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How Teachers Are Addressing Hot-Button Topics in the Classroom

Earlier this month, a homework assignment sparked outrage when a South Carolina teacher asked elementary students to place themselves in the mindset of a 19th-century Klu Klux Klan member and explain the justification of their treatment of African Americans. The teacher has since been placed on leave while the school investigates. Similar incidents of teachers coming under fire for racial-insensitivity allegations have popped up in the news, as well.

The incidents raise the question of talking about race and prejudice in the classroom and how can teachers go about doing so tactfully? In such a politically charged country with news stories ranging from the neo-Nazis rioting in Charlottesville to NFL football players protesting in response to police brutality, keeping such news stories out of the classroom is unavoidable. Nor should it be.

The hot-button topics of white nationalism, blowback from the first president of color, and controversial claims made by the current president will undoubtedly be discussed in the history books by future generations, just as Reconstruction and the civil rights movement is. So shouldn’t hot-button topics of today have a place in the classroom as well?

Many teachers feel they have an obligation to address these topics with students, even though it may be uncomfortable. Lupe Bryan, a seventh-grade English teacher at Owosso Middle School in Michigan, said as the only Hispanic teacher in her school she makes a point to talk about these issues with students. "If it's not talked about in my class, there's a chance it won't be talked about in another class in our school," said Bryan.

Teachers are also addressing the current events of the day in their lesson plans. Wilson Taylor, an English teacher at a private high school in the San Francisco area, felt the need to revise students’ reading list to better tie in with themes facing the country and world. He’s found that his students are also more eager than ever to connect the dots between the literature they’re reading and the modern world. After reading Sophocles’ Antigone, which focuses on national anxiety in Greece, students quickly pointed out similarities facing the U.S. “Students were eager to discuss questions of leadership, citizenship, political language and rhetoric, and political violence,” Taylor told Politico.

Addressing current events that might seem taboo or intimidating doesn’t have to be limited to social studies or history lessons either. Lynne Settles, a high school art teacher in Michigan, said she regularly uses art to help students address their feelings about what’s going on in the world around them. Settles said she hasn’t yet addressed the Charlottesville rioting last month, but has had students in her class mention what could happen with undocumented immigrants and the repeal of DACA.

"They know that art is a form of communication and they can express their thoughts and ideas through that," Settles told Michigan Live, before adding, "So they are quick to come up and say, 'Hey, we need to do a piece on that.’”

The need to address current events and societal problems with students in a productive manner is one that education experts feel is crucial to moving the country forward. “If we don’t do this — and it’s not being done — that’s why we have issues that we have today in our society,” Nakeiha Primus Smith, an assistant professor at Millersville University’s College of Education and Human Services, said. Getting over that hurdle of addressing topics that may seem awkward is absolutely necessary, added Beth Powers, an assistant professor specializing in early childhood education. “Research indicates that if a new teacher does not know how to be culturally competent with children, they will not be a successful teacher,” said Powers.

While finding the right way of discussing these issues is a task that schools and teachers will have to address, ignoring them altogether is a disservice to students.


Article by Joel Stice, Education World Contributor

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Teachers around the country are weighing the merits and potential fallout of engaging in politically-charged class...