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With Larry Ferlazzo

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Teaching Opinion

Response: Teachers Lose ‘Credibility’ if we Don’t Address ‘Controversial’ Topics

By Larry Ferlazzo — October 28, 2016 19 min read
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(This is the first post in a multi-part series on this topic)

The new “question-of-the-week” is:

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

So-called “controversial” topics in the classroom carry the possibility of teachers feeling like the cat in the Mark Twain story who came too close to a hot stove once - the cat won’t go near a hot stove again, but won’t go near a cold one, either.

How can teachers deal with issues such as race, elections, social justice and others without receiving hostile feedback from administrators or parents and even having their careers put in jeopardy?

This multi-part series will share many potential responses from educators.

Today’s contributors are 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.

One way that I introduce the idea of “controversial” issues at the beginning of a school year is by first having students explore the difference between “beliefs” and “knowledge” (concepts key to International Baccalaurate Theory of Knowledge courses, though I use it in all my classes). We then examine different examples of “evidence,” and students rank which they believe are more valid than others. They next explore current events and determine which types of evidence are used by the main “actors” to inform their actions. Based on that research, students decide how valid they believe certain public positions to be and where they themselves stand. For example, students concluded that Colin Kaepernick’s recent protests to be based on “knowledge” because of empirical evidence such as data, Kaepernick’s experience, and their own lives. You can read about the series of lessons in far more detail here.

You might also be interested in addiitonal resources at The Best Posts & Articles On How To Teach “Controversial” Topics.

Response From Lorena Germán

Lorena Germán is a 12 year educator focused on culturally sustaining educational practices. She is a Dominican-American living in Austin. You can follow her at @nenagerman on Twitter:

Addressing controversial topics in the classroom makes school relevant and practical. As teachers, we become frustrated when PD feels antiquated and disconnected from our lived reality. In the same way, students may find our classrooms to be disengaged from their lives. But it’s not about entertainment or a surface-level discussion of current events. It’s about a critical process of learning where a challenging topic is unpacked and it’s complexities explored through delicate strategies. There are important strategies that teachers must employ when exploring controversial topics with students, especially those of us that are intentional about operating from a social justice stance in our teaching.

  1. Communication of expectations: It is absolutely important for teachers to create an environment that upholds the ideals of respect and understanding when approaching a challenging topic. While this may seem obvious, I think teachers often expect that students will understand that respect and openness are important, and what happens is that either the debate devolves into an argument and students feel ashamed, or no one speaks because they don’t feel comfortable and don’t want to ask a “stupid” question. At the start of such units, I physically change the layout of the room and move us on the floor in a circle. At eye level, I share with them my personal and professional goals for the unit. I begin by sharing with them the planning behind it, an overview of what we’re undertaking, and outline the expectations of behavior. I make sure students understand that clarifying questions are very important and no question is stupid or racist, for example. All sincere questions and comments have a space and must be me with understanding and patience.

  2. Unbiased and correct presentation of facts: Correct representation is very important when dealing with controversial topics. Often, people are ignorant of a true historical account and this lack of context is an obstacle for them to have a thoughtful or meaningful position on a topic. Helping students to research, present, and share the information to the class before a discussion is begun, is very helpful to surface questions along the way that can be brought to the discussion. Also, a proper context allows for the true complexity of the situation to present itself and lead to deeper and more critical dialogue. For example, when preparing for Yang’s American Born Chinese, students were paired off and each had a topic of research. These were topics that we would either directly cover, or I knew would provide important context for comprehension and empathy. In this unit, some of the topics were: model minority myth, Chinese immigration, bubonic plague, Japanese internment camps, and microaggressions. Students researched, shared with me, and then presented to the entire class as we built background to begin reading.

  3. Multisensory approach: When exploring challenging topics, I believe in reading about them, listening to songs about them, watching people debate about them, analyzing photography about them, and more. This broad method of diving into content adds to the understanding of how complex these issues can be and why they become controversial. My unit on Lorca’s Blood Wedding is an example of using of a multisensory approach. We focused on gender inequality and oppression. As part of understanding the text and topic, students watched a tango representation of the text, we looked for similar social patterns in American pop culture through music, we analyzed media images, we read articles of varying opinions, debated different points of view, and students presented to each other as well.

