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With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Teaching Opinion

Teachers Should Examine Biases When Discussing Sensitive Topics

By Larry Ferlazzo — November 01, 2016 20 min read
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Dominique Williams, Matthew Homrich-Knieling, Meg White, Kristina J. Doubet, Jessica A. Hockett, Vance Austin, Stephanie Smith are today’s guests answering the question, “What are good strategies teachers can use when exploring “controversial” topics?”

Dominique Williams

Dominique Williams teaches English and Social Studies at Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento, Calif.

From contraception and how the reproductive system works, to state sanctioned violence and Black Lives Matter, Native American mascots, differing abilities, and all things LGBTQIAA—exploring “controversial” topics is common practice for teachers of social justice. As we engage the same children (teens, in my case) again and again we take responsibility in teaching beyond state and common-core standards. Here are some strategies for exploring controversial topics:

  1. Know the law and relevant research—in California, teachers are required to teach about people who are differently able, LGBTQ, and of underrepresented ethnic groups in the FAIR Education Act. As a teacher, knowing the laws that justify your teaching will protect you in the event of student, administration, or parent push back. In addition to laws, organizations and researchers have plenty to say on the merit of most “controversial” subjects. Turn to Rethinking Schools, Teaching Tolerance, and research from Sleeter and Grant, etc.
  2. Have a strong rationale and a standards-based lesson plan to back it—know why you are teaching what you are teaching, have clear objectives, and make sure your plans articulate your objectives. Ask yourself: what do you want students to “get”? How will they learn it? How will you assess their learning? When teaching about the Cold War in my U.S. History class, I focused on CCSS for ELA 11-12.1. I wanted students to be able to “cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources” and think critically about how pursuing education prior to starting a family can be advantageous. I gave my students sources that included a range of instructional strategies: charts, graphs, photographs, advertisements from the 1950s, document-based questions and a Data Set that I created using information from PBS documentary The Pill. Additionally, we watched scenes from Mona Lisa Smile and Leave it to Beaver. From the sources in my lessons, which reinforced their literacy skills and thinking like a social scientist, students were able to come to their own conclusions about the “controversial” topic of contraception meanwhile practicing CCSS.
  3. Don’t tell students what to think—there must be inquiry! Start with an essential or focus question that will require students to use what they are learning to form their own conclusions. Inquiries should be open-ended and allow them to challenge and support their background knowledge. Take the opportunity to have them do their own research on the topic as part of the learning process. Otherwise, you risk banking students with your ideas.
  4. Regard the topic as your responsibility—research from the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) found that students at schools with GSAs (Gay Straight Alliances) feel safer, are more likely to attend school, and less likely to be bullied. Most teachers would agree that we have a responsibility in preventing bullying and promoting attendance. We also have a responsibility in equipping students with knowledge to prevent the spread of STDs, pregnancies, and actively challenging racism, ableism, etc. On “controversial” issues, we have a responsibility and a conviction to teach what will grow our students academically and socially and what upholds the integrity of our content areas.

Matthew Homrich-Knieling

Matthew Homrich-Knieling is an English/language arts teacher from Michigan. He is particularly interested in culturally-sustaining and social justice pedagogy, restorative justice in schools, and language and literacy. He can be reached at matthewknieling@gmail.com.

Exploring Controversial Topics in the Classroom with Care, Intentionality, and Student Autonomy

It is inevitable that controversial topics will be addressed or brought up in almost any subject area. But it is through these controversial topics, however, that teachers can build community, promote critical thinking, open up space for students’ knowledge, and address important current events and social disparities. Moreover, it provides the opportunity to co-create a democratic space with students by engaging in dialogue and navigating differences in opinions. In my own 6th grade ELA classroom, we discussed—formally and informally—human rights, racism, immigration, and power/oppression in government systems, and we have had some remarkably poignant discussions. The following are some strategies that I used when exploring controversial topics:

1. Set clear expectations prior to any discussion of controversial topics. This is obviously important for any classroom discussion; however, it’s particularly important when discussing controversial topics. Moreover, co-creating the expectations with your students is a great practice, as it not only gives them ownership over the classroom dynamic, but it allows them to help create a space in which they feel safe, as they create the rules based on their needs. Because such topics can come up sporadically, this is a good thing to do at the beginning of the school year and review when necessary.

