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With Larry Ferlazzo

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Teaching Opinion

Response: ‘Fear’ Should Not Stop Us From Exploring ‘Controversial’ Topics in School

By Larry Ferlazzo — October 30, 2016 22 min read
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(This is the second post in a five-part series on this topic. You can see Part One 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 10-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.

Today, Gabriella Corales, Tom Rademacher, Martha Caldwell, Oman Frame, Danny Woo, Paul Barnwell, and Kathleen Neagle Sokolowski share their responses.

Response From Gabriella Corales

Gabriella Corales teaches 11th grade American Literature at Impact Academy in Hayward, Calif.; she has taught there for three years, working with many first generation college students of color (like herself) and alongside many dedicated educators. She is originally from San Antonio. She completed her Bachelors in English and Communication Studies at Texas State University and her Masters in Education at Stanford University:

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter” -MLK

Fear can easily become a barrier to exploring controversial topics in our classrooms, but should it stop us? As educators, we should prepare students to be agents of change; to do this, it’s imperative to discuss and explore issues (such as racism, sexism, immigration, etc.) inside the classroom so students feel empowered to speak up and take action outside the classroom.

Approaching any controversial topic is challenging but structure helps and is necessary. Discussion protocols establish necessary rules and boundaries on the discussion. This coupled with strong facilitation helps keep students safe. Some examples of structured discussions I’ve used include Four Corners, Fishbowl Discussions, and Structured Academic Controversies.

Moreover, I clearly communicate norms before we approach any controversial topic. I use: “Respect the speaker. Listen with an open heart and mind. Respectfully speak your truth.” See “Courageous Conversations” for others. Before a discussion, I set a tone by framing the discussion and explaining the norms significance. I may say, “Everyone in here deserves respect so when someone speaks, show them respect by looking at them and listening to them. If people share personal experiences, listen with compassion, empathy, and an open mind. And lastly, your voice matters so speak your truth but remember that we each come from different places.” Students need norms so they know how to speak and listen to each other (especially since strong convictions may already be present).

Once this is established, I always like to make the selected topic relevant and urgent to my students to avoid any from dismissing the topic. By connecting the topic to their lives, students begin to better understand the issue and it’s impact. I could begin with a current event that highlights the issue. I could also present stories of other teenagers facing the topic or invite students, families, and other teachers to share their testimonies. One year students and families shared their immigration journeys with the class. Another year, students and teachers participated in a privilege walk and a fishbowl discussion about race. When students listen to people they know describe their experiences, hearts and minds open. The more students can connect with the selected topic and people involved, the more they invest.

Moreover, I’m aware that some students would rather listen to others than their teachers, so I strategically present students with popular sources that raise the issue on my behalf. I find popular movies, songs, and video clips that raise the selected issue and have students analyze them. We analyze Disney song lyrics when discussing gender roles. We view and discuss Common and John Legend at the 2015 Oscar Awards, declaring that the fight for civil rights continues today.

Lastly, presenting multiple perspectives is important. When possible, we should expose students to various opinions about the selected topic then let them determine their own stance. This can be done with immigration reform, LGBT rights, BlackLivesMatter, etc. I have students research and argue from immigration perspectives that are different from their own in order to gain more perspective, for example.

I’m lucky to teach in a supportive environment where discussing controversial topics is common. I’m also a Latina who shares many experiences with my students and this helps me facilitate. But regardless of your teaching environment and experience, take risks and learn from the experience. We must not let our fear stop us. We must model courage for our students and explore with them. We must encourage our students to "[speak up] about things that matter.”

Response From Tom Rademacher

Tom Rademacher teaches in Minneapolis. His work in the classroom is focused on understanding and resisting systemic racism in schools. In May of 2014, he was named Minnesota’s Teacher of the Year. His book, It Won’t Be Easy: An Exceedingly Honest (And Slightly Unprofessional) Love Letter To Teaching, will be available in April of 2017 from University of Minnesota Press. He can be found on twitter @mrtomrad and writes on misterrad.tumblr.com:

“Last night, I watched my Grandmother in tears.”

