I am Afraid to Address Controversial Topics in My Classes

Worried Teacher- https://study.com/blog/how-to-have-a-great-first-day-as-a-substitute-teacher.html

Dr. David J. Childs, Ph.D.
Northern Kentucky University

Teaching in a Divided Nation
With the US being divided and polarized along ideological, social, racial and political lines the idea of addressing controversial topics may seem very intimidating to teachers. Indeed, with many hot button issues being at the forefront of all of our minds, many teachers choose to barely even broach certain subjects. In fact, some teachers may avoid controversial subjects altogether. They tip-toe around topics such as racism, sexual assault, censorship, abortion, gay marriage or gender equality out of fear that they will get into trouble with their administrators or receive backlash from parents. Or teachers feel inadequately prepared to delve into certain topics. However, students often are confronted with these issues everyday and they need some sort of outlet, platform or safe space to process all that is going on around them. And what better space to deal with these topics than a middle grades or high school classroom.

Good Teaching Can be Messy
Good teaching can often be messy but that does not mean it is bad teaching. When approached the right way “classrooms can be welcoming spaces for students to test-drive their ideas and to see disagreement as an opportunity to learn, not as a form of conflict.” Social studies, language arts and even journalism classrooms can be “ideal incubators for facilitating constructive dialogue on today’s most divisive issues—from immigration… to religious and cultural tolerance… to the relative powers and functions of our three branches of government.”

A Roadmap for Controversial Teaching
I-Civics has prepared materials to address controversial topics. Teachers will find helpful resources in the section called Your Roadmap for Teaching Controversial Issues. I-Civics has created “five Teacher Guides and a series of brief informational videos” that equip teachers to address controversial topics in their classrooms.

Discussion Questions
A. How early should teachers introduce controversial topics in class? Are elementary students too young? Is Kindergarten too young? Why or why not?

B. What are some real obstacles or barriers for teachers as it relates to teaching controversial topics in class?

C. In what ways can controversial topics be integrated into a science or math curriculum?

27 Comments

  1. I agree that it is intimidating to discuss many controversial topics in the classroom, but oftentimes I think it is necessary. Students are going to hear these conversations in other places and form their own opinions, having the outlet of a classroom to decide their stance it very beneficial.

  2. This article is intriguing! Especially when I consider how controversial Social Studies and sub-topics and subjects tied-into Social Studies can be when referring to political matters. There is a clear division in our nation; we are divided based on talking points, based on belief-systems, based on ethnicity, skin color, and social and political ideologies. To a degree, I think it is fine to be controversial, to teach about subjects that some teachers may be afraid to barely touch in their classroom; although, it may take experience to understand how to approach certain ideologies and ideas in our classrooms. Controversial topics such as: gay marriage, racial divide in the nation, social and political divide, media censorship, and abortion should be avoided at the elementary level o education, but slowly introduced into the middle grades and most definitely involved with secondary education.

    I am heading into Social Studies secondary education and I believe that issues surrounding gay marriage, abortion, and racial divide should not be ignored and why is that? Well, do we want to keep repeating history with social injustice riots and protests; or do we want to encourage change and adaptation in our young students’ minds and future authority and leadership in our nation? One can be afraid of potential ‘backlash’ from administration and parents/guardians without being afraid to brush up – at least a LITTLE bit upon these issues surrounding our world, today.
    The biggest obstacle or ‘barrier’ as a teacher when relating it to teaching controversial topics in a class is that of the backlash from the parents and administration. This could hurt the credibility of some young and newly equipped middle grades and secondary teachers. I would not recommend teaching many of these topics under middle grades based on possible misunderstanding in the classroom.

    For example, I think if an elementary teacher is providing information about the current racial protests and how we as critical and civic leaders can help prevent such protests outside of the classroom; then this may not bode as well in an elementary classroom. There could be discussion involved in middle grades education, there can be role playing and projects that can portray situations to help our students understand what is happening in the world – through middle and secondary grades education, relating to such controversial topics.

    Do not get me wrong, I am terrified of losing my job based on saying the wrong controversial topic – so what will I do? Not teach the topic, until I brainstorm a way with my administration and students that could lead to a better social and political environment in the future. I want to promote civic and political justice in my classroom; all while encouraging my students to stand up for what THEY BELIEVE is right and have a clear and better understanding on how to go about promoting change in AND for their nation.

