Ask any teacher about teaching about a controversial topic, and most will tell you to avoid it at any cost.
School administrators hate controversy and will often discourage teachers from discussing hot topics in their classrooms at all. Teachers routinely get fired or reprimanded for opening discussion in their classroom about ideas that some may take issue with. Teaching subjects like art, literature, theater, and even history and science, can be fraught with difficulty, as teachers navigate minefields of potentially offensive ideas and images. And since today’s teachers often have less protection than teachers in the past, allowing controversy into the classroom can come with truly nightmarish consequences.
But in this day in age, when even the most high-ranking officials are saying and doing inappropriate things in the public eye, when our nation is starkly divided and intolerance creates a constant "us-versus-them" attitude among social groups, now is exactly the time to teach students how to deal with controversial subjects and how to cope with a plurality of ideas and identities. Here are just a few reasons we need teachers who will tackle these subjects:
We Need to Teach Students How to Cope With Diversity
Years of keeping controversy out of our classrooms has created a society that doesn't know how to deal with diversity. But, at age seventeen or eighteen, we send kids out into a world full of diversity—of races, religions and gender, but also of ideas, methods and perspectives in the workplace. Being able to deal with diversity of people, but also plurality of ideas, perspectives and work methods is crucial to becoming a competitive member of the workforce, especially in higher-paying fields. Many companies now include questions about candidates' attitudes toward diversity in their interviewing processes.
We Need to Teach Students How to Respectfully Disagree
How can you teach students how to disagree if students never get an opportunity to discuss things they feel passionate about? The “safe” way of teaching students how to disagree by giving them non-controversial topics to share pro- and con- arguments about doesn't work, because students don't feel much ownership over these opinions. Students need to debate things they feel passionate about, even if those things are controversial. It is important that students have a safe space to test drive their ideas and learn to see disagreement as an opportunity to learn, not as invalidation.
We Need to Teach Positive Digital Citizenship
Because so much of our information-sharing happens online, we can't neglect the digital world and all its controversy. Rather than blocking controversial subjects online, we should be teaching students how to find trustworthy sources, identify false information and to share information responsibly online. We also need to teach students how to deal with online disagreements, including cyberbullies, trolls and others who create unsafe online situations that can have dire offline consequences. Teaching students how to be discerning consumers of online information is crucial to have an informed society in the future.
We Need to Give Students a Voice
“Student voice” is a phrase you will find over and over in academia. It's great that students are being encouraged to share ideas through speaking in class and through structured dialogue, but we also need to promote students' creative voices. Arts programs have long been the ideal forum for student voice and exploration of sometimes controversial ideas. Art is a great way to introduce students to appropriate ways to approach debatable topics, because artists have, throughout history, used art to express things they could not say with words.
As fine arts programs get cut in favor of more math and ELA programming, students have fewer opportunities to share their ideas, especially those they may not feel comfortable sharing in an oral presentation or written paper. Though it's best not to cut fine arts programs in the first place, core subject classrooms could learn a lot from the arts and offer creative options for students to express their voices through creative means. And with all the creative tools available at our fingertips via mobile technology—like digital movie making, art apps, tablet/phone cameras, and animation tools—students can express themselves in creative ways previously reserved for those with access to expensive digital studios. (Bonus: students will develop important digital skills. Whenever students are expressing their voices creatively, they're building the skills they need to express themselves verbally, too, so it's a win-win for everyone.)
We Need to Connect Students to the World They Live in
Schools are cut-off from the rest of the world for some very important reasons. Student safety is our number one concern, and we use locked doors and internet filtering systems to keep our students away from those who may want to hurt them. Due to safety and budget constraints, physical field trips have become few and far between. It is easy for students to feel entirely cut off from the rest of the world, especially if we avoid discussing current events.
But the news is full of controversial topics, from the president using derogatory terms to describe certain peoples or nations to an athlete taking a knee during the national anthem. When we avoid talking about current events and prevent students from delving into the controversy, we rob them of opportunities to see the connection between themselves and the world they live in. These things do affect us all, whether we are in school or out.
It's All Controversial, Anyway
Let's face it, even the most trivial topic could blow up into a controversy. It happens all the time. An elementary teacher could spark a controversy about climate change just by having students change the weather board during circle time. Almost every teacher has a story about teaching something they thought was completely safe until one comment by a student turned the discussion into a dispute. Since it's a given that, at some point, controversy will find its way into every classroom, why not build classroom norms and procedures for dealing with controversy, rather than shushing it away? That way, students will be better prepared to cope with it outside of school, when they don't have adults around to make the controversy disappear.