The day after it was announced that Darren Wilson would not be indicted for the killing of Mike Brown was the day before my school’s Thanksgiving break. My plan that day had been to continue listening to the then-super-popular podcast ‘Serial’ with my class. We were investigating, in a way, just how little we could get away with doing during a two day week. My plans, rather scant though they were, were quickly re-written for me by students who demanded more.

On the way into school that day, walking through the lunch room, student after student approached me. “We’re talking about this today.” I wasn’t, not at all, a question.

So, lesson plan scrapped, chairs went into circles and the day was spent, hour after class hour, with me simply stating, “Would anyone like to share their reactions about what is happening in Ferguson?”

As my students talked, one student mentioned that we should be tweeting this discussion. So I sat mostly silent and kept notes as they tackled a discussion with the kind of empathy and insight most adult conversations at the time were struggling to capture.

“Social media is full of people putting black people into ‘they’ because they are uncomfortable and worried.”

The results of that discussion are well documented. Search #FergusonInClass on Twitter or Google, and you will find the voice of my students, powerful and raw, as well as articles from the Huffington Post and the Associated Press. Dig a bit, and you can probably still find local news coverage of the discussions from a story done that afternoon.

To be clear, my students are the real story here. Their brilliance and honesty and insight are what made this day in class something that had national impact. I did little more on that day than allow it to happen.

Still, there is quite a lot to know about what made that little bit work, quite a lot that I learned through years of trial and very messy error.

“There’s always going to be people who see videos of people dying and say, ‘Get that racism out of my face.’”

It’s Not About You

An open space can be a dangerous one, and a teacher looking to cash in on engagement through controversy can be downright damaging. I’ve seen this go very poorly when a teacher near me played “Devil’s Advocate” in a discussion about trans rights and ended up making groups of students feel actively unsafe in his room. A lively conversation is validating as a teacher, but does not justify the invalidation of students’ identities and experiences.

“I laugh a lot, but in public, I minimize myself”

Look Out for the Quiet Kids

If you are talking about anything sensitive, if topics around race, gender, sexuality are on the table, if you are reading something that references rape or abuse, if you are teaching a history that ignores a people, and you are waiting for someone to speak up if they object, you aren’t likely to hear anything until it’s way too late.

If you notice students withdrawing or acting out in your class, take a step back and ask yourself why. Don’t go right to them. They may not be able to be able to verbalize perfectly, or you may not be the person they would confide in at that moment. As much as possible, make this work you do for yourself, about yourself.

“Every time I’m around a white person I don’t know, I make myself uncomfortable so they can be comfortable”

Recognize Yourself

It matters who you are in your room. I am a white, cisgender, straight male. That matters. I am not the first white male my students have seen in their lives, and their experiences with those white males will have an impact on how I am perceived. It is not typical (for white people especially) to be asked to understand this. Understand this. If you are going to talk about race, especially with people of color, you are going to be working against every problematic thing your uncle is saying on facebook and your cousin said at work. You’re going to have to earn some trust, and that’s ok. People who look a lot like you are all over the world advocating for devilish things. You needn’t be Devil’s Advocate in your room.

Take care of your students, first and foremost. When challenged or questioned, listen and respond without defensiveness. Show your students you will adapt for them and see them and care for them. Do this all the time, not just when you are dealing with difficult issues.

“I’ve heard a lot of things today that have really hit me in the stomach.”

Get Out of the Way

So much of this comes down to instinct and comfort. It is feeling when letting a particular voice dominate the conversation is important or awful, of knowing when a class can pull themselves back together or when they need a break or time to process. It’s learning how to facilitate a conversation without directing it. It is often embracing the discomfort of letting go. Trust your students, trust their leadership and their empathy and their intelligence. It’s not about your agenda, your message, your learning target or using something personal and painful to achieve your goals. Give your students the conversation. Give them your classroom, because it’s not for you anyway.

