Discussing controversial topics with middle schoolers

Q: As a middle school social studies teacher, I often talk about current events. Needless to say, that’s become much more complicated lately. I leave my personal views out of the discussions, but I wonder if I’m doing the right thing. Some of my students have very real fears about issues such as health care or immigration. They are scared and feel like they have little control over anything. Our class conversations sometimes disintegrate when students are angry and fired up. I know this is a pretty open-ended question, but how should I deal with this as a teacher? Should I even be talking about such controversial topics? And is it possible to address these sensitive issues without offending anyone or feeling like I’m not being true to my own morals and ethics? 

A: You’re right: This is a big and complicated question. Let’s break it down. You are concerned about your students’ well-being. They’re struggling and sharing with you that they feel powerless. You want to be sensitive. You also want to teach without offending anyone, losing control or sacrificing your own morals and ethics, goals that you acknowledge may occasionally be at odds with each other.

In an article for the publication Teaching Tolerance, middle school history teacher Jonathan Gold wrote, “My ambition is for students in my class to want to make change and to develop strong moral views — which means we teachers can’t pretend we don’t have them. By owning our morality and demanding rigor in our classrooms, we can knowingly, mindfully and progressively develop students’ abilities to articulate and assess the human experience.”

From your question, I believe that this is your ambition too. You want to own your beliefs, but focus on developing students’ critical thinking skills without ignoring their difficult emotions. Here are some steps you can take to accomplish these goals:

  • Be self-aware. Understand your own values, beliefs and biases and make sure you are not using them against students who disagree with your views. It’s also important that you’re aware that some groups hold more power and influence than others.
  • When you bring up current events, foster debate without inserting your own personal views. Provide students with information, and let them come to their own conclusions.
  • Encourage critical, rigorous thinking by asking open-ended questions.
  • Make sure that you include multiple perspectives.
  • Help students draw connections between history and current events.
  • Provide a common base to launch discussion, whether students have read the same article or watched the same video.
  • Acknowledge your students’ experiences. As Aaliyah El-Amin, a researcher and lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, recently said, “It can be dehumanizing not to have their experiences addressed in schools and by their teachers who they spend so much time with.” El-Amin suggests that teachers acknowledge traumatic events as news unfolds. If kids are scared, she notes, they will disengage from the curriculum. In other words, don’t shy away from controversial topics.
  • But do set ground rules, such as listening respectfully without interrupting. You want to create a safe space. For example, are certain derogatory terms off-limits?
  • When the conversation becomes heated or students make inflammatory comments, stay calm. Be ready to redirect or ask questions to keep the conversation flowing.
  • Make sure students know that their views matter and that you want to hear what they have to say. Everyone should have a chance to contribute.
  • Help students name and process emotions. El-Amin recommends doing this through writing prompts, discussion circles, or even by describing your own emotions, such as numbness or uncertainty.
  • Ascertain what information students already have and find out what they’d like to know. Answer their questions if you can, and be honest when you’re stumped. If there isn’t time in class, or you think it’s inappropriate to engage at that particular moment, suggest an alternative time to continue the conversation.
  • Encourage students to get involved in politics or causes they care about. This may give them a sense of empowerment. It’s important that they feel they can affect change, whether they make posters or write their senator.

As a principal recently told me, teaching is a political act. No matter how impartial you strive to be, you are the designer of the material. You choose the topics, the mode of delivery and how you allocate time. Even if you are following a strict curriculum, you are facilitating discussion and putting your own spin on events. This may be inadvertent, but it’s impossible to avoid. Teachers bring their own views, background, and experiences to the classroom. Nevertheless, you can still create a safe and comforting space where students can develop critical thinking skills and their own sense of morality.

Have a question that you’d like Career Confidential to answer? Email to careerconfidential@pdkintl.org. All names and schools will remain confidential. No identifying information will be included in the published questions and answers. 

PHYLLIS L. FAGELL (@Pfagell; phyllisfagell.com) is the school counselor at Sheridan School in Washington, D.C., a therapist at the Chrysalis Group in Bethesda, Md., and the author of the Career Confidential blog. She is also the author of Middle School Matters, available at https://bit.ly/2RNXVu3.

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