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Teaching Opinion

Response: It’s ‘Vital’ for Teachers to ‘Integrate Controversial Topics Into Lessons’

By Larry Ferlazzo — November 07, 2016 18 min read
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(This is the final post in a five-part series on this topic. You can see Part One here ; Part Two here; Part Three here and Part Four 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.

Part Four‘s answers were provided by Sara Ahmed, Jennifer Borgioli, Kevin Scott, Erik M. Francis, Phil Hunsberger, Jackie Walsh, Beth Sattes, Dave Stuart Jr.

This series is being “wrapped-up” with commentaries by Meg Riordan, Lymaris Santana, Sarah Thomas, and Thomas Armstrong, along with many comments from readers.

Response From Meg Riordan

Meg Riordan Ph.D., is the director of external research at EL Education, a K-12, non-profit educational organization. She leads EL’s federally-funded Teacher Potential Project, studying the impact of EL’s curriculum and coaching on teachers’ instruction and students’ learning. She is the co-author of Going to scale with new school designs: Reinventing high school (Teachers College Press, 2009) and numerous articles. Meg taught English/ESL at middle school, high school, and college levels, and in the Peace Corps in Kazakhstan (1995-97):

Our world does not lack for controversy. One glance through newspaper headlines or Twitter feeds yields possibilities for topics that ignite passion and invite multiple perspectives. Fancy a debate about the 2016 Presidential Election? How about Black Lives Matter? Transgender rights? Minimum wage, internet privacy, and immigration? Or, perhaps the UK’s vote to leave the European Union or ISIS peaks your interest?

These issues capture our attention, sparking curiosity, fear, advocacy, and lively conversation. They capture our students’ attention, too; especially those topics that resonate emotionally. In fact, research indicates that “emotion is essential to learning,” and when teachers “understand that the best, most durable learning happens when content sparks interest, when it is relevant to a child’s life, and when students form an emotional bond with...the subject at hand...”, meaningful learning happens.

That’s what we want as educators: meaningful learning that lasts - learning that matters to our students. We want students to be engaged, build knowledge, develop critical thinking skills, and evaluate and synthesize information to construct arguments. We want students to understand multiple points of view and communicate effectively; essentially we want all students to experience deeper learning - learning that we know happens “when they are engaged, believe their studies are important, and are able to apply what they are learning in complex and meaningful ways.”

But exploring controversial topics might seem risky to educators, particularly when trying it out for the first time. Teachers might wonder: how will my students handle a discussion about immigration, racial profiling, or inequity? What if the conversation becomes heated - too personal or unsafe? How can I engage students in discussions about compelling, emotionally-charged issues and maintain “control” of the classroom?

At Codman Academy in Boston, an EL Education network school, 12th grade students tackled a relevant and complex topic in their learning expedition, Policing in America, exploring the successes, challenges, and the possibilities of policing in the United States. This in-depth investigation engaged students in close reading of texts such as “The Ferguson Report” and “The New Jim Crow” as they grappled with the role and actions of police officers in our society. As students of color, largely growing up in the inner city, considering the shooting of unarmed African American teenagers strikes close to the hearts of this community; teacher Blair Baron indicates that this “is an unbelievably compelling topic..[one] that affects them every day.”

What can we learn from Codman Academy and other EL Education schools about strategies to effectively engage students in discussing controversial issues?

  1. Seek out compelling content: as research above suggests, issues that tap into students’ lives, communities, and emotions are a powerful catalyst for engaging students - emotionally and intellectually. Blair confirms, “Once you find a topic that your kids really care about that is supported with great texts, your kids will work very hard, they will read deeper, they will question each other, they will push themselves, they will push each other, and they will be completely invested in this content.” Her student agrees, “Because we’re able to have a text to self connection, that’s what makes us work harder.” Rich material that matters to students makes a difference in sparking and sustaining engagement.

  1. Provide texts that offer multiple perspectives on the topic: Exposing students to a variety of primary sources provides opportunities to grapple, analyze, evaluate, interpret, and synthesize - all key to developing deeper learning skills. Another EL Education teacher from Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School (WHEELS) in New York City, Anthony Voulgarides, advocates that students should “have a window into society” and that “by choosing a variety of texts that lend themselves to analysis...[we encourage] a process of thinking” whereby “disagreements about topics become less about the subject matter and more about the presentation of an argument,” with evidence to support claims. In fact, research on teaching controversial issues found that engaging students in exploring multiple perspectives helps students focus their attention, increases motivation, encourages higher levels of cognitive reasoning, and promotes higher levels of achievement and retention (Johnson & Johnson, 2009).

Also, exploring texts with varying perspectives helps illuminate the complexity of an issue, meaning that teachers can model - implicitly and explicitly - that there is no one “right answer,” when considering controversial topics. It is important for educators to be mindful - vigilant, even - of not preaching one perspective on a topic; this is an opportunity to model balanced perspective, allowing students’ ideas and feelings to be respectfully heard and considered.