  3. Last year my kindergarten student told his teacher that Donald Trump was a bad man. She said he was not, which upset my little guy. I can understand why she couldn’t agree, parents would be all over her. I’m sure she didn’t expect 6 year olds would bring this up.

  4. This article was very insightful for any young teacher discussing civics or politics in the classroom. There is a thin line between discussing those topics and spreading beliefs. However, I believe teachers should provide facts for both sides of controversial topics. Then students should use those facts and do some of their own research to decide which side they stand on the topic. There is a lot that can be learned not only by the students but also by the teacher when discussing some controversial topics. Understanding how students view the world will help the teacher make connections with the students when discussing other topics in class. Also students learning to compromise and agree to disagree will really help the future of our democracy, because Americans today seem to not have those skills.

  5. I think that this article addresses a very important issue that teachers face when trying to talk about current events. It is important for teachers to not choose a certain side when talking about these different issues and laying out different points from each side to further the students knowledge so that they are able to have these conversations because they have been educated on the topic. disagreements will happen and not everyone will agree on these tough topics but it is important for students to be able to have civil discussions. By teaching these tough topics it will impact how students go about talking about these subjects in their daily lives.

  6. This article really grabbed my attention because it is one of my biggest questions/fears to not know what not to talk about in the classroom. My favorite line of this article is “…see disagreement as an opportunity to learn, not as a form of conflict.” That is another thing that I struggle with in life: constantly avoiding conflict. If I can help my students to not fear conflict, that would be really great. This was a helpful article to read in preparing for my future classroom!

  7. The current state of the United States certainly makes this discussion more pertinent than usual. I think the article does a good job in addressing the importance of including these topics into the classroom environment even though they may be controversial; it is a conversation that should happen. Realistically, it is also one students will encounter in real-life at some point, and they will most likely have questions or beliefs formed over them. Managing those opinions can be a delicate balancing act, but one that is absolutely imperative to an inclusive setting. As for the appropriate age level, I believe that there is not necessarily a correct answer. Reasoning can vary on a case-by-case basis, with some children being exposed to difficult concepts like death very early in their lives. Ideally, I think it is a discussion that occurs as students age–perhaps around sixth grade–but it can easily fluctuate depending on the circumstances.

  8. I agree that high school and even middle grades are appropriate times to start a dialogue around controversial topics. I feel that as an educator, you must know your audience. Of course, you’re not going to go into a rural school and start trashing Donald Trump. However, you can open up a healthy dialogue about certain statements he has made or policies he has pushed that aren’t intended to benefit certain groups and why that is. There could be that one student in your classroom that had felt ostracized from his peers and now is more comfortable and tuned into your class. Last semester I was placed at a bit more of a rural school, where the teacher was a football coach so he had built that relationship with his students and players in and outside of the classroom. He told me that one of his players had stated “I’m the whitest black guy you know” and he simply had a conversation with the student in private and addressed the underlying assumptions behind a statement like that. It can be as simple as that. I don’t speak for everyone, but I attended an urban high school and benefited from knowing about the world around me before I stepped foot onto a more “liberal” campus. One of the first classes I walked into my Junior year, my professor had a dry-erase mug that read something along the lines of, “the past is political” and I’ve never smiled harder.

  9. Hello,
    Awesome article! Growing up in rural Indiana, nothing controversial was talked about in class. Whether it would be out of politeness or purely because it did not align with the educators personal beliefs, this discussions did not happen. Because of that, many students grow up not knowing about different beliefs and this (usually) ultimately leads them to believe that their beliefs are superior in a way, because their beliefs the only ones discussed. One of the most human things to do is to disagree, but still learn/understand what you are disagreeing with. As educators in such a rampant age, I think that this is one of the most important skills we can teach our students.

  10. This was an interesting read and one such line which stuck out to me the most referred to some teachers fears of being “inadequately prepared” to discuss contentious issues. Where I consider myself knowledgeable about most subjects, contentious or otherwise, I don’t consider myself to be “qualified” to speak on all matters. I may “know” about the trials and tribulations of African-American citizens, or victims of sexual abuse, or xenophobia etc. However, my knowledge of such issues does not (and should not) qualify me to speak on behalf of said people. How am I to lead a class in a subject matter that I, myself am qualified for? This was a great read and certainly offered some food for thought!

