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Handling Tough Topics in the Classroom

In a constantly changing world in which students have access to media, invariably a difficult topic—such as a violent incident or situation involving racism—will come up in classroom conversation. Sometimes these conversations are planned, and sometimes they crop up spontaneously. Rather than shying away from such discussions, teachers may want to give students—particularly older ones—an opportunity to express their thoughts and feelings.

The following are seven tips for tackling touchy subjects in class.

  1. Consult with a school administrator, social worker and/or psychologist about how best to approach the issue. Run through various scenarios (such as "What if a student asks....?") and discuss the best way to respond.
  2. If the tough topic is foreseeable—such as Mark Twain’s use of a racial slur in Huckleberry Finn—prepare ahead of time. “In these never-easy but essential situations, teachers need to be prepared and confident to take on such complex conversations,” said 2010 National Teacher of the Year Sarah Brown Wessling. “[I teach that] just because a book portrays part of that author’s reality, it doesn’t mean that we or the author condone that character’s behavior.” Watch a six-minute video to see how students run a Socratic Seminar to handle this particular discussion.
  3. If the topic arises in response to an unpleasant news story, strike a balance between not tiptoeing around the event, and not dissecting every detail. Focus on those who helped during and after the event, and what we can learn to help keep us safer in future similar situations. Remind students of school policies and practices in place to prevent tragedies. Emphasize the relative rarity of violent events, despite what it may seem like when viewing extensive media coverage.
  4. Foster a classroom climate of mutual respect and curiosity, and set an early expectation of open and honest communication where students feel comfortable expressing their opinions. Then monitor the tone of a difficult conversation to ensure that these expectations are being met. “Take the emotional ‘temperature’ of the classroom periodically to find out how students are feeling, and encourage the discussion of feelings throughout,” explained Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility, an organization that promotes student social and emotional learning (SEL).
  5. For grades 4 and up, form “microlabs” for student discussion. Break the class into small groups of two or three in which kids can speak and listen, but not engage in debate, recommends Morningside Center. Students get two or three minutes to speak from their point of view and can pass if they choose. Anything said in the microlabs is confidential and won’t be shared with the larger group. Possible questions to ask the microlabs are “What do you want to say on [the issue]?” and “How are you feeling?” After the timed discussion, reconvene the whole class and ask volunteers to share what they said or felt during the microlab. This may lead to a wider classroom discussion.
  6. Provide methods of participation other than speaking. Students may wish to share their thoughts by submitting questions or comments anonymously.
  7. Anticipate follow-up. Suggest that students take helpful action if they feel strongly about an issue. Be prepared to make appropriate referrals if students share anything of concern about themselves or others, if they seem distressed, or if they simply need the opportunity to further “process” a difficult discussion.

Related resources

Helping Students Think Critically About News Coverage
This lesson for grades 9-12 includes teacher tips for discussing crimes, scandals and other dicey issues that inevitably receive extensive news coverage.

Combating Racism in a Multicultural World: Classroom Ideas
Learn why exploring other cultures should go beyond holidays and parties.

The Trayvon Martin Case as a Teachable Moment
Get tips on talking about the tragedy, plus general suggestions for creating a school climate where students feel comfortable discussing race-related issues.

When Tragedy Strikes: What Schools Should Do
Get advice from educators and psychologists who have helped students and teachers deal with death, suicide and murder.


Article by Ted Glanzer, EducationWorld Contributor
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