Teaching about Controversial or Difficult Issues

These guidelines provide helpful suggestions for discussing upsetting issues in the news.

Teachers often avoid "hot-button" topics because the issues are so complex, or because they don't feel prepared to handle the strong feelings and opinions discussion might stir.  Below we offer 10 suggestions for how to take some of these issues on in constructive, thoughtful and sensitive ways. 

1. Create a safe, respectful, and supportive tone in your classroom. 

Sometimes students don't participate in discussions about sensitive issues because they worry that they will be teased, their opinions will be ridiculed, or strong feelings will arise because the topic hits close to home. 

To create a safe and supportive environment, make group agreements at the beginning of the year. These might include guidelines like" no name-calling," "no interrupting," "listen without judgment," "share to your level of comfort," "you have the right to pass," and the like. Remind students that when they talk about groups of people, they should be careful to use the word "some," not "all." Do community-building activities to create a positive and respectful classroom environment, and resolve conflicts proactively. Most importantly, model how to talk about sensitive and controversial topics by being honest and open yourself, respecting different points of view and accepting of students' feelings.

2. Prepare yourself. 

Before you delve into a difficult topic with your students, educate yourself with background knowledge. Explore a range of viewpoints on the issue. 

Next, articulate your own point of view on the topic for yourself so that when students ask for your opinion-and they will-you'll be prepared. Though many teachers keep their own points of view out of the classroom entirely, if it is appropriate to share yours, wait until the end of the discussion. 

Also consider in advance the possible "triggers" for your students. For example, if you are discussing marriage equality, remember that you will almost certainly have students who are LGBT themselves, who have gay parents, relatives or friends, or who have religious beliefs in conflict with gay marriage. Some of these students may feel relieved to discuss a topic so relevant to their lives, while others may feel embarrassed. This doesn't mean you shouldn't discuss the topic, but you also should never highlight those students' situations. Be aware that strong feelings could arise and plan in advance for how to handle them. Remind your students about the ground rules and explain that this issue may affect some students very personally. Depending on the topic, you may even want to tell those students, or their parents, who have a very personal connection to it in advance.

3. Find out what students already know or have experienced about the topic. 

Start with what the students already know. You can assess their prior knowledge in a variety of ways: create a semantic web as a whole class and brainstorm associations with the topic; have them talk with a partner; or have them write in response to a prompt. (If the topic is very delicate, you might ask them to write anonymously first, then use that writing to decide how to proceed in a later class.) Make a list of all the questions they have, either publicly or for your own planning. These questions are an additional window into what students already know, or think they know, and what they don't. Be sure to ask them to articulate where they got their information and opinions, and invite them to talk about how they know their sources are reliable. Remind them that, when learning about or discussing sensitive information, they should always ask, "What do I know and how do I know it?" 

4. Compile the students' questions and examine them together.

After giving students basic information about your topic, elicit questions they still have. If they are focusing on content questions (who, what, where, why, when), expand their inquiry so they think beyond the basic facts and dig into deeper or "essential" questions. Help students to go deeper, make connections beyond one news story and lead to a more complex understanding of the situation. Another fruitful line of questioning might be to ask how the issue affects the individual involved and how it affects society at large.

5. Make connections. 

Help students make connections between the topic at hand and their own lives. How does the issue affect them or their family, friends or community? Why should they care? If there is no obvious connection, help them find one. For example, you might ask students if anyone has relatives in places where other natural disasters have occurred. Often, starting with multimedia, whether photos, video or infographics, can hook students. You might also help them make connections by thinking about what else they know about, in current news or in history, that shares some of the same details.

6. Have students investigate and learn more. 

It is critical that students have a chance to find answers to their questions, conduct research, talk to people, and learn more in a way that makes the topic meaningful for them. (First, however, make sure your students understand how to tell the difference between opinions and facts. You might make a T-chart and use examples from a news article on a topic you're studying to demonstrate, then invite students to find and share their own examples from additional articles.)

Remember to point students to sources with contrasting political slants as well. For example, they might contrast reporting on the same topic in The Progressive versus The Weekly Standard, or the Center for American Progress versus the Heritage Foundation. Encourage students to seek out a range of people to learn more, including people who have strong opinions or special expertise on the topic. While students are gathering this information, emphasize that even "factual" information has a point of view. While they are researching, they should ask themselves: What is the point of view of this source? How reliable is it, and why?

7. Explore students' opinions and promote dialogue. 

After they have researched a topic thoroughly, students are ready to form and express their own points of view. It is important to encourage them to be open to different points of view. You might do an "opinion continuum" exercise where they show whether they "agree," "strongly agree," "disagree," "strongly disagree" or be "somewhere in between" or "not sure" on a variety of topics. Help promote dialogue, as opposed to debate. Dialogue aims for understanding, an enlargement of view, complicating one's thinking and an openness to change. Provide opportunities for various kinds of group discussion where different perspectives get aired. This can include paired shares, conversation circles, group go-rounds, panels, micro-labs, and fishbowls. (These are included in lessons available on TeachableMoment.org.) 

8. Be responsive to feelings and values.

Even though you've set up ground rules at the outset and developed a respectful classroom environment, once a hot topic emerges you need to continue to watch for classroom tone. Remind students about the ground rules, especially if they are violated. Take the emotional "temperature" of the classroom periodically to find out how students are feeling, and encourage the discussion of feelings throughout. Build in different ways for students to participate, but also to opt out if a discussion is emotionally difficult. Give opportunities for students to write their thoughts, perhaps anonymously, instead of sharing verbally. Remind students that while you want them to participate, they always have the right to "pass" if they feel uncomfortable. Again, if you anticipate that a certain topic may elicit too many strong feelings for a particular student, talk with them in advance. 

9. Make home connections. 

Use parents and other family members as primary sources by having students interview them as part of their research. Communicate with parents about your approach to discussing controversial issues. You can do this by sending a letter home in the beginning of the year or by discussing the issue on curriculum night. Invite parents to let you know if there are any sensitive issues for their family so you will be prepared.

10. Do Something. 

If students have gotten engaged in an issue you've discussed and feel strongly about it, they may want to do something about it. Your study should include an action component. This could involve learning more and doing more focused research. It could also involve helping students carry out a social action or community service project related to the issue. Students can learn more about how other young people did projects around recent issues in the news. If the issue is a political one, they can engage in writing letters, speaking at public hearings, raising money, participating in demonstrations or writing articles for a school or local newspaper.