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Addressing Controversial Issues in the Classroom

Controversial issues will arise during your class discussions. Be prepared for these topics by using these four rules. #teaching #lessonplans #currentevents

Part of our job as teachers – particularly teachers of literature and history—is to address issues that have philosophical, political, and moral components; these, by their very nature, can cause controversy in the classroom. Teaching The Taming of the Shrew by William Shakespeare?  Gender roles will probably come up.  Teaching the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s?  At least one student will mention professional football players kneeling in nonviolent protest. Teaching the US Constitution?  Someone will mention the Second Amendment?  It is impossible to teach and not have to deal with controversial issues at some point. Let’s discuss how to successfully navigate these issues in your classroom. 

Today’s blog post is written by Rebecca Gettelman who is a middle and high school teacher from the Midwest. She has been teaching for over eleven years.

We should start by emphasizing that you will never be able to please every parent or avoid controversy altogether. Sometimes an issue will blindside you – a student will ask a question in passing about a random topic, you will answer truthfully, and the next morning you will have an email from a fuming parent waiting in your inbox. Other times you will address a social issue that ties in with a novel you are reading and suddenly you will have parents coming at you from all directions.  

That being said, there are things you can do to help make teaching and addressing these issues go more smoothly.  When I know I am going to be talking about something that may generate controversy in my classroom, I have four basic rules I try to follow.  Hopefully, they will help you successfully navigate controversial topics.

Rule One:  Lay adequate groundwork with your students.

Do not address a controversial issue cold.  This might mean making sure the culture of your classroom has the open dialogue you need to facilitate discussion of the controversial topic.  It might mean you have studied the underlying issues with your class before you teach the novel your classes are reading. Not only will this help prepare your students emotionally, mentally, and academically for dealing with the controversial issue(s) in your material, but it will also allow you to direct your students’ focus to where you want it to be instead of the thing that packs the biggest shock value.

Rule Two:  Let your administration know what is going on, what you are doing, and/or what has happened.

Nothing frustrates an administrator more than getting a phone call from an irate parent about something that happened in a classroom or with students about which the principal has no idea.  And nothing stops an irate parent in their tracks faster than an administrator saying, “Yes, I know that is what is being discussed in this class, and Mrs. So-and-So has my full support.” Don’t leave your principal in the dark; give your administration the chance to have your back.  In addition to creating better teacher-administrator relations, this is one of your best lines of defence and most effective protections when dealing with important but controversial issues.  

Rule Three:  Make contact with your students’ parents.

Parents can be great allies in the educational process.  Depending on the age you teach and the school culture, this contact might be anything from a weekly/monthly note home where you preview what will be covered in the coming week or a post on your learning management system i.e. Google Classroom on what topics will be covered in class.  Additionally, by making parents your partners in their children’s education,  parents are much more likely to come to you in a civil and open manner instead of reacting to rumour or incomplete information.

Rule Four:  Know your audience.

Lastly, always remember that you need to know your students and what they are ready for.  Classes are made up of individuals, and just like these individuals, each class has its own set of needs, interests, and maturity levels.  Be sure to remember and take these things into account when you are designing lessons that address controversial issues.  A conversation starter that works great one year may be exactly the wrong approach another year.  Additionally, keep in mind that certain controversial topics can be triggers for some of your students. Be ready to watch for signs of a student who might need help, extra understanding during an emotional discussion or lesson, or even just permission to take a moment to walk to the bathroom or get a drink.

Sometimes the topics we need to teach and cover are controversial. While these four rules will not prevent every possible issue, but they can go a long way toward address it before it becomes a bigger issue.

Kristy’s Note: Last year all 7th grade ELA classes read the novel Refugee by Allan Gratz. This is an amazing novel but deals with a lot of real issues. We got permission from our principal team and they sent out a letter (we wrote it and they edited it) to all parents summarizing the novel and expressing their thoughts about the importance of learning about these issues. This proactive approach was much better than the year I had to stop reading “A Long Walk To Water” with my 8th-grade classes.  Rebecca’s rules are a good framework when planning out your lessons.


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