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Across the Curriculum

How can schools prepare for discussions of controversial issues? (Part II)

Author: Stacie Pierpoint

In Part I of this post series, we looked at the reasons why schools should allow discussions of controversial issues. Now let’s address the how.

What can school leaders do? Schools could preemptively address parental and other concerns by preparing teachers through professional development and appropriate planning. The following are just a few ideas to consider so that current news events may enrich instead of derail curriculum plans.

1. Set up the school-wide goals. What do you want students to gain from the experience? Will they learn to think objectively? Discuss difficult topics while respecting each other? Examine historical influences on current events? Collect facts and differentiate between credible resources and voices that are just stoking a fire? Brainstorm ways they can work towards a solution for the community?

2. Discuss appropriate approaches for these conversations. Meet with teachers early in the school year and determine procedures and guidelines. For example, not everyone will agree that opinions need to be left out of the conversation, but we are human and we arrive to the discussion table full of opinions, preconceptions, and biases. What are appropriate ways to deal with the whole human package that the school and parents would be comfortable with?

3. Determine which professionals in the school would be best to handle discussions. Do students have advisers or a school counselor that they can talk to? Are there teachers in the building who are willing to tackle issues with their students and who have expertise they could share with the group? Social studies and literature teachers could offer natural safe spaces for students to work on issues.

4. Designate a liaison between the school and the parents and guardians. This person, whether an administrator, teacher, or parent volunteer, can provide parents with information and field questions and concerns. Consider developing guidelines for how administrators and teachers will handle any challenges to or concerns about the classroom discussions.

5. Respect an individual’s preference to sit out of the conversation. Not every teacher will be comfortable talking about difficult issues with their students. Some teachers might recognize that they have a bias due to personal experience or just might not feel comfortable leading a discussion safely. What resources can these teachers direct students towards when questions occur?

What can individual teachers do? At the individual teacher level, here are some ideas for guiding students in respectful conversations about controversial topics and what it means to be a part of a community. (These videos below could also be used for professional development on this topic.)

1. Develop students’ understanding of multiple points of view. For example, teacher Wendy Eubank’s students simulate a town hall meeting, role playing characters that have a stake in an outcome, so they can learn to express their ideas freely. Students have researched facts from multiple sources and are asked to consider multiple viewpoints. Watch Social Studies in Action, program 31, “Dealing with Controversial Issues,” to see this and other examples of activities at varying grade levels.

2. Structure discussions to allow every student a chance to share, listen, and evolve. For example, JoEllen Ambrose does a fantastic job leading students through a discussion about individual rights versus public safety related to news topics students are already familiar with. She asks for students to respond to questions physically and verbally, by grouping themselves by agreement and providing personal examples to support their opinions. Watch students specifically discuss their ideas about police power and individual rights, especially related to racial profiling. See workshop 7, “Controversial Public Policy Issues,” of Making Civics Real.

3. Empower students to act as a member of a community. In the introductory video for Teaching ‘The Children of Willesden Lane,’ Martina Grant’s students discuss their “universe of obligation;” reasons why people choose to act and not to act during times of crisis; and how history is connected to their own lives and experiences. Once we understand why individuals or communities fail to act during a time of crisis, we can work together to propose possible solutions or realistic ways people can act.

News comes and goes as one event overshadows another. Underlying themes and issues persist, and teaching students how to discuss these themes and work together to build a stronger community that can problem-solve should be an important goal of any school. Please share more links and ideas that you find helpful on this topic in the comments. I started a list here.

Here are some links to some additional resources:
Michael Brown, via Facing History.org
Empathy: The Most Important Back-to-School Supply, via Edutopia

1 comment

  1. Stacie Pierpoint

    Freedom in the Balance is a great resource of case studies from Newseum Education: https://newseumed.org/collection/freedom-in-the-balance/ Also see their guidelines for teaching about controversial topics using these case studies: https://newseumed.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/Freedom-in-the-Balance-Instructional-Guide1.pdf

    Reply

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