“The definition of white privilege is you get to look away from this, and I have to live it.”

Response From Martha Caldwell & Oman Frame

Martha Caldwell and Oman Frame, authors of Let’s Get Real: Exploring Race, Class, and Gender Identities in the Classroom, teach a class their students call “Race, Class and Gender.” They conduct educational programs for teachers and students through iChange Collaborative:

Too often, as teachers, we feel we have to know the answers, but really, it’s about asking the right questions. In our class, we encourage students to share their encounters with racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, and religious discrimination, so the classroom has to be safe. We’ve learned how to elicit their stories, protect those who share them, and teach the social skills they need to navigate these conversations. Identifying patterns in their personal stories and immediate social groups, students learn to extrapolate these to broader phenomena of oppression and resistance through history, social science, and literature.

We open each year by talking about how to create a safe learning community. We ask the class, “What would it be like to say what you honestly think and feel without fear of judgment?” After hearing them out, we ask, “What do you need from the people in this room to feel safe?” We give them time to think, allowing for long pauses. Every year, groups of students generate similar lists: acceptance, respect, honesty, courage, confidentiality, and trust. We ask if they can commit to upholding these qualities for each other, and they always say yes. This activity sets the tone for the rest of the year, fostering a community where empathy is more powerful than rules, and commitment trumps compliance.

We model empathetic listening and teach communication skills such as listening with 100% attention; showing respect; being aware of body language; avoiding side conversations, eye rolling, “exchanging looks,” or laughing. We encourage them to take healthy risks, to “lean into the discomfort;" share their truth; and let themselves be known. We let them know conflict is part of learning, that it may take some time to resolve, but if they stick with the process, they will learn conflict resolution skills.

A white teacher at a workshop recently shared that she is afraid to go back to school this fall. “After all the police shootings, the kids will be stirred up. Last year, one of my kids said, ‘Ms. Banks, you don’t know what it’s like to be black.’ I didn’t know what to say; I told him everybody faces challenges. He just walked away.”

She recognized her response fell short. A question like, “Can you tell me what that’s like for you?” would have invited him to share his experiences and feelings, indicated genuine curiosity, and opened a door.

Some students feel safer debating than revealing feelings, so they try to shift the discussion to the intellectual realm. We call this “going cognitive.” If the conversation turns into a debate, the process has gone awry. We redirect students to attune to their feelings, by asking, “What are you feeling right now?” This helps them slow down and refocus on felt experiences: the realm in which these issues can be resolved.

If a student invalidates another’s experience, it’s almost always to avoid his/her feelings. Privileged students are often uncomfortable hearing about oppression and feel guilt by association. By attuning to their feelings, they can figure out their motives. However, the feelings and experiences of students of privilege should not become the focus. Marginalized students make themselves vulnerable by sharing their stories. We keep the focus on them so they don’t leave feeling exposed or invalidated because their experiences were once again marginalized.

Young people want nothing more than to be heard and understood. When a few lead the way, others follow. They find the greater intimacy that results tremendously rewarding. We know it is the foundation for academic growth. As bell hooks says, “Conversation is the revolutionary way of learning.”

Response From Danny Woo

Danny Woo is a middle school science teacher at San Jose Charter Academy in West Covina, California. He centers his class on the implications science has on social, economic, and environmental justice:

As human beings, we all have basic social-emotional needs.

  1. We want to love and feel loved.

  2. We want to feel connected to others.

  3. We want to feel safe and comfortable in our own bodies.

  4. We want to feel like we matter.

Our children are no different. The amount of success (and “success” is a relative term) a child feels depends on how these needs are met. And, the level of efficacy and agency a child feels depends on how these needs are fulfilled. In the classroom, we may need to engage our students in complex issues that have the potential to tear apart the culture of the class. For that reason, I focus on establishing a culture that meets these needs before I start with the curriculum.

