History Nerdfest 2018: Helping Teachers Embrace Controversial Issues
I love the National Council for the Social Studies national conference. Who doesn’t? Seriously. Thousands of social studies nerds all in one place? Talking about best practice, resources, tech tools, sharing ideas, getting smarter?
What’s not to like?
And it kicks off today. We’re all in Chicago for the next four days and it’s awesome.I can sit down and immediately get sucked into a conversation about the best way to use maps as a hook activity or how to use the latest Library of Congress mobile app or where I can find the best primary sources for AP World History. And that’s considered normal behavior.
These are my people.
Thursday is really just a warm-up day. The official NCSS conference jumps off tomorrow. Today is tours, pre-cons, half day workshops, and the National Social Studies Supervisors Association conference. I get the chance to spend all day with NSSSA folks learning more about working specifically with teachers.
But like every year at NCSS, I’ll try to live post most of the sessions I’m in. So there’s gonna be typos and weird grammar and strange paragraphs. I’ll try to fix them later