Studying current events will inevitably lead to controversial subjects and disagreements. Rather than avoiding such subjects, students benefit from seeking to understand other viewpoints, expressing their own views, and engaging with complex issues. Follow these principles to help foster a supportive environment for discussing controversial topics:
Embrace Diverse Viewpoints – Your students will come from diverse backgrounds and have had different experiences. Give students the opportunity to share their views. The goal of the discussion should be understanding and respecting the ways their viewpoints have been shaped.
Speak Freely, but Respectfully – Focus on creating an atmosphere where students feel free to give their views on a topic without fearing repercussions from the class for having an unpopular view. Establishing ground rules for discussion will help foster this environment. You may wish to create these rules yourself, or engage your class in an activity early in the school year in which they generate their own discussion rules. Display these rules somewhere in the classroom. Sample rules could include:
- Respect each other’s views.
- You can critique a person’s idea, but you cannot criticize a person.
- Give everybody a chance to speak.
- Don’t interrupt when someone is speaking.
Promote Dialogue, not Debate – Debate is often the default mode of conversation in our culture, particularly when talking about the news or politics. Once students have become familiar with the material and multiple viewpoints about it, taking a side in a debate may be beneficial. However, begin by emphasizing a less combative mode of conversation in which students explore and attempt to understand many facets of an issue. Model this behavior by asking open-ended questions such as “What do you know about . . .”, “What makes you say . . .” and “Why might someone think . . .”
Focus on Student Agency – Some news stories, such as coverage of natural disasters or wars, may be scary or upsetting. Focusing on actions students can take in response, such as service projects or charity work, should give them a sense that they aren’t helpless, but rather can be citizens that take an active part in the world around them.