2. Let go of some control. Occasionally in my own class, when a discussion was really moving authentically, I would gradually remove myself from the discussion entirely. Sometimes this would be a more organic process, where students would naturally “share the mic,” while other times, I would ask a student to call on another student to talk when they are finished, and repeat that process a few times until the students controlled it. This creates a more candid environment for students to share more freely and openly, but it takes time to get there!

3. Ground the discussion in your students’ knowledge. When my students and I were delving into the topic of human rights, we often made connections to their own community. I would pose questions such as, “Which human rights are not being met in this city?” or “Why do some people have more rights than others?” This allowed my students to speak from their experiences, which made for more genuine conversations.

4. Examine your own (unconscious) biases. This is important in creating a classroom that resists oppressive structures, and is especially important when discussing controversial topics. We know through research that because of our own implicit biases, we might unconsciously favor certain students in a classroom discussion. As such, it’s important to be cognizant of who is speaking, how you react to students’ contributions, and open up space for all students to participate. Recognizing your own biases will help work against all forms of oppression in the classroom—racism, sexism, ableism, etc.—and help build an anti-bias classroom.

5. Prompt students to unpack their opinions. We all come into a classroom with different sets of experiences, perspectives, and realities. With that, miscommunication is almost inevitable. When my students make a claim, my first question is generally, “Why?” or “What do you mean by that?” This not only forces students to refine and justify their ideas, but it gives everyone else a clearer understand of their perspective.

6. Allow time for students to write. In almost every class discussion, some voices are left out, either because of students who are shy/uncomfortable sharing their opinions, time constraints, etc. After exploring a controversial topic as a class, I would often give 5 minutes for each student to write a reaction to the discussion and/or to the topic discussed. This ensures that each students’ important voice is heard and provides the opportunity to debrief.

Though it can be intimidating, I believe that teachers should not shy away from exploring such topics; however, it is important to be prepared to navigate these topics in order to maintain a classroom in which everyone feels safe. Every classroom dynamic is different and requires nuanced attention, and while this is certainly not an exhaustive list of strategies for navigating controversial topics in the classroom, I hope they serve as helpful reminders or ideas for your own classroom.

Kristina J. Doubet & Jessica A. Hockett

Kristina J. Doubet, Ph.D. (@kjdoubet) is a professor of middle, secondary, and mathematics education at James Madison University. Jessica A. Hockett, Ph.D. is an educational consultant based in Evanston, IL. Together they have co-authored the book Differentiation in Middle and High School: Strategies to Engage All Learners (ASCD), in which all three of the following strategies are discussed in more detail. They work with practicing teachers of all grade levels—nationally and abroad—on the topics of curriculum, assessment, and differentiated instruction. Follow them on Twitter @DIY_Diff and on Instagram @d.i.y_di.

The chance to explore controversial issues is an easy sell in contemporary classrooms. But how can teachers make sure that students consider multiple perspectives on hot-button topics? Is it possible to for students to be passionate and expressive without resorting to inflammatory language and personal attacks? Structured Academic Controversy, a favorite strategy among teachers we work with, is one approach that rises to these challenges. It’s an ideal way to allow students to spar over contentious issues without engaging in a knock-down, drag-out fight.

Developed by David and Roger Johnson, Structured Academic Controversy (SAC) feels like debate. But the goal of a debate is to “win” or beat an opponent. The goal of SAC is to build consensus. Here’s how it works:

  1. Select a topic for discussion. Frame it as a yes/no question (Should voting be mandatory?), a double-sided issue (These data do/do not support the conclusion that...), or dichotomous viewpoints (Romeo and Juliet were victims of fate/Romeo and Juliet were agents of their own free will).
  2. Put students in groups of four. Then, and pair them within that group so that each person has a partner.
  3. Groups flip a coin to decide which pair gets to choose the side they will argue first. An example of “ground rules” and a method for teaching students how to talk to one another during the discussion can be found here.
  4. In Round 1, the group separates into pairs to craft arguments (points with supporting evidence) for their side of the issue. This can involve using teacher-provided sources or conducting their own research. The foursome convenes after a set amount of time. Side A presents its arguments and Side B listens and takes notes. Then, Side B presents while Side A listens and takes notes. Open discussion and debate begins only after both sides have presented.
  5. In Round 2, each partnership then switches positions. (Side A partners now argue for Side B, and vice versa). Again, the teacher can provide sources to consult or students can conduct their own research. Each side must come up with a set of points that are different from those presented in Round 1. The partners reconvene and repeat the presentation protocol from Round 1.
  6. In Round 3, the group collaborates to write a consensus statement based on the strongest arguments made from both sides. Models of what consensus “sounds” like—including examples of language that communicates uncertainty, caution, or “agreeing to disagree” can help groups acknowledge the complexity of their conclusions.
  7. Possibilities for final steps include each student writing their own position statements on the issue based on what they learned during the SAC, groups generating questions that the discussion raises or a bulleted list of “what we need to find out,” or students self-assessing their own contributions to the group or the group’s interactions and productivity as a whole.