  4. Class discussion, reflection, & processing: Granting students the opportunity to hear each other’s thinking is critical and enables them to articulate their thoughts. After discussion, a period of reflection is important. This could present itself in the form of a one page debrief of the day. Reflecting might look like finding a song that best represents the content of the day. Additionally, reflecting could be finding a photograph or image that best summarizes the conversations. Lastly, processing is important because it must be guided by essential questions. Controversial topics require a specific end goal. Without a clear direction, the conversations can go in circles, become arguments, and be fruitless.

Social justice must be a priority for teachers. All teachers, regardless of their student body, must be thinking about how their students will engage with their communities and their country in a positive and meaningful way. Ask yourself: what is my goal for taking on this controversial topic? How will this help them to be amazing bosses, employees, friends, citizens, politicians, teachers, and so on? In the end, your teaching should inspire your students in one way or another. It’s a high expectation, I know, but that’s teaching.

Response From Adeyemi Stembridge

Adeyemi Stembridge, PhD provides technical assistance for school improvement with a specific focus on equity. He works with districts around the country to identify root causes of achievement gaps and formulate pedagogy- and policy-based efforts to redress the underperformance of vulnerable student populations. Follow him on Twitter at @DrYemiS:

Teaching is the art of facilitating thinking, and often the richest thinking inheres in the exploration of controversial topics. Though the public handling of sensitive subjects may be terrifying to adults, we teachers risk losing our credibility when we send signals to students that we would rather not engage in discourse likely to evoke strong feelings and disagreement. By “controversial,” I am referring to the topics that (1) draw on a range of social, cultural, and political perspectives, (2) require nuance in framing and consideration of context, and (3) evoke passionate and potentially contradicting points of view. Controversial topics provide rich opportunities to prepare students to make sense of disputed texts that are already being discussed in all sorts of spaces (and by text, I mean anything that can be subjected to interpretation). But more importantly, a pluralistic and democratic society requires that we are able to engage in respectful and thoughtful discourse about even the most contentious matters; and thus, instruction that engages the difficult is a moral obligation of America’s public schools.

I advise teachers to think carefully about purpose in designing learning experiences that center controversial topics. What is it that you want to accomplish? What are the understandings you wish to develop for students? It is especially important to reflect carefully on strategies for framing the learning experience. What connections can you facilitate between the content and your students’ lived experiences? What are the misconceptions you anticipate as your students move toward the learning targets?

The exploration of controversial topics is a powerful mechanism for broadening students’ vantage points and leveraging culturally inclusive frames of reference. Anticipate how the discussion may touch on students’ vulnerabilities. Plan carefully to address the dominant cultural indoctrinations that may not be shared by all students. Consider how the learning experience might inadvertently privilege hetero-normative identities over others? What assumptions about under-represented groups are likely to go unchallenged? It is also important to support students in sharpening their capacity for critical thinking. Guide students into identifying the facts and distinguishing a thoughtfully-constructed, evidence-based, argument from mere opinion. Support students in researching their positions including guidance around the notion of credible sources and valid methodological approaches to research questions.

Three strategies in particular are especially powerful for drawing students into authentic thinking and discourse that develop their capacity for empathy and critical thinking in terms of point of view:

  • Readers’ Theater allows students to walk in the shoes of others. It is an excellent mechanism for deepening an empathetic perspective.

  • Socratic Seminars engage students in thoughtful, serve-and-return dialogue about theme while citing texts to support their positions.

  • Question Formulation Technique encourages a generative process so that teachers can make content connections with students’ interests and backgrounds, clarifying the difference between open- and closed-ended questions along the way.