One way I engage my students in controversial topics is an informal activity I call “agree or disagree”. Edcampers might recognize this as “things that suck”. In this activity, I pose a question that forces my students to think about their position on the topic.

I designate one side of the room as “agree” and the other as “disagree”. Students are free to move to either side according to their position. Those who are unsure move to the middle of the room. Students can represent their level of agreement (or disagreement) according to their proximity to each side of the room. In the event that the numbers are completely unbalanced, I make it a point to celebrate the courage it takes for anyone to stand alone, regardless of their opinion. My role is completely neutral.

I give the three self-selected groups time to speak among themselves. All opinions are encouraged, provided they do not engage in personal attacks. I make it very clear this is strictly about the issue, not the person. This accomplishes two things:

1. Students discover allies and common ground with unexpected classmates.

2. It forces students to formulate their thoughts and listen to others in the comfort of like-minded opinions. This eliminates the fear of “being wrong” as they are among people who already agree.

The next step is to invite students to justify their position. This is strictly on a volunteer basis and my role as a moderator is to ensure everyone who wants to speak is heard. At a minimum, anyone who doesn’t speak has affirmed their positions by their physical presence in the spectrum. Students are welcome to change their positions by physically moving at any time during this exercise. Students get to “vote with their feet.” I encourage non-verbal, low volume gestures if anyone likes what they hear. This is often a source of tremendous pride when they see their classmates validate their thoughts. You do this until no one has anything more to say, even if it means the conversation spills into the next day.

I usually start with a series of simple questions as a warm up. “The Warriors will win the NBA title.” “Beyonce is the greatest performer of all time.” “Dogs are better pets than cats.” I then move to the controversial topic at hand. The topic that garnered the most spirited discussion last year was, “It is OK for a 3-year-old boy to play with princess dolls?” It was amazing to see my middle school students unpack the layers of our social construct, examine how their life experiences influence their views, and more importantly come to celebrate and respect the diversity of opinions. Without fail, this activity inevitably ends with a feeling of mutual respect between everyone in class.

Response From Paul Barnwell

Paul Barnwell serves as in a hybrid educator role in Louisville, Ky., splitting his time between teaching English and Digital Media at Fern Creek High School and working on developing new professional learning systems. When not working on education-related issues, he enjoys writing, gardening, traveling with his wife Rebecca, bow-hunting, and playing bass:

Unless you live in a bubble or curate your information so selectively as to screen out “controversial” topics, you’re probably like most Americans in feeling inundated with news of turmoil. The Black Lives Matter movement, immigration debates, gun issues, terrorism, and many more “hot button” political issues have filled the airwaves and Twitter feeds during this presidential election cycle. And It’s more important than ever to allow students to grapple with debate, ethics, and other controversial topics to aid in their development as people and as thoughtful, contributing members of our democracy.

While broaching “controversial” topics and leading productive dialogue in the classroom is difficult for many educators—including myself—there are ways to ease the stress of bringing these topics into the classroom.

Work on Building Empathy

Falling under the essential charge of creating classroom community, building empathy in students is a must for setting a foundation for discussing difficult issues. Think about how uncomfortable it is to discuss controversial topics with complete strangers. Without knowing your audience, who they are and or where they came from, it’s tough to imagine multiple points of view. One community and empathy-building activity I employ at the start of my classes is called If You Only Knew Me. I invite students to write down three statements about themselves that very few people are aware of. I read the statements anonymously, and students begin to build understanding of the range of intense experiences and perspectives our classroom community contains. And here are some more ideas for building community and empathy in schools and classrooms.

Use Existing Resources

In the past, when building instructional units or activities about “controversial” issues, I’ve tried not to reinvent the wheel. Teaching Tolerance has a wonderful suite of free lessons and activities for educators, on topics ranging from wealth and poverty to religion and gender equity. When developing an English unit on Fate, Luck, and Chance, I’ve tapped into this resource for activities related to social inequality.