Through SAC, students usually arrive at two key insights: (a) most controversial topics are more complex than they seem, and (b) an evidence-based argument that considers valid evidence from credible sources is far stronger than one rooted only in personal beliefs and experiences. Used well and used often, the SAC process has the potential to teach young citizens in a democracy not only to confront controversy but how.

Meg White

Meg White, Ed.D., is an Assistant Professor of Teacher Education at Stockton University in Galloway, N.J. where she teaches theory and pedagogy courses to pre-service teachers. She is co-author of a book on training pre-service teachers to be effective urban educators. Questioning Assumptions and Challenging Perceptions: Becoming an Effective Educator in Urban Environments is available on Amazon.com, and through Rowman & Littlefield.

Addressing controversial topics in the classroom can make you squirm, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Here are several strategies to make you and your students feel more comfortable with the material.

  • Be prepared! Know more than your students know about the topic. This allows you to be fully confident with the discussion and avoid any awkwardness. If you are comfortable with the topic, your students will be too. We all know what it feels like to teach a lesson on something we are not completely confident teaching.
  • Study opposing views of the topic even if you don’t agree with them. This allows you a wider perspective, and as such you present a more balanced view of the topic. Your students should not be able to tell what your personal thoughts or biases are on the topic.
  • Answer only the question that’s been asked. Teachers have a tendency to offer more information to a question to seize the opportunity for a teachable moment. In this situation, it may not be in your best interest. If a student has one question about one topic and it’s answered-done. If it’s not answered they will ask another.
  • Plan an activity for students to work in groups and talk with each other. This takes you off the hot seat and allows your students to talk with each other, taking away some of the awkwardness of the discussion.
  • Invite a guest speaker in to strengthen the conversation, and allow students to see the topic from a different perspective.
  • Create an environment in your classroom where every student feels respected, every opinion is valued, and you are fully facilitating the discussion. At the beginning of class come up with rules for talking, disagreeing, and respecting each individual regardless of their opinions. Serve as the moderator for the discussion. Have students who want to speak have a ball to hold, so only the student with the ball can speak. This will prevent students from calling out of turn, and empower students to participate in the conversation without fear.
  • Allow for time at the end of the class to debrief and close the discussion, ensuring no student is leaving with unanswered questions, or insecurities for having openly shared with the class. If students feel safe and respected, they are more likely to participate again.
  • And finally, let students know the topic is forthcoming in class, so they have an opportunity to think about or prepare for the conversation, as well. Surprising them with the topic may not be a good idea.

I remember a colleague who was nervous about teaching his first health class on reproduction. It wasn’t the topic necessarily; rather it was the first time he’d taught it to middle school students. He began the class with a graffiti write where he asked students to call out every slang term, expression, or phrase they could think of that had to do with reproduction. Students called out all of them, and each one was written on the board. When he had exhausted the students and desensitized the topic, he said, “Ok, now that we got that out of the way, let’s begin,” and erased the board. In doing so, he removed the myth and mystery of the topic, which allowed him to then focus on the content. The students, having gotten all of the giggles out of the way were ready to listen.

In closing, a valuable lesson for students is to know how to have a conversation about controversial topics. Students grow from learning and respecting differences. That’s a great lesson to carry on beyond school walls.

Vance Austin

Vance Austin, PhD, a special education teacher, behavior management specialist, author of Difficult Students and Disruptive Behavior in the Classroom, and professor at Manhattanville College, lives in Port Chester, N.Y.

