Immigration. Gender identity. Police brutality. Racial tensions. Ethics violations. With all the hot-button issues swirling around the news these days they’re sure to find their way into your classroom. While many of them strike deep emotional responses, figuring out how (or even whether) to discuss them in class is a question many teachers find themselves asking.
Even though opening the flood gates on divisive issues may seem daunting at best or dangerous at worst, ignoring what’s going on outside of the classroom presents its own challenges. Talking about these things—in an open, honest and respectful way, of course—creates an amazing opportunity for learning. Not doing so leads to misinformation, which can feed into increased tensions. That’s why it’s important to encourage students to be political, but not partisan in the classroom.
Addressing political matters not only allows students to become teachers in addition to learners, but also helps them figure out how to articulate, communicate and listen, as well as develop their critical thinking, problem solving and persuasion skills. These discussions can also give educators a glimpse into students’ understanding of certain topics which can help shape future lesson plans and discussions.
Teachers at many schools are culturally and racially different from their students. As a result, they typically shy away from these types of conversations—particularly when it comes to issues involving race. Often, these educators feel unprepared or unqualified to talk about race matters because they simply haven't been exposed to them. However, if educators present themselves as open, genuinely curious and engaged in their students’ experiences, it becomes easier to have those conversations.
While everyone should be able to speak their minds and share their views, it’s important they do so in a responsible way. Before you open the floor to these conversations, make sure your students agree to having a healthy discussion. Fruitful and healthy conversations center around every participant being courteous, constructive and considered. That means all input should be considerate of all parties’ inherent differences and worded so as not to intentionally hurt or disrespect. All opinions shared should be relevant to the conversation and based on issues, information or facts. And all contributions should help move the discussion forward in a positive way.
Start by creating a space that’s safe and supportive, where everyone feels comfortable and included. Then use the following tips to help your class explore potentially polarizing topics:
1.) Introduce new topics by posing a question, then offering supporting facts
2.) Ask students to speak in “I” statements to avoid positioning opinions as fact
3.) Explore assumptions and ask for clarification
4.) Use role playing exercises to encourage participation and add relevance
5.) Reinforce the importance of being honest and respectful (e.g., “I don’t agree with your position, but I understand where you’re coming from.”)
6.) Be aware of your tone and voice as much as you are of your students’
7.) Give equal time and consideration to all viewpoints presented
8.) Don’t be sarcastic or use political humor, as this can create an insider/outsider mentality
9.) Encourage students to focus on understanding others before trying to be understood
10.) Remember that the goal is mutual understanding—not agreement
It may also be beneficial to spend time teaching students the process of democracy so they understand why and how to deliberate over issues. Learning how to distinguish between real and fake news is another important skill every student needs to navigate in today’s political and social landscape. Be sure to give students time to research and educate themselves on topics before beginning a class discussion or debate to keep them as fruitful and healthy as possible.
If you want to test the waters before diving head on into an issue, try starting with topics that have been already been resolved. Climate change (which is definite) and historical issues (which are closed) tend to be less heated, plus there’s plenty of information to pull from for a lively discussion. Climate change, for example, is scientifically proven—what we should do about it, however, is up for debate.
When tackling these issues in class, some students might ask if they can opt out. Try to understand why before allowing them to do so. In some cases, it may be that students simply don’t like speaking in groups or having conversations that are difficult. Given this is an exercise to help make students more comfortable in these areas, it’s important to encourage them to participate. If a student does have a valid reason, you may excuse them from participating and give them a written assignment instead. After all, diving into these sometimes prickly topics is meant to help students better understand their own views and arm them with the skills necessary to convey them, in the classroom and beyond.