Given careful attention to planning and the developmental needs of students, all three of these strategies can be incorporated in K-12 classrooms to further facilitate a palpable sense of community; and a credible and authentic sense of community allows for powerful engagement and the rigorous exploration of a range of topics. Though typically a contentious discussion is defined by impassioned and (seemingly) polarizing and competing perspectives, it is also fertile territory to construct essential bridges in understandings and mutual respect of diverse experiences. We affirm our students’ intellectual identities and democratic participation by providing opportunities to discuss the topics that ultimately define the moral perspectives that can unify or divide nations.

Response From Stephen Lazar

Stephen Lazar is a National Board Certified Social Studies and English teacher at Harvest Collegiate High School in NYC:

As a social studies teacher, I see my primary responsibility as preparing my students to be engaged and thoughtful citizens. So-called “controversial” topics then become the center piece of much of my teaching, as how we approach and deal with differences of opinion and judgement is foundational to who and how we are as a society. I seek out the controversial for a far more practical reason as well: it’s what engages students in learning. Students are most engaged when their learning means something beyond just finding the right answer the teacher was looking for.

My recipe for doing this is fairly simple and applies across any type of controversy: introduce students to a range a viewpoints, let them establish their initial positions, present them with a range of evidence that could support multiple positions, then have them re-evaluate their positions in light of the evidence; repeat the last two steps as much as possible. This inquiry approach holds true whether I’m dealing with hot-button political topics such as immigration reform or responding to police brutality, or more academic historiographical topics such as who freed the slaves or whether the Constitution established a just government (you can see inquiries I wrote on the latter two as part of the New York Social Studies Toolkit). There are two key moves in this process: making sure students are aware of a range of legitimate viewpoints and keeping arguments grounded in evidence.

When introducing a topic, I aim to present students with different perspectives. One of my favorite ways to do this is to bring in another teacher and have us debate the topic, then having students pick who takes which perspective. This demonstrates for students that it’s about the issue, not about the person, and that there are multiple reasonable positions to take. It’s also possible to give students readings capturing different perspectives; procon.org is a great website for finding these for most political issues.

In finding evidence for students, it’s crucial to actually give evidence, not just people with opinions on the different sides. I’m trying to move students away from the “he said / she said” discourse that dominates mass media talking , and move them towards a more academic form of argument that considers all evidence and comes to a conclusion based on that. I try to always have a variety of types of evidence, including text, images, and charts/graphs, to engage a wider range of students.

Before beginning class discussions or debates on the issues, it’s important to establish ground rules with the class. I typically have students develop their own set of rules, but generally need to add the following: It’s okay to disagree, but not to be disagreeable; critique ideas, not people; and seek to understand before you seek to be understood. I think it’s important to make clear to students that there will be disagreement, but that what’s important in our class isn’t being right, but how we deal with difference.

A final caveat: there are issues I avoid in class, and these are the ones where the arguments are so common that they become ingrained in individuals’ identities and evidence plays very little role. For this reason, arguments about abortion, the death penalty, and Donald Trump do not take place in my class. I have never seen a student change their mind or reconsider their position in any way on these topics, so I leave them to the many other spaces in our society where they are debated.

Response From Jen Schwanke

Jen Schwanke is the author of You’re the Principal! Now What? Strategies and Solutions for New School Leaders (ASCD). Schwanke began her career as a language arts educator and is currently a principal for the Dublin City School District in Dublin, Ohio. A graduate instructor in educational leadership, she has written frequently for literacy and educational leadership publications and blogs about her experiences in learning and leading at jenschwanke.com. Follow Schwanke on Twitter @Jenschwanke and Instagram @jenschwanke:

Controversial topics can creep up in any grade level or content area. Seniors discussing political science, or first graders watching chicks hatch in an incubator. The questions that students ask--genuine, eager, interested--can lead to some really good conversation and important learning. But they can make even the most seasoned teacher squirm a bit.

When faced with leading a conversation about a topic that is controversial, there are some questions teachers might consider asking themselves.

Is this topic something that we should be thinking about, talking about, or writing about at school?

Some topics just don’t belong in school. Some are simply too contentious or provocative. These are best handled at home under the guidance of a parent or trusted adult.

Should I add my voice?

