co-author Cathy Birkenstein) several months ago.

According to Dr. Graff, “Nothing kills an argument more than when the students get the sense that they’re being brow-beaten, that the teacher’s on one side trying to convert them, and that the other side isn’t really being aired.” If students sense the teacher’s bias (or see it in the lopsided sets of evidence we provide them with), we won’t really be teaching them to argue and think critically at all; instead, we’ll be teaching them that school is a place where they’re told what to think. In this case, we shouldn’t be surprised to find them demotivated. There’s no autonomy in a one-sided argument.

The Second Imperative is that we must actually teach students to argue. Much has been written on this, but the simplest starting places I’ve found are the “Argument Builder” sheets produced by Les Lynn over at Argument-Centered Education.

Finally, the Third Imperative is that we then let students argue. Here, classroom management is critical, and I recommend Pop-Up Debate as a management tool. The goal during a debate on a controversial topic is that everyone participates, that an atmosphere of intellectual engagement is maintained throughout the argument, and that respect and civility are the behavioral norms.

The goal of such lessons is that our students get closer to what I call Fulkersonian argument, from Richard Fulkerson’s Teaching the Argument in Writing: “The goal [of argument] is not victory but a good decision, one in which all arguers are at risk of needing to alter their views, one in which a participant takes seriously and fairly the views different from his or her own.”

Teaching the controversies, to me, isn’t an optional teacher thrill; it’s not the sky-diving of teaching. Rather, it’s a central part of the educator’s work in maintaining a democratic society.

Thanks to Sara, Jennifer, Kevin, Erik, Phil, Jackie, Beth and Dave for their contributions!

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