  11. I think certain controversial topics should start being addressed or even just identified in elementary school. Students should be exposed to them at the very least so they can become knowledgeable and develop their own opinions about them. However topics such as abortion should not be addressed in elementary, due to the topic being not age appropriate.

  12. In his article titled “I am Afraid to Address Controversial Topics in My Classes”, Dr. David Childs confronts the harsh reality that America is very polarized right now, whether it be politically, racially, economically, or otherwise. As a future Social Studies educator, I think part of developing students who are productive citizens relies on being able to discuss controversial topics in a safe setting. As Dr. Childs notes in his article, many students need the safe space and platform to discuss issues that many teachers may shy away from because of backlash from parents or administrators. As a private sector employee, I cannot remember how many times we have had discussions at work that management has told us to stop because someone may get offended. That is understandable, but a classroom should be an environment that fosters this dialogue, not stifles it. I think it is important to make sure that if you are to broach a controversial topic, to have a game plan in place, such as rules that the students must follow (i.e. no name calling). I think it is also important, unless the conversation is impromptu, to let the administration know that you are planning to teach and discuss a controversial subject so that you can have their full support should there be parental backlash.

  13. This article is almost a relief to read. As a future educator, it worries me that I will have to address such topics in the classroom because nearly every person has differing views. These days it seems that no matter how you teach something of this nature, someone will not be happy or will go above your head to complain about the lesson you taught. Sometimes it is not difficult to fear the worst which would include the loss of your job. In one of my past student teaching experiences my cooperating teacher asked me to write a lesson plan for a book which dealt with racism. I wrote the lesson and was even proud of it. It seemed like my best one yet. However, I never got to teach it because of Covid and, while I hate to admit it, I was relieved. I had no doubt in my mind that the lesson itself was safe and only discussing facts that could be backed up by evidence. There was none of my opinion involved and that was difficult to do. I was worried the most about questions I would be asked by these curious fifth graders because you cannot plan for every question and you need to respond on the spot. I worried that I would respond to something in the wrong way and that that would reflect negatively in the eyes of the college professor who was observing me. I must admit, after reading this article, it helps a little to know that some other, more experienced teachers are in the same boat. Now that I know this it will be easier for me to take this knowledge and feel more comfortable when asking for help from my coworkers. Hopefully teachers can help each other and pull their resources so that we can ultimately give students the best possible education about these subjects possible.

  14. Andrew Boehringer
    Democracy and Me – Week 4 – Response #3
    https://www.democracyandme.org/i-am-afraid-to-address-controversial-topics-in-my-classes/

    Racism has always been a difficult topic to discuss in the classroom in the South, primarily because some areas are still arguing that the Civil War as not fought over slavery. In the North it doesn’t always seem an issue, but Black and Hispanic history are not seen as a priority. Both racism and gender issues seem to have become hot topics because they have become politicized depending on the context of the conversation. As evidence of this political polarization, people use euphemisms and coded language to hide their viewpoints. In the same vein, teaching on these topics in the classroom has become equally difficult as teachers are worried about being misinterpreted. I feel that the best way to approach some of these issues is to provide multiple viewpoints, but highlight portions of difficult modern issues that are clear inequalities by using historical primary sources.

  15. When it comes to the issue of addressing confrontational topics in the classroom I have a bit of a mixed opinion. As a person, I desperately want to give my students the outlet to talk about these issues in a safe space where they’re allowed to hold any opinion. On the other hand, I know that sometimes in certain places in the US doing so would get me fired. Parents don’t always like when teachers open the floor to discussion and can and sometimes do complain to school boards about it. I, as a teacher, want to have a place where students can feel free to talk about any topic regardless of how serious or controversial it is. I just wish we, as a country, were more accepting of the idea of listening to others opinions if they don’t personally align with our own.

  16. For our second entry for democracy and me I chose “I am afraid to address controversial topics in my classes”. I feel like this is a very relevant article for me because I know how uncomfortable it can be to discuss controversial topics in a class of students with mixed backgrounds and perspectives. It’s a very important thing to discuss these things to give the students a better understanding of these topics as well as give them information and opinions from other perspectives to consider when forming their own ideas and opinions. I liked how the article not only addressed the fact that these are things that should be included in curriculum, but also gives us questions to consider when we decide how to go about teaching these topics. The most important question to me was how early to introduce these topics. I think that most topics can be introduced at the elementary level as long as it’s at the most basic level and doesn’t delve into the possibly violent or inappropriate parts of the topic so that they can then build on that.

