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Teaching Current Events and Controversial Topics

Why Teach This Material at All?

Reflect on your reasons for taking on a potentially challenging teaching task. Knowing why you are putting material on your agenda or creating space for students to talk about it can help shape how you talk about it or help you decide whether to feature it in the first place. Some common motivations include:

  • Relevance to the course: in addition to thematic connections, your field’s way of approaching issues may be relevant as students interpret an event.
  • Acknowledging how events and emotions affect learning: students may be distracted by the weight of external events or eager to think about how to support those who are most affected.
  • Increasing critical literacies around media related to the topic and correcting misperceptions
  • Promoting responsible dialogue across difference: your class may be a good space for thinking about how to move forward and focus your students’ energy at an uncertain time
  • Fostering long-term engagement: your work may help students figure out what they can do and what might happen next

Which reasons are most salient for your courses?

How Will You Prepare Yourself and Your Students?

Consider these questions from the article, "Knowing When to Teach Current Events" by Noliwe Rooks:

  • “Am I familiar with enough scholarly sources to contextualize the moment or event beyond what is readily available in newspapers and social media?”
  • “Am I prepared to teach students what they don’t know but may need to know in order to fully understand [this topic]?” 

Your reflections may prompt you to do additional preparation, or to consult colleagues or bring in a guest speaker to help frame a topic. 

The reading material or other media you use in your course can provide a "common basis for understanding." Focusing students on material that they have all encountered can frame the topic in ways that are appropriate for your course context, provide evidence, and help students move productively between their personal experience and other perspectives.

What Teaching Methods Will You Use?

As you plan, consider how you will ensure that all students feel engaged and able to participate. While a discussion may be appropriate in many situations, it is not the only way to address questions or process material. Consider strategies that let each student share their perspective, whether in a small group or to the whole class. Some examples include:

  • Letting each student in a class or small group talk once before others respond.
  • Using a fishbowl discussion to distribute the speaking and listening roles.
  • Inviting students to share from pre-written reflections to promote careful, considered thinking.

How Will You Approach Your Role as Moderator?

Be sure to plan not only for what students will do but how you will approach your role as a moderator. One of the most significant questions to consider is whether you will share your own views with students. 

Reasons to do so include:

  • You can’t or don’t want to hide your perspective.
  • You wish to explain ideas using your experience as an example. For example, you might share how you came to your position.

Reasons not to do so include:

  • Fear of silencing student perspectives.
  • Exposure to publicity based on your views.

If you are committed to remaining neutral, ask yourself, “What does neutrality look like?” Keep in mind that staying silent on an issue is not necessarily the same as displaying neutrality.

Finally, as Diana E. Hess and Paula McAvoy point out in The Political Classroom: Evidence and Ethics in Democratic Education, “Teachers ought to think about disclosing and withholding their political views as pedagogical tools that should be used intentionally and with good judgment” (p. 182). No matter what approach you choose, ensure that it is guided by your learning objectives.

Consider Some Specific Moderation Strategies

These approaches, though useful in all situations, can be especially helpful for navigating complex topics.

  • Multipartial facilitation invites participants to consider the dominate narratives that are present in a situation. How have they come to dominate? What counter-narratives might exist? In this approach, the instructor works to balance power and bring forth minoritized perspectives.
  • Reflective structured dialogue encourages participants to aim for “speaking to be understood” rather than “convincing one another of our argument.” It starts by asking students to tell each other stories that illuminate how they came to their beliefs rather than articulating positions, to think about the values that underlie their experiences, and to ask each other questions to build empathy. It highlights the importance of creating space for reflection before responding. 

What Guidelines/Boundaries Will Frame Your Engagement?

Setting the tone for discussing current events or controversial issues is an ongoing process, not just one that occurs when the issue is on the table. Consider the course policies your class community establishes at the beginning of the semester. What policies that are already in place might be especially relevant?

  • For example, have you and your students talked about what an engaging, respectful discussion looks like? About what to do if someone makes a biased or hurtful comment? 

Next, define what, precisely, you are discussing. For instance, are you asking students to engage the merits of a position on an issue, or to focus on a facet of the consequences (e.g., a policy response that has changed because of a Supreme Court decision)?

Have “interruptor phrases” at the ready for when you need to shift the conversation. 

Example Interruptor Phrases Include:

  • “I’m going to stop you right there.”
  • “Hold on, I need to process what you just said.”
  • “I’m having a strong reaction to that and need to let you know why.”
  • “I need to push back against that. I disagree. I don’t see it that way.”
  • “It sounds like you’re making some assumptions that we need to unpack a bit.”
  • “Please consider the impact of what you just said. How might the impact of your words/actions differ from your intent?”
  • “Why do you think that’s the case?”

What Additional Resources Can Help?

Civic Learning Activities build students’ participation skills by practicing values important in a democratic society, such as voting, exploring evidence, and advocating for change. 

The Political Classroom: Evidence and Ethics in Democratic Education is a book available through GW Libraries that points out that being political is different than being partisan, and explores what it means for schools to be political. The authors write,

“We argue that schools are, and ought to be, political sites. In this context, we use the term ‘political’ as it applies to the role of citizens within a democracy: We are being political when we are democratically making decisions about questions that ask, ‘How should we live together?’ By extension, the political classroom is one that helps students develop their ability to deliberate political questions” (4).

Teaching on Days After: Educating for Equity in the Wake of Injustice is a book that addresses ways instructors can respond to “major events, tragedies, and traumas” such as police brutality, mass shootings, and political uprisings.