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Education Without Limits

4 Best Practices for Confidently Teaching Controversial Ideas

Courtesy of NeONBRAND on Unsplash

When my children were very young, I read them the picture book A Rule is To Break: A Child’s Guide to Anarchy by John Seven and Jana Christy. As multiple Good Reads reviews indicate, this title is a bit of a misnomer.

Rather than advocating for an uprising, the book balances tongue-in-cheek humor with heart as it encourages young people to question the status quo and to practice both unabashed individualism and empathy.

This really isn’t too far a cry from what late US Representative John Lewis called Good Trouble.

According to Representative Lewis, Good Trouble is the practice of speaking truth to power through nonviolent acts of organized protest. Within a classroom, it can also take the form of teaching controversial content, usually in the form of books.

While Banned Books Week is still a couple months away, there is no time like the present to plan for how controversial topics may enter your classroom in the year ahead--especially as we continue to find ourselves in the midst of a global pandemic and unfolding civil rights movement.

To be clear, neither EWL nor I advocate for teaching books that are actively banned in your school system. However, we do acknowledge that some titles, like Stamped, will be available to teach despite having been banned elsewhere. When those titles make it onto your reading list and into your classroom, here are some best practices to follow.

1. Be sure the controversy is relevant and that learning about it offers something of value to your students.

Throughout history, there have been movements that seem to delight in controversy for controversey’s sake. While these movements can ignite a spark that later leads to specific changes, a K-12 classroom isn’t the recommended place to build them.

Ideally, a classroom is a safe space for discussing the ideas that have shaped our collective history and that will impact your students’ ability to succeed in the world--whether success is defined by reading proficiently, thinking critically, or treating their classmates with compassion.

Ask yourself if the material you’re introducing aligns with those goals. If so, use them, and student feedback, as your guide to introducing controversial materials and ideas.

2. Focus on asking questions rather than on reaching conclusions.

Albert Einstein is often quoted as having said that it’s important to keep questioning. In fact, the idea that there is always more to learn is central to many people’s view of education.

When introducing a controversial concept, leading with the idea that our questions have just as much value as their answers is important. It takes the focus off the controversy itself and allows students to see it as one of many potential mechanisms for teaching critical thinking in general.

3. Expect, and prepare for, some strong emotions.

Teaching controversial topics with confidence and care does not mean there will be no reactions to the material. Rather, it means that, when students react, they’ll be met with compassion and support.

Prepare your students for what’s coming before diving in, and work with them directly to set boundaries around how you teach controversial ideas. These may be unique to each class, and they may also vary by student.

For example, your class may be prepared to take on the study of a controversial book together. Or, it may work better to introduce a controversial title as one among many options for students to study independently or in small groups.

Since social emotional learning (SEL) is key to helping students identify, articulate, and advocate for their own feelings, it’s wise to focus on building SEL skills prior to addressing controversial subjects.

4. Remember that you don’t have to go it alone.

Introducing controversial ideas with confidence sometimes feels like an ideal that simply cannot be achieved by teachers already on the brink of burnout. However, there is power in peer support.

Seeking out the assistance of a veteran teacher can be a helpful step, but there is also a world of programs designed by educators, for educators who may be struggling to introduce controversial topics in a compassionate and standards-aligned way.

By both creating, and curating, programs for a dynamic group of educators, EWL can genuinely help transform teaching controversial topics from a burden into an opportunity for creatively questioning whether some rules really are for breaking and why.

For inspiration on how to cultivate a little Good Trouble in your classroom, check out this month’s highlighted resource Facing History and Ourselves and others in ResourceHQ.


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