The introduction and discussion of controversial topics in a classroom is never easy, but it does represent a unique opportunity for the activation of trust, civility, and reason that might not be stimulated otherwise. The following are a few strategies I employ when exploring “controversial” topics:

  • First, remember life is full of controversy. From very early on children engage in heated debates over the “fairness” of a parental decision. Later in life, we learn that we can’t always win an argument and that we don’t always have the correct answer or the best solution to a problem. We develop humility and “good sportsmanship” when we acknowledge that another individual or group of individuals has a better solution.
  • Avoid introducing your own bias in the discussion of a controversial topic. Be sure to provide reliable source information that presents multiple perspectives on the controversy.
  • Never apologize for discussing a controversial topic. Most important issues in life are contentious. Now more than ever, our students are faced with controversies that threaten our security, values, and the “old order.” Some require a gentle, diplomatic treatment, but most need to be met head-on. Whether we feel ready or not, our students must address the old and new issues of racism, homophobia, LGBT rights, religious extremism, abortion, freedom of information, protection of constitutional rights and freedoms, the school to prison pipeline, poverty and equal access.
  • Trust your students to be able to explore a controversial topic with decorum; respecting others’ opinions, allocating equal time to opposing voices, discussing the issue rationally, keeping emotions in check, and engaging in vigorous debate within the context of the classroom and allocated time frame. Use the opportunity to model civil discourse and meaningful debate.
  • Don’t personalize disagreements; these are simply differing ideas. While some are with and some without merit, everyone is entitled to an opinion about a topic.
  • Teach and encourage data-based responses. Show your students how arguments supported by valid evidence carry much more weight in a discussion.
  • Always end the discussion of a controversial topic with a challenge to your students to learn more about the issue from credible sources and to resist the temptation to judge those whose views differ from our own. No one has all the answers and everyone’s opinion matters.

Controversy is part of the human experience and as such should not be avoided but embraced--especially in the classroom!

Stephanie Smith

Stephanie Smith is the editorial director of Scholastic News® for grades 3-6, a collection of classroom magazines focused on current events and nonfiction literacy skill-building.

With the rise of technology, news-including tragedies and their aftermath-is increasingly accessible to children of all ages. A key part of our job at “Scholastic News®" is to assess how to handle controversial or disturbing events in an age-appropriate way. I oversee news coverage for upper elementary students. We evaluate whether or not to cover a story on a case-by-case basis, asking ourselves: Is this something students in grades 3, 4, 5 or 6 need to know about? Is there an age-appropriate way to cover it that will help teachers talk about the event with their students if they choose to do so?

With those principles in mind, we have covered such topics as climate change, illegal immigration, presidential elections and the plight of Syrian refugees. When we cover any topic, we do what all journalists do. We get the facts and make sure that our story is balanced. We interview experts and people who have views on all sides of the debate. We write stories that young kids can grasp and learn from. We leave out gratuitously scary details, but we make sure that the stories are honest and compelling. Often, we confer with teachers and at times child psychologists to ensure that our materials are presented in an age-appropriate way.

There are some news events that are too frightening and confusing for our young readers. We often do not report on mass shootings, for example. However, there are times when the news is too large not to cover. In such cases, we take on the responsibility of reporting the facts in context.

We did provide online coverage of the mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, since kids would likely have heard about the tragedy both at home and at school. No doubt, many young people would have questions and misconceptions. When we cover stories like that, we use simple rules:

  • Stick to the essential facts but only what kids can handle
  • Share how people helped during and after the event, and
  • Reassure children that adults (including the president) are working hard to keep them safe.

Many articles include the voices of children. For example, one of our January 2016 cover stories for 5th- and 6th-graders featured an interview with 12-year-old Reem Kaabor, a Syrian child whose family had to flee their war-torn home. “There was a lot of fighting very close to where we were living,” Reem shared. “There were a lot of rockets. We were so afraid that our house might become a target.”

The family traveled 23 days to Jordan, spent a night in a refugee camp and, ultimately, settled in Texas. Telling the story through Reem’s eyes allowed our young readers to view an often baffling and overwhelming tragedy in a new light. Reem, they could see, was much like them, with similar hopes and aspirations--she wanted to be safe and attend school.

With these examples in mind, consider a journalistic approach when discussing difficult topics in the classroom. Stick to the basics: who, what, when, where, etc. Answer questions honestly, but don’t give more information than students can handle. Be sensitive to the personal struggles that a child or children in the classroom may be experiencing. And provide a range of materials. Headlines, photos, captions, first-person accounts, videos, graphs, and charts all offer teachable moments. Reading a book to a class with a character dealing with a difficult topic can also help create a safe space for whole-class or one-on-one conversation. The more deftly students learn to process information, the more equipped they will be to confront life’s challenges.

Thanks to Dominique, Matthew, Meg, Kristina, Jessica, Vance, and Stephanie for their contributions!

The new “question-of-the-week” was:

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

This is the third post in a five-part series on this topic. You can see Part One here and Part Two here.

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.

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

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

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Anyone whose question is selected for this weekly column can choose one free book from a number of education publishers.

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