Opinion
Teaching Profession Opinion

Teaching Controversial Topics in the Classroom

By Kaitlin E. Thomas — May 31, 2018 3 min read

Editor’s Note: Kaitlin E. Thomas is a Lecturer of Spanish at the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth and Norwich University. Here, she shares how to be neutral and objective when teaching controversial topics.

In a foreign language classroom, it’s inevitable that topics will arise that challenge students to explore notions of nationality, culture, identity, and belonging—particularly if the language being taught is one that is, broadly (and irresponsibly) speaking, represented alongside terror (Arabic), law breaking (Spanish), or sabotage (Chinese) within American media and political spheres.

How then, as teachers of these languages, do we best tackle meaningful cultural instruction within the realities of the current contentious climate? How do we use instruction that exposes our students to contemporary language use, opens them to international dialogue, and does not shy away from talking of such things as religion, borders, and non-democratic models of governing? These are questions I have pondered daily this year as I took on the challenge of teaching a course about the U.S.-Mexican Border and immigration to the U.S. from our southern neighbors.

Of course I have opinions about the matter, but it was vital to my own pedagogical code to not let my stances be known. You could argue that students being aware of one’s socio-political perspective would be useful, but in this case, I did not want to contaminate, even a bit, what was really an exercise in unlearning. This was much easier said than done, particularly when it became obvious that what little my students thought they knew on the subject was painfully inaccurate or almost comically regurgitated from partisan talking points.

So then, how to adapt? How to maintain neutrality and objectivity on a topic that inspires emotional reaction? I found two tools to be useful. First, I required a weekly dialogue journal in which students would write reflections or responses to the topics of the week. No one would read them except the author and myself, ensuring that it was a completely safe space to question and write things that they might feel uncomfortable saying out loud in class. I would write responses back to them for each entry. By the end of the term, I found that these weekly entries were something I very much looked forward to reading. They became heartfelt writings by this group of young people seeking to best and more accurately understand a desperately complicated situation.

Additionally, I made extremely conscious student pairings that would change each week. This was to give everyone a chance to work with each other, but more importantly, to build partnerships in a way that would facilitate meaningful dialogue and reflection. Fortunately, I knew most of this group by virtue of having taught nearly all of them in previous classes, which meant that I was able to predict who would best speak about what with whom. Some were conservative, others liberal, some pro-reform, others anti, some able to distinguish politics from humanism, others struggled. But, it was through conscious pairing that each group successfully and consistently challenged their partner to go beyond the superficial while respecting the exchange.

What resulted was a tremendously meaningful term in which, as a group, we were able to examine contentious and polemical issues. By the end we still did not all agree on all matters, but what we achieved was a depth to the content that unequivocally proves how we must not shy away from the teaching of controversial topics, but rather, embrace them in our foreign language classrooms.

Connect with the Center for Global Education on Twitter.

Image created on Pablo.

The opinions expressed in Global Learning are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

Let us know what you think!

We’re looking for feedback on our new site to make sure we continue to provide you the best experience.

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Future of Work Webinar
Digital Literacy Strategies to Promote Equity
Our new world has only increased our students’ dependence on technology. This makes digital literacy no longer a “nice to have” but a “need to have.” How do we ensure that every student can navigate
Content provided by Learning.com
Mathematics Online Summit Teaching Math in a Pandemic
Attend this online summit to ask questions about how COVID-19 has affected achievement, instruction, assessment, and engagement in math.
School & District Management Webinar Examining the Evidence: Catching Kids Up at a Distance
As districts, schools, and families navigate a new normal following the abrupt end of in-person schooling this spring, students’ learning opportunities vary enormously across the nation. Access to devices and broadband internet and a secure

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Speech Therapists
Lancaster, PA, US
Lancaster Lebanon IU 13
Elementary Teacher
Madison, Wisconsin
One City Schools
Elementary Teacher - Scholars Academy
Madison, Wisconsin
One City Schools

Read Next

Teaching Profession After a Stillbirth, This Teacher Was Denied Paid Leave for Recovery. Here's Her Story
A District of Columbia teacher delivered a stillborn baby and was denied paid maternity leave. Her story, told here, is not uncommon.
6 min read
Illustration of a woman.
iStock/Getty
Teaching Profession Opinion What Your Students Will Remember About You
The best teachers care about students unconditionally but, at the same time, ask them to do things they can’t yet do.
2 min read
Images shows a stylized artistic landscape with soothing colors.
Getty
Teaching Profession High Risk for COVID-19 and Forced Back to Class: One Teacher's Story
One theater teacher in Austin has a serious heart condition and cancer, but was denied the ability to work remotely. Here is her story.
9 min read
Austin High School musical theater teacher and instructional coach Annie Dragoo has three underlying health conditions noted by the CDC as being high-risk for coronavirus complications, but was denied a waiver to continue working from home in 2021.
Austin High School musical theater teacher and instructional coach Annie Dragoo has three underlying health conditions noted by the CDC as being high-risk for coronavirus complications, but was denied a waiver to continue working from home in 2021.
Julia Robinson for Education Week
Teaching Profession Photos What Education Looked Like in 2020
A visual recap of K-12 education in 2020 across the United States.
1 min read
On Sept. 24, 2020, distance learners are seen on a laptop held by teacher Kristen Giuliano who assists student Jane Wood, 11, in a seventh-grade social studies class at Dodd Middle School in Cheshire, Conn. Many schools around the state have closed temporarily during the school year because of students or staff testing positive for COVID-19. Within the first week of November 2020, nearly 700 students and more than 300 school staff around Connecticut tested positive, according to the state Department of Public Health.
Teacher Kristen Giuliano assists Jane Wood, 11, during a 7th grade social studies class in September at Dodd Middle School in Cheshire, Conn., while other students join the class remotely from home.
Dave Zajac/Record-Journal via AP