Sometimes controversial topics emerge and the students can handle it all on their own. They listen to one another, share opinions, ask questions, and move on. But when a teacher hears the conversation turning emotional, divisive, difficult, stepping in with a calm and unbiased voice for guiding the conversation is a wise move.

Should I involve some experts? There are lots of topics that will excite and interest students, but the expertise in the classroom might not be extensive enough to lead to learning or growth for the students. When a topic emerges that seems too nuanced or deep for students or the teacher, it’s time to call in an expert. Guidance counselors, business partners, medical professionals, social service providers, and community experts can all be called in to visit the classroom and help students think about complicated issues that interest them.

Am I ready to handle this? Guiding students through highly debatable topics is never easy, even for the most seasoned teacher. It’s particularly tricky for new teachers, whose confidence may be shaky. In those cases, it’s wise to know when to ask for help from a more experienced colleague or a school leader. Don’t walk alone--recognize when to get help.

Should I shut it down? As a teacher, I always retained the right to push the eject button--the one that said, “We’re done here.” I did this only if I felt misinformation was being shared or the topic was taking an unfair slant. I’d say, “This sounds interesting, but we’ve got a lot of other things to cover today. I encourage you to continue your thinking at home or after class; for now, we’re moving on.”

Using these questions may help teachers determine how to handle controversial topics in the classroom, guiding them to determine if, how, and when to embrace the challenges--and growth--that comes with them.

Response From Aubrie Rojee

Aubrie Rojee has been a social studies educator for the past 13 years in Rhode Island, D.C., and Massachusetts and has been the Educational Leader for Humanities at Medway High School in Medway, Massachusetts for the past three years. In 2014, she was named an ASCD Emerging Leader:

In today’s “all-access” society, educators are persistently trying to bring the world outside of the classroom in. How can we not? Our students are inundated with information, which is literally at their finger-tips. We have a greater ability now more than ever to provide meaningful and memorable learning opportunities. However, I can also recall having bouts of insomnia driven by worry over how to approach a hot-topic in a lesson or the sweat that beaded on the back of my neck when a controversial subject was raised during one. These moments of discourse would sometimes carry through my day, replay in my head, and cause me to ask: did I handle that properly? Did I offend anyone? Was everything I said accurate?

Luckily, there are many choices for teachers to consider and many resources to explore when dealing with controversial topics. First and foremost, in your attempt to educate your students on a topic, be sure to be educated on it yourself. Use reputable, unbiased, and up-to-date resources that will give you the background you need before presenting this information to the class. This is especially important when providing resources to your students as modeling how to examine the validity of something is an essential tool for all learners to have. More importantly than knowing the subject is being honest when you don’t. One of my favorite history professors would take out a notecard to record any questions he did not know the answer to and was sure to open the next class with a solid answer. It taught us the importance of finding accurate information and excited us to know that he welcomed our questions. A simple, “I don’t know the answer to that, but will try my best to find out” is far better than supplying an incorrect thought that students leave thinking is fact.

While controversial topics can be the basis of many exciting lessons, we must remember that with that excitement comes great responsibility. Be cognizant of your student makeup and any “triggers” for your students, but do not shy away from any and all discussion. Instead welcome it in a manner that connects to their learning and be sure to show students that your classroom is a safe place to have disagreement. If it is a planned lesson involving some type of debate or socratic seminar, do not hesitate to present the class with norms and expectations beforehand and demonstrate how to properly and fairly articulate a point. Above all and perhaps most importantly, understand that your classroom is not the arena to promote your own personal views. When teachers do this, it can isolate and alienate students and even be cause for administrative repercussions.

Finally, play the offense. Reach out to your administrators, instructional coaches, and colleagues for what I like to call a “temperature check”. Ask their opinions about how to approach or handle a subject or if you should even introduce it. It will not only help you have a better understanding of your school’s culture and avoid something that could become an issue later, but you may also find new ways to enhance the lesson.

Thanks to Lorena, Adeyemi, Stephen, Jen and Aubrie for their contributions!

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