  1. Establish and review norms for discussion: Creating safe spaces is essential when engaging in controversial topics. Anthony shared, “Students bring a wealth of different and often direct experience to controversial topics,” so as teachers, “we need to honor experiences while pushing students to think beyond a single point of view.” The video of Blair’s classroom at Codman Academy offers several norms:

    • Talk to each other, not to me
    • Listen and respond to each other, rather than just stating your opinion. Your comment must connect to what was said before you
    • Take a stand, making a claim supported by evidence
    • Be critical, but kind

Creating norms is a process that takes time, trust, practice, and commitment, allowing students to feel safe engaging in subjects that might otherwise make them uncomfortable. In such cases, norms are not constraints, instead acting as “guardrails.” Anthony asserts, “When students can predict how the community will [engage], they begin to take risks with thinking.”

Policing in America: Using Powerful Topics and Tasks to Challenge, Engage, and Empower Students from EL Education on Vimeo.

  1. Use sentence starters, graphic organizers, and discussion protocols: Providing students with tools for a conversation helps to build organizational and discussion skills. Graphic organizers are a visual listening and thinking structure that support students in understanding challenging content, while sentence starters launch respectful responses, questions, affirmations, and disagreements. Blair indicates that students “review sentence starters for how to agree, disagree, and how to ask a question,” which gives them a toehold into language to discuss controversial topics.

She uses graphic organizers “to push the power of listening and the importance of taking time to process and think about what was said” before responding. In the video, two students disagree about the role of the police department. While one asserts that it was “created to protect us as citizens of America” and not “to put the black man down,” another responds, “I think that our country is in a national crisis and...that it’s people like you who don’t feel connected to it; I feel like that’s the problem.” Blair suggests, “Let’s pause. I want you disagreeing with one another - you’ve been doing so respectfully; continue that. A lot was just said. Everyone should take 2 minutes to jot down what was just said.” In this instance, the graphic organizer becomes a place to sort through emotions, process understanding, and harness emerging thoughts and questions.

Protocols, while not explicit in this video, create steps to support conversations, often identifying time-frames for responses or targeted questions that promote equity of voices (meaning, all students are heard). Within the supportive structure of protocols, students can safely engage in discussion of ideas without worrying that the conversation will go awry.

  1. Collaboratively reflect and debrief: After engaging in controversial conversations, Anthony emphasizes the importance of debriefing with students. He and his students discuss: what were the strongest parts of our conversation, and why? Where did we struggle as a community? What could we do better next time? He believes that, “by making visible the places where there was success and failure, the classroom learning community can begin to self-monitor for future discussions.”

As educators, our role is not only to prepare students for college and careers, but also to prepare students as citizens and participants in a society where they can, as Blair states, “do something..” and “not just sit back and watch.” Using rich texts and an academic lens to look at controversial issues offers students access to debate in a deep way. They can, as her student emphasizes, “let their voices be heard and take action where it counts.” Engendering students with this power to engage with difficult texts helps them to support their feelings with evidence, more deeply understand the often controversial world we live in, and build tools for lifelong learning.

Response From Lymaris Santana

Lymaris Santana is a teacher and Instructional Coach, whose teaching and research focuses on diversity and fostering both mainstream and unconventional literacies. Her work has been published in Racism and Sexism: A Collaborative Study, 2nd Ed. and Ethnocultural Influences:

My son came home asking why some parents would not want their children to know about the latest bombing in Paris. Apparently, his teacher had addressed questions about terrorism in class and one student was in tears. We had a serious conversation about it at home and he was not banned from watching the news, but these particular parents were less than thrilled about it. My son’s classmate told him that they would “get the teacher fired.”

In a different classroom, a few students joined in approval when Adrian casually said, in response to a food pantry collection, that “homeless people should just get a job.” Although not written on her lesson plan, the teacher asked the students to tell her what they thought a potential boss would look for in a job candidate. They listed a few things-clean clothes was on the list. The conversation went on to discuss grooming for an interview when one has no bathroom or shower, no washing machine, and very few clothes. Some students listed possible solutions, while others questioned the reason why they were on the streets in the first place. Mental health and addiction were immediately brought up.

The lesson shifted from “drawing conclusions based on text” to making inferences about real life events, two related standards. Students were so engaged in the topic that they wanted to explore further. They shared experiences about times in which their parent “gave a homeless man money” or “gave them food” and they continue telling stories in the upcoming days.

The question is not whether or not to explore topics deemed controversial-the question is when and how. While in some instances the conversation are organic, there are times when a well-planned lesson would fit perfectly into the curriculum. It would be then wise to advise parents ahead of time. In my son’s 6th grade World History class, the topic of Paris bombing was deemed too sensitive for the audience. The parents in question did not allow their children to watch the news because they did not want to instill fear in them. The topic was not in the standards and the conversations was raw as the teacher expressed her own opinions and allowed students to talk about what they saw.

