Why we need to address controversial issues in the classroom

In order for students to engage in their learning, we must find connections to their daily lives. But what happens when current events overflow with “controversial” issues such as gun violence, racism, homophobia, abortion rights, or other political divisions? Continuing our planned curriculum may be more “comfortable”, but if we do, we are doing our students a great disservice.

“As we move away from these issues, we miss opportunities to help young people explore challenging issues with their trusted people (e.g., their teachers and their peers); To connect current events with our own curriculum that students are spending enough time exploring; And giving young people a place to ask challenging questions that help them understand the world, “said Dr. Liza Talusan, educator, facilitator and author. Identity-conscious educators.

The classroom is an ideal place to discuss difficult topics because teachers understand how to engage students in such conversations in a developmentally appropriate way, Talusan added.

Leaning in discomfort

If you feel uncomfortable engaging in conversations around specific topics, take a step back and think about why. “I often find that teachers are very uncomfortable talking about ‘controversial’ topics and current events because the issues are so complex, or they are not prepared to handle strong feelings and opinions that could provoke such discussions,” said Chanel Henry. , Director of equity and inclusion at Greens Farms Academy in Westport, Connecticut, and co-founder of the Teaching Diversity and Social Justice Institute, a professional development program serving hundreds of academics.

Do the work

Prepare yourself by conducting research or finding colleagues for honest conversation. “It’s important that we take the time to process our own thoughts and feelings (maybe with other adults and educators!) To prepare our young people for conversations,” said Dr. Talusan. “I refer to it as ‘building identity-conscious practice’ as a process for us, as adults, to inform and influence how our own identities and experiences work, communicate and see the world around us.”

Considering the questions that students may ask, Henry suggests that you be prepared to answer. But know that it’s okay – in fact, it’s expected – you don’t have all the answers. “Historically, teachers have been expected to answer correctly, so when we enter conversations that are ‘controversial’ or ‘hot topics’, part of what I’ve seen teachers hold is the fear that they’re going to say something wrong or harmful,” says Sara. Witch, Instructional Designer and Independent Consultant who has served as Senior Manager at Teaching and Learning with Learning for Justice. It’s okay to start a conversation and then “put a pin in it and … keep checking in again,” Witch added. “It reinforces that these are complex, multi-layered issues that can’t be wrapped up in a neat package in five minutes.”

Where to start

Ideally creating space for difficult conversations should not be a reactive measure. It’s important to create a bold, safe space in your classroom from the start. “I set the tone at the beginning of the school year by creating classroom ground rules, community agreements or charters. But it is never too late to establish these agreements, especially before you engage students in a ‘controversial’ or challenging conversation, “says Henry. What do you need to feel? ‘”

As much as possible, weave current events into a specific day or period on a consistent basis. “Such schedules create predictability for students,” says Dr. Talusan. “By having this specific time, it opens up opportunities for teachers to bring up current events, to use age-appropriate resources like Newcell, and for students to bring up issues they hear at home.”

Henry adds, “Encourage students to be critical viewers of the media, including print, television, the Internet, video, social media, and other digital spaces. Ask students questions such as: ‘What do you know (think)? Do you know? What? What No. I see? After reading, what do I not know? ‘

At the moment

Measure how much and what information your students know in the discussion. “In times of crisis, a KWL chart can go,” suggests Dr. Kheyati Joshi, a professor at Fairleigh Dickinson University’s School of Education and co-founder of the Institute for Teaching Diversity and Social Justice. “You find out what they know, what rumors are going around, and it allows You When processing, also. My formula is like after every event [the Buffalo supermarket shooting] Or shooting at the Asian Church, asking the next morning, ‘How is everyone feeling? What’s going on in your mind Can you tell me something? ‘ And make that one word mandatory, because everyone can give a word. And then use the KWL chart for a few minutes. “

Once you gauge what students know, it can help you frame the conversation. Remember, your role is to facilitate, not to be the only voice in the discussion. Give students a place to lead discussions with their peers. “The magic happens when we help our older students move away from binary thinking,” said April Brown, a trauma-aware specialist. If the conversation starts to move to an area you know may be harmed, read your Community Guidelines. “Human rights are not controversial – the term,” Brown said. “In this community, we are going to make mistakes. Tell your truth, but you have to acknowledge the effect of your words. That’s the decent thing to do, and it should end there. “


There are many resources to support you in this difficult conversation. Some of the tasks are: education for justice, especially their “Let’s Talk Guide”; Face history & themselves; Child Development Institute’s “How to Talk to Kids About Tragedy in the Media”; Child Mind Institute’s “Helping Children Deal with Fear News”; And Kidpower’s “Helping Children Recover Their Mental Safety After a Tragedy.” Great sources for age-appropriate current events include Newsella, Scholastic Magazine, Time for Kids and The Week.

Finally, as educators, we must lean towards difficult conversations because without resolving these issues, you are saying that they are not important. “Teachers must have the courage to engage students in ‘controversial’ conversations জ knowing that they may not be perfect and may make mistakes along the way কারণ because it builds the foundation for understanding, inclusion and long-term change,” Henry said.

How do you integrate these difficult conversations into your own practice? Tell us the comments.

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