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Uncomfortable Conversations: Tools to Teach Current Events and Controversial Issues

November 03, 2016 6 min read

Recently on the weekly Twitter chat that I organize and host, #Globaledchat, we discussed how to teach current events that might be uncomfortable to discuss in the classroom. Leading the chat were colleagues at The Choices Program, an educational nonprofit based at Brown University. Today, Mackenzie Abernethy, a Choices curriculum writer shares the insights and resources from the conversation.

By guest blogger Mackenzie Abernethy

It is no mystery to teachers that learning continues outside of the classroom. Differing opinions arise naturally at home and among community members. For students learning to navigate controversial topics of discussion, teachers act as an important resource and guide.

Many of the controversies that we see represented in the media and our surroundings involve issues of race, religion, inequalities, and reconciliation. These topics may be intimidating for teachers to address with their students. While there are many different approaches for building students’ critical thinking skills and for fostering constructive conversations, the following tips and tools may assist you.

Why teach current events and controversial issues?
Tying curriculum to current events helps students recognize the immediate value of their studies. It equips students with a foundational knowledge to engage in ongoing conversations and debate. As students form their own opinions, they can develop the skills to determine credibility and detect bias. Ultimately, teaching about current events prepares students to become more informed and engaged citizens.

Over the past several years, the Choices Program has asked scholars and other experts the same question that many K-12 teachers explore in their classrooms: Why should we learn about current events, history, and other countries?

What issues are teachers addressing in their classrooms?
The global refugee crisis, war in Syria, acts of terrorism, world poverty, climate change, the Black Lives Matter movement, and gender inequality are some of the challenging topics that teachers are currently choosing to discuss with their students. Many express uncertainty about the best way to approach sensitive issues.

What are some pedagogical approaches for teaching controversial topics?
Teachers can establish an open and collaborative classroom culture, in which students share equal opportunity to voice their opinions, by establishing clear goals such as effective communication skills and a tolerant attitude towards diverse perspectives. All students should feel both encouraged to contribute and aware of the responsibility to support their stance with factual evidence. Partner with school administrators and parents to agree upon what works best for your students.

Respect for different perspectives is essential...no S(tudent) should ever feel that her/his opinion is not valued...T(eacher) can model. #globaledchat @ChrisQuinn64

I put kids in pairs, give them news stories from Fox, MSNBC, & BBC on the same news story. Discussion quickly ensues. #globaledchat @Turbs33

Be prepared for strong feelings and let students express their emotions in an appropriate way. Allow time for “debriefing.” #globaledchat @rensink_connie

Some teachers choose to reveal their own opinions in class; others do not. There is a growing body of research focused on this issue. What we know is that context matters and successful approaches can differ depending on a number of factors including the content, the maturity of the students, the makeup of the class, and the teacher. Ultimately, the goal is to create an environment in which all students feel encouraged to share their views and listen to the views of others.

Role-plays are particularly helpful for students to understand multiple viewpoints, research the values behind different specific stances, deliberate, and decide for themselves what factors matter most in civic engagement and public policy. Remind students to consider historically underrepresented perspectives when analyzing sources.

In the New York Times’ coverage of Educators on Teaching Election 2016, Soitgoes, a teacher in New Jersey, said, “I have a poster with a quote from African-American author Ralph Ellison: ‘America is woven of many strands. I would recognize them and let it so remain. Our fate is to become one, and yet many. This is not prophecy, but description.’ Above it, I placed the U.S. motto: E pluribus unum. I surrounded it with individual pictures of Americans of all differing backgrounds, gender, religions, and ages.... We will use this as a jumping off point for discussion of the multicultural works by American authors, which start off the school year. The issues will raise themselves.”

What resources exist for teachers tackling challenging topics?


  • Teaching Tolerance provides free educational materials including a biannual magazine, lesson plans, and resources for teaching about race, religion, and other challenging topics.

  • Opening up dialogues in which students are free to discuss their personal experiences and hear many perspectives, Serial Testimony is a method of facilitation that seeks to empower students by emphasizing that their personal insights are important. In addition to the facilitation method itself, this post from Teaching Tolerance discusses how approaches like Serial Testimony—created by Peggy McIntosh author of “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” a personal essay on facing privilege—came to be and what they can offer in the classroom.
  • The Question Formulation Technique from The Right Question Institute provides a step-by-step process to develop student-inquiry techniques, encourage students to research answers to their own questions, and prepare students for proposing solutions to real-world problems.
  • The Choices Program offers open-source Teaching with the News lessons as well as a Current Issues Series including adaptable curriculum units on human rights, climate change, immigration, the U.S. role in the world, and more. Listen to Inside the Writers’ Room podcast for a behind-the-scenes look at the curriculum writing process.
  • Social media and Twitter in particular is a valuable tool to exchange ideas across classrooms or with a group of people who share your interest. Twitter allows teachers to connect with other educators, professors, and bloggers around the world. For example, weekly #GlobalEdChat events connect teachers and educators to exchange ideas about international education.

Throughout the process of teaching tough topics, it may be helpful to remind students that history has been shaped by issues that sparked controversy. These issues are not resolved without engaging in difficult conversations and group decision-making.

How does #GlobalEdChat work?
The chat takes place on Thursdays, 8:00pm to 9:00 pm Eastern time, and can be located with the hashtag (#GlobalEdChat) on Twitter both during and after the event.

Each week, the host posts five to seven questions for teachers and participants to discuss that are related to that week’s topic. Participants can observe, share advice and resources, connect by following the participants on social media, and bookmark tweets for reference. Some of the past chat topics have covered “Incorporating Current Events in the Classroom,” “Teaching civics in a global setting,” and “Sharing student success.”

To join the next Twitter chat, create an account for yourself or your class (consider #KidsEdChat), and search for the hashtag on Twitter at the time of the chat. Be sure that your posts are included by using the hashtag.

Your thoughts? Contribute to the comments section below.

Connect with The Choices Program and Asia Society on Twitter.

Photo: Students discuss how values-systems affect decision making. Photo courtesy of The Choices Program, taken by Justin Saglio, Brown University.

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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.

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