Invite Folks In

In October, 2014, the unthinkable happened at our school. We enduring a shooting, during which one student was wounded. Issues of anger, conflict resolution, gun violence, and other topics conflated during this horrific event. In the aftermath, I invited Anthony Smith, former leader of our Mayor’s Safe and Healthy Neighborhoods initiative, to lead a classroom discussion on the aforementioned issues--and more. While a traumatic event was the impetus for me inviting Anthony to Fern Creek High School, this doesn’t mean we need to wait to engage community members in assisting our students grappling with controversial ideas.

Response From Kathleen Neagle Sokolowski

Kathleen Neagle Sokolowski is an elementary teacher in Farmingdale, NY, currently teaching third grade. Kathleen is one of the co-authors of The Two Writing Teachers blog and the co-director of the Long Island Writing Project. She passionately believes that literacy is the key to a kinder, more just world:

“The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character- that is the goal of true education.” -Martin Luther King Jr.

Controversial topics can be uncomfortable for teachers, especially at the elementary school level where educators might worry about upsetting young students. As a third grade teacher, I’ve discovered that read alouds and discussions are some of the best ways to approach social issues that might seem controversial, but are important to talk about as a classroom community.

One of my favorite strategies for class discussions of controversial topics is the Quaker Circle. In 2015, it was announced that Ringling Brothers would no longer include elephants in their circus shows. At the time, I was reading aloud The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate to my class. The book encourages readers to see animal performances in a different way and to have empathy for the animals who live in circuses. I wanted to know what my students really thought about animals performing in circuses and other places, such as Sea World, after listening to this book. For our class discussion, we used the Quaker Circle strategy. The class sat in a large circle and each student was given one question card and one statement card. Students could ask one question and make one statement, but once they used those cards to speak, they could no longer say anything. Students spoke whenever the “spirit moved them"- no one raised their hands to speak. This strategy encourages the reluctant student to share his/her opinion while helping the vocal student to really decide what he/she wants to say. All students are encouraged to speak and to address the group instead of just the teacher. I find this strategy helps build a collective understanding of our feelings about the topic and helps me as the teacher know where the misperceptions might be.

This past school year, my third graders investigated social issues such as bullying, differences, gender stereotypes, and poverty in book clubs. I incorporated digital resources for the students to explore in addition to books, articles, and poems. Digital resources allowed students to deepen their understanding by adding visual and auditory components. Listening and watching a person talk about what it was like to grow up hungry, as my students did when they viewed Megan’s Story, is a different experience than simply reading an article or a book about poverty. Students took notes on the digital resources they viewed and shared their thoughts in their book club discussions. This unit opened up many students’ eyes to issues around disabilities, stereotypes, equity, and being a bystander.

Teachers who feel conflicted about bringing up controversial topics, such as racial issues, can broach these topics by reading aloud picture books. I’ve discovered that reading to students really builds their sense of empathy and justice. They long for the characters to be treated fairly and they often cannot understand why they are not. Some of my favorite picture books to share include Goin’ Someplace Special (segregation), The Other Side (segregation), Red: A Crayon’s Story (transgender), Yard Sale (poverty), and One Green Apple (cultural differences).

Martin Luther King Jr. reminds us that education needs to be so much more than learning facts. We need to teach students to think critically and question what they see and hear. Read alouds and class discussions are ways to help students think more deeply about controversial issues and come to their own conclusions. Teachers can be guides who facilitate these opportunities and conversations, building the students’ sense of justice and empathy. Controversial topics might not always be comfortable for teachers, but they provide opportunities for us to help shape our students’ character and do our part to build a better world.

Thanks to Gabriella, Tom, Martha, Oman, Danny, Paul, and Kathleen for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

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