  17. As someone who practically runs the other direction when conflict arises, this article was both reassuring and motivating. I am glad to know that I am not the only one who fears discussing controversial topics in the classroom! The line, “… see disagreement as an opportunity to learn, not as a form of conflict,” is quite motivating to read and process. My hope is that I can take this new perspective and encourage my future students to look at disagreements with a positive mindset and for them to be open to listening to new ideas.

  18. The topic of discussing difficult issues has been on my mind quite a bit, especially since we had a children’s lesson in my social studies class on the black lives matter movement. I feel very strongly that it is important that we discuss topics like these with students to help ensure that they are knowledgeable and well informed. While I know the importance of these topics and agree that I want to teach them in my future classroom I have been worrying about the fact that parents and community members can feel very strongly on these topics, such as, black lives matter. I am very curious as to how other educators have navigated these topics with young children who are hearing so much information but may not know enough to form or voice their own thoughts on the topic. While I do not have a problem voicing my own opinions and thoughts I am aware as an educator my job is not to persuade students one way or the other but rather educate them on the topic, I hope I can learn how to effectively do this for all students without upsetting parents or the community I teach in.

  19. When I noticed the title of this article I was immediately intrigued because this has been something that I am worried about when teaching. I am not sure the appropriate age to discuss topics or the correct way to address certain topics when they are brought up when I am not prepared to discuss them. I read over your discussion questions and question one is something I am currently unsure about and wonder about. I think these topics should be introduced but I’m not sure how to approach them. I think these things are harder to address in the classroom because as a teacher you have no idea what the students have already been told about certain topics and you don’t know parents’ viewpoints on topics. I think discussing race is something that should be taught in kindergarten. There are now so many great books now that are perfect for starting these types of discussions with kids without going too into detail for the little ones.

  20. I love this article because it is definitely something that has been seen as “touchy-feely” but also what many teachers would like to do. Our culture has changed drastically, even within the last few years. By teaching children about the “controversial” topics, we can begin to get their minds rolling and they can feel like they know about the world around them. At the elementary level, many kids don’t have a negative attitude about the controversial issues so they could have some great input. I have always wanted to include some of these topics in the classroom because I believe it’s important for students to begin their social justice concerns. These issues probably shouldn’t be addressed until fourth or fifth grade, which is when they have begun to think critical about society.

  21. As an education student in my last year of college and approaching my first year of teaching, this has topic been on my mind for awhile, especially considering the world’s climate. I have questioned the appropriate age level to bring up and teach about controversial topics. Reading this article solidified my opinion. I believe that truly at any age level you can bring up a controversial topic because children will be exposed to it anyway. However, how you present the information is incredibly important. For example, I am currently placed in a kindergarten classroom for a student teaching practicum. In regards to the Black Lives Matter movement, I would believe it to be important to teach the students to treat others they way would want to be treated. I would teach how skin color does not make a person lesser or greater. That we should celebrate each others differences and acknowledge how they can actually make us stronger. I have also found the Roadmap resource to be very helpful and useful. If one has time, I would suggest visiting the page! The video are short, but packed with good information.

  22. Broaching onto these topics with children can be nerve wracking but that does not change that it is important. For educators, it is worrisome to think about potential future repercussions due to parents getting upset over their children learning about sensitive or controversial topics in the classroom, but students are also taught that school is a safe space and a place to learn with through our guidance and help. Then, of course, they are going to expect us to do just that- teach. After all, these real-world issues are something that they have a high possibility of facing every day and they deserve to understand what is happening around them. Ignorance is not always bliss.
    With that being said, students’ ages still need to be taken in consideration because while they are citizens like the rest of us, they are still children. In regard to the BLM Movement, this is something that can be brought up throughout any grade level. For elementary school, this could be a chance for higher grades to think critically about civics issues that we are facing in our society, but younger students would using this as a lesson on not treating people differently based on their looks (treat people how you would want to be treated).

