The Truth about Teaching Controversial Topics in the Secondary Classroom


Especially in the current climate of political correctness and divisive tactics, teaching controversial topics in the secondary classroom may seem like asking for trouble. Though it may test your patience, teaching controversial topics in the classroom actually encourages empathy, improves a student's ability to make connections and draw comparisons, equips students to address sensitive topics outside the classroom, and validates less popular opinions held by our students, inspiring individuality, creativity, and activism. In both middle school and high school classrooms, our curriculum calls for us to address controversial topics, but often, teachers gloss over less glorious parts of American and World History. Glossing over very accurate depictions of our history does our students a great disservice. Though these issues are sensitive and controversial, it is better to equip our students to face controversial topics head on, and without bias and with grace and confidence, than to sweep them under the rug.

Especially in the current climate of political correctness and divisive tactics, teaching controversial topics in the secondary classroom may seem like asking for trouble. Though it may test your patience, teaching controversial topics in the classroom actually encourages empathy, improves a student's ability to make connections and draw comparisons, equips students to address sensitive topics outside the classroom, and validates less popular opinions held by our students, inspiring individuality, creativity, and activism. In both middle school and high school classrooms, our curriculum calls for us to address controversial topics, but often, teachers gloss over less glorious parts of American and World History. Glossing over very accurate depictions of our history does our students a great disservice. Though these issues are sensitive and controversial, it is better to equip our students to face controversial topics head on, and without bias and with grace and confidence, than to sweep them under the rug. #controversialteaching #inclusiveclassrom #controversy #secondaryteaching #controversyforteachers #teachingcontroversy

Pull any history book off your bookshelf. Choose a World History or US History textbook or a historical memoir. Browse for mention of a controversial topic. Better yet, turn on a local news station, open a newspaper, or click over to social media. You're not likely to come up empty. In fact,  both on a national level and a worldwide level (even on a local level within our communities, towns, and cities), our history is laced with controversy. To gloss over controversial topics, or to skip them all together, not only does our students a huge disservice by not preparing them for dealing with controversy in the "real world" but also hinders our students in developing a strong educational foundation, equipped with facts and the ability to look at history without bias, without reserve, and examine, draw conclusions, and make predictions about our future. These skills are all vital both inside the classroom and out.

You've probably accepted that you have to teach controversial topics. The real question is how to address controversial issues properly. How to introduce sensitive information in the classroom and best equip your students for success. How to examine the dirty parts of history, the scary historical events of our past - and you know what they say about history: those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

Controversial Topics in the Secondary Classroom


Global Level Controversy: Examine global level controversy in World History classrooms (and in lessons in which you can tie in world history while examining relationships and similarities).

Many of my students sought me out years after graduation, raving about how our Holocaust unit stuck with them throughout their school days and into their everyday lives. Though teaching about the Holocaust isn't easy because it forces the students to address the atrocities of World War II, it provides ample opportunity for the class to examine their own identities, explore how they would react in a similar situation, and empathize with the victims. This unit thoroughly explores all angles of the Holocaust and even my most disinterested students usually tuned in a little more during the weeks we studied the Holocaust. 

National Level Controversy: Slightly complicated by today's political climate, examining controversy at a national level will incite some emotional responses from your passionate students, but is still high level enough to allow students the space to step outside the controversy itself for examination.

Local Level Controversy: Even more sensitive is discussing controversy that happens close to home. Tensions are high, opinions are often swayed by parental influence and media coverage, and students may feel affected or personally defensive of either position.

Personal Controversy: Lastly, the most personal of controversies are those that directly affect our students. The three higher level controversies may have personal ties which escalate the severity of the issue for each individual student. Students that fall into minority groups may identify with either side of the controversy, making the issue 'real' and relative to them. This may heighten feelings about the controversy.

In general, exploring controversy at a very high level (i.e. globally) will be the easiest place to start. While your students may relate to the topic on some level, they're less likely to be directly offended by and/or defensive of a certain position. Even when controversy does provoke a personal emotional response or investment, we still shouldn't avoid teaching it in the classroom. Instead, it is how we teach controversy that is the most important.

How to Address Controversial Topics in the Secondary Classroom


1. Teach Controversy with Confidence
Though it may seem irrelevant, teaching about controversial topics with confidence and grace helps our students to understand the severity of the topic at hand, the appropriate and/or professional response to discussing controversy, and the importance of addressing issues that are difficult or sensitive. Teachers who are timid when teaching controversial topics may give students the impression that the topic is unimportant, embarrassing, or shouldn't be addressed.

2. Teach from a Historical Perspective
You're teaching a Social Studies class - teaching history should be default, right? Approach sensitive issues with fact, valid information, and credible sources. Don't impose your beliefs (or those of popular media outlets or celebrity figures) on your students, and allow them to analyze the factual information at hand and draw their own conclusions.

3. Encourage Open Forum Discussion and Respectful Expression
Most importantly, foster a safe place for students to discuss and debate without feeling judged. Ensure students are respectful of others and are not marginalizing or vilifying. Help students analyze their own opinions without privilege or bias to ensure they are looking at controversial events and issues factually and with empathy.

4. Learn from the Mistakes of Others
Though teaching controversial historical events can rise tensions in the classroom, presenting these historical events with a lesson, an empathetic appeal, will help students to understand not only the importance of learning this specific historical lesson, but also how to exit an uncomfortable lesson, both inside the classroom and out, with important takeaways, an appropriate call to action, and armed with the knowledge and ability to recognize when history repeats itself.

5. Teach with a Validating Acceptance
Also imperative to teaching controversial issues in the secondary classroom, ensure that you teach with a validating acceptance of your students' personal controversies. Take time to teach appropriate vocabulary, empower students to own their feelings and stand up for themselves, and never dismiss a student if they identify with controversies that you do not understand. Mitigate the opportunity for hate speech, dismissive attitudes, or bullying in the classroom. Set your students up for success by providing them the safe space to be themselves and address all of their identities within your four walls.

Try this First Day of School Lesson Plan to start the school year with success and build an inclusive classroom community or a Find Someone Who activity to help studies identify allies in their class. For even better prep, browse A Lesson Plan for Teachers for more strategies on creating an inclusive classroom.

Above all, don't shy away from teaching controversial topics in the secondary classroom. In fact, teaching controversy appropriately will ensure that students develop a strong, thorough foundation of historical content (without any glaring holes around all things sensitive) while also empowering them to handle controversy in their everyday lives with empathy and understanding. Our job as Social Studies teachers transcends the textbook in all situations, and we are trusted to prepare our students to be effective citizens. Teaching controversy in the classroom may not be easy, but it's a necessity to prepare our students to be respectful human beings and seekers of justice in their communities. #teaching #newteachers #teachingtechniques #teachingstrategies #controversy #teachingcontroversy #teachinglife #teachersteachthefuture
Above all, don't shy away from teaching controversial topics in the secondary classroom. In fact, teaching controversy appropriately will ensure that students develop a strong, thorough foundation of historical content (without any glaring holes around all things sensitive) while also empowering them to handle controversy in their everyday lives with empathy and understanding. Our job as Social Studies teachers transcends the textbook in all situations, and we are trusted to prepare our students to be effective citizens. Teaching controversy in the classroom may not be easy, but it's a necessity to prepare our students to be respectful human beings and seekers of justice in their communities.

Happy (controversial) teaching!


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Michele Luck
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