In contrast, the second teacher managed to turn a potentially controversial topic into a reflective exercise. Students were asking questions, predicting outcomes and drawing conclusions about something they experience regularly when they stop at a red light. The audience was the same, but the context and the approach made all the difference.

Topics that may be deemed controversial, such as issues of race, culture and gender identity which are paramount nowadays, could and should be part of a teacher’s training and agenda. If a teacher remains neutral and acts as a facilitator, students would have the opportunity to engage in critical thinking and debate. Teachers must be sensitive to the student’s backgrounds and experiences and validate each contribution. Students bring their own perceptions and the perceptions of their families-their perception is their reality.

As agents of social change, exploring controversial topics may open up a world of possibilities by empowering and fostering empathy in a group of youngsters that will be the future of our country-those who can ultimately make a difference.

Response From Sarah Thomas

Sarah Thomas is a Regional Technology Coordinator in Prince George’s County Public Schools. She is also a Google Certified Innovator and the founder of the #EduMatch movement, a project that empowers educators to make global connections across common areas of interest. Sarah is a doctoral candidate in Education at George Mason University:

Teachers should not shy away from exploring “controversial” topics. One of the best things that a teacher can do is to allow space for students to have open, honest conversations.

Blogging is a great way to allow this to happen, particularly when students are allowed to choose the topic that interests them. When I implemented this in my classroom, sometimes I would give prompts about things we were learning, and sometimes I would not. Sometimes I would just leave it open-ended for free-writing. The students did a great job in responding to each other, and I would often blog with them. It was very important to build relationships with students by showing them that we can all learn from each other. Blogging was a great way to do so. I was also mindful to tell them about bias, and how everyone has some sort of bias, even me. They may not agree with everything I said, and vice versa; this was perfectly fine. However, we all needed to be respectful of everyone’s right to their opinion. This culture must be established to build trust and rapport, to allow these conversations to occur.

Response From Thomas Armstrong

Thomas Armstrong, Ph.D. is the author of 16 books including The Power of the Adolescent Brain: Strategies for Teaching Middle and High School Students (ASCD, 2016). His book is available through ASCD, on Amazon, or through his website at: www.institute4learning.com:

Many years ago, San Francisco educator Ron Jones shook up his high school history classes by turning his classroom, and eventually the whole school, into an authoritarian regime. He wanted to show how easy it was for a whole nation like Germany to embrace Nazism. The experiment began to go out of control very quickly and was shut down on the fifth day (the incident was turned into a TV movie, a young adult novel, and a musical). This story is a cautionary tale about what can happen when an educator takes on controversial topics. However, it by no means should discourage teachers from taking on controversial issues in the classroom. In fact, students at the secondary school level are particularly primed to embrace controversy.

A key feature of adolescent brain development is that the limbic system or ''emotional brain’’ is pretty much set in place at puberty while the reflective part of the brain in the prefrontal cortex doesn’t fully develop until the early to mid-twenties. This means that students are sitting on a lot of emotion and if these feelings aren’t allowed to be expressed in an appropriate manner (i.e. through exploration of controversial topics), then they will come out in other ways, both inside the school (in all manner of mischief) and outside as well (in risky behaviors). Consequently, it’s actually vital for middle school and high school teachers to make sure that they frequently integrate controversial topics into their lesson plans. Here are a few ways to do this:

  • look for controversy in seemingly uncontroversial subject areas (biology involves genetics, eugenics, abortion, and evolution; math explorations could include statistical investigations of AIDS deaths, race-related killings, and poverty rates worldwide)

  • conduct debates and discussions on controversial topics (if the course is history, have a debate topic such as: ''are government wiretapping and other forms of surveillance necessary for national security?”)

  • teach social justice issues (e.g. look at issues in your own community that demand attention including environmental abuses, local poverty, transgender discrimination, and homelessness); two excellent periodicals that explore social justice themes for educators are Teaching Tolerance and Rethinking Schools

Educators should also look for controversial topics in the daily news (in fact, one suggestion is to begin a lesson with a look at today’s headlines), in incidents and events that occur in the school community (e.g. an effort to pass a bond measure to support school repair), or in topics that are near and dear to the students (e.g. whether smart phones should be allowed in school). By embracing issues that rouse emotions, educators will address the imperatives of students’ ''emotional brains’’ while at the same time provide opportunities for reflection and integration of those feelings through their more cerebral regions of their prefrontal cortex.

Responses From Readers

Steven Zemelman:

Guiding students to talk about issues and beliefs is important and can help them both to articulate their thinking and to listen thoughtfully to others. It’s important, though, to enable students to go the next step and ACT on issues that are important to them. That’s what helps young people understand not only that they have a voice but that their voice matters and can make a difference in the world. That’s why I’ve been learning about student civic engagement and social action from great teachers and writing about it (the book is “From Inquiry to Action”). Such teachers have wonderful ways, too, of helping students discuss respectfully, and deal constructively with situations in which hurtful or inconsiderate things are said.

Thanks to Meg, Lymaris, Sarah and Thomas, and to readers, for their contributions!

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