  23. While it may not be easy to address these issues in a classroom, it is important to talk about these things. Issue such as racism, gay marriage, and all of the others listed are things that the students will experience. It may not be a topic that is fun to talk about, but that does not mean that the teacher should deprive the students of this information. Teachers should be preparing students for all aspects of their life, because at the end of the day, the students will come into contact with these topics. The I-Civics website is a good resource to start to plan a controversial, but beneficial, lesson for your class.

  24. Many topics are hard to teach in the classroom, but they need to be discussed. Students need to have a place where they can get information on racial inequality, gay marriage, etc. without receiving that information through the filter of the news outlets. The classroom should be a safe place where students can bring up these topics and as their teacher, we can have an educated discussion on the topic. The I-Civic website is a good resource to start the planning of controversial topics.

  25. This article brings to light what I have been thinking for some time now. I don’t know how I will approach the topics such as racism, sexual assault, censorship, abortion, gay marriage or gender equality. However, I am glad that there are resources on how to teach these areas that can be found online. In addition, this thought never crossed my mind until recently. Because during my elementary and middle school years, these topics were never even talked about or touched on in school. But that was also around 10 years ago, when these topics were not really brought to light as much as it is now. Either they didn’t happen as much, or these situations didn’t get enough media attention. For me personally, I feel like it is a little bit of both. One effective and safe way that I feel we can teach and “talk about” these issues are by talking about important people, such as Martin Luther King, and talk about important events such as Rosa Parks, when she refused to give up her seat. This is already being done in certain schools, but it can be taken a step further while keeping in mind to not teach with your own personal bias which can be a big challenge. While the education of social studies can be improved on, what we have now has come a long way from when then our parents were in school. And I believe that some of the social studies education I was taught has made me an empathetic person. However, the lessons that were taught didn’t have the same effect on all of my other peers.

  26. This was an interesting article concerning everything going on in the country currently. I know I find it extremely uncomfortable to work with certain topics as both a teacher and as a student, especially when those topics are not something I believe in or have ever experienced. They tend to make me feel that my voice on the subject would be invalid and the students would be able to pick me apart and find reason to no longer listen. However, I can also say that these are important topics and with time and experience they may become a little easier to discuss as I become more educated on how to teach and approach those subjects as a unbiased teacher, and learn to leave my feelings and opinions on subjects at home. From a college student view, they make me uncomfortable I think for two reasons, one being the fear that my teacher or classmates may react badly if my opinion is different than theirs. Yes, I know teachers are not to be biased and take points away from grades, but they could suddenly grade harder on something else that normally would be overlooked. Secondly because I was not taught how to discuss these in my classes as a student. Through middle and high school, I can not recall ever having deep conversations about controversial topics. We may have briefly discussed them, but at the time they were not heavily taught until I went off to college and found that I knew little about these topics when they surrounded me every day. Now it feels that schools are doing more to talk about these as it does come up in the news more frequently than it did 5, 10, 15 years ago.
    I have not ever witnessed a teacher being fired for brining up these topics, however I have seen a teacher leave the field because of the students bringing up these topics in her room, and not being able to handle the discussion or the feeling of being cornered on her way of thinking. As a substitute I have had to face these conversations a few times in her room and at first I can say the topics that the students brought up such as gay marriage, racism, and politics made me want to run and hide. But with a few days and learning how to have open discussion with the students it became easier and less nerve racking, even when the school’s vice-principal came in to observe.
    I fully agree that good teaching can be a messy thing, but sometimes it has to be in order to create something beautiful, like art. If these are the topics that matter to our students, then it is important to make sure they are getting to explore both ends of the lesson, hear both sides of the story, and learn to come together despite those differences because teachers have that power to help heal a country divided. It helps if you can get parents and your administration to help you, but in the end, you have to also do what is best for the student, even if the best is hard.

  27. As a teacher, you are always worried about what kind of backlash you may receive from parents and administrators. This is something that I’ve definitely have thought of, especially when a student might bring up something controversial and ask what my opinion is on the topic. This has happened to many of my teachers in the past and they usually just say they do not feel comfortable answering. I think that there a bad ways and good ways in going about discussing controversial topics. Sometimes it needs to happen because like the article says, these topics are happening in students’ lives. I really appreciate the resources that are given to address them because I would like to push myself to do this in the classroom.

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