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How to tackle interesting controversial topics without the fear

Some say teachers have no business tackling interesting controversial topics in school. Talking to students about race, culture, politics, identity, or otherwise are completely out of the question. Why? Well, they say, school is for reading and doing math, and that’s all!

I recently posted a video pushing back on this idea and it ruffled a few feathers. I gave my audience a tip for designing instruction that was culturally relevant and socially meaningful, indicating that relevance is— what's relatable and what's timely. Relevance is the reality!

This was my tip:

Talk about the hard stuff with your students! That’s right, go there— talk about interesting controversial topics, like race, culture, politics, power, and sexual identity— talk about it all!

Many educators and parents responded with relief and applause— happy to hear a frank stance pointing to the controversial topics to discuss in schools. They too still believe school is the great equalizer; where we groom the next generation of doctors and lawyers and politicians and presidents. How will teachers really cultivate the next generation of diverse thinkers, if they do not help students think about how to build a better future?

But, I'm afraid of getting it wrong!

I recently led a workshop with veteran teachers from a high-performing charter school. When I asked this group, if they talked about sensitive or interesting controversial topics in their classrooms, 90% of the room raised their hands to indicate YES- we talk about the hard stuff. I was pumped and wanted to know more about their conversations. So, I called out a few hot topics to check the pulse of the room.

Who has talked about the Ahmaud Arbery case? No one.

What about Kyle Rittenhouse? No one.

January 6th at the Capitol Building? No one.

Black Lives Matter? No one.

The George Floyd Trial? No one.

The rising death tolls in Black and Brown Trans communities? No one.

The American border, DACA, and immigration laws? No one.

The 2020 election and Trump’s accusations of a stolen election? Nope, no one.

Young children transitioning their gender identities? Nope.

Biden’s hate crime bill focused on Asian attacks? Nope.

I was confused and the teachers could tell. They quickly reassured me that they were NOT avoiding those headlining stories. They just didn't know how to talk about them. 95% of the room was "afraid of getting it wrong", or fearful of accidentally offending a student or parent and then being called a racist. Teachers did not have a clear direction, the tools, or a road map to follow, resulting in them NOT talking about anything interesting, relevant, timely, or controversial at all.

There's a toolkit below👇🏾

Here’s why tackling tough topics, such as race, power, politics, global worldview, sexual identity, and others, are an important thing to do in your classrooms. Your students want to talk about the hard stuff. They want to share how they feel about what’s going on in the world. Not talking about the headliners– particularly for Gen Z students— adds stress to their lives.

A recent article from the American Psychological Association found that 15 to 21-year-olds worry about our headlining issues— from immigration to police violence and sexual assault. Their research showed that Gen Zers were more likely to report mental health concerns behind this stress. This indicates that young people deeply desire an opportunity to share their perspectives about the world around them, and seek out guidance from their peers and community to make meaning of what they see and hear.

Educators can help students build new perspectives that add to their repertoire of thinking. Research has proven that even our youngest learners can pick up on prejudices and biases through nonverbal behavior. They are learning their likes, dislikes, personal opinions, and topics of interest from their families and inner circles. Young children can hold pretty strong opinions about subjects they haven't fully understood. At school, there is an opportunity to help them see various diverse viewpoints.

Of course, readiness is a concern. I wouldn't talk about everything under the sun with a 6-year-old. However, if you're talking about interesting controversial topics around your 6-year-old, there is a good chance they're listening and reading your body language about the matter to form their own (uninformed) opinion.

Educators, too, are in a great position to unpack tough subject matter in a safe environment. They can help their students see multiple perspectives on a singular idea. This, in turn, helps students of all ages to think more critically about what they see and hear at home, in the news, and in their inner circles.

Are you still leary? Check out my Tackle Tough Topics Toolkit. It has 15 age-specific tips, a discussion protocol, and school-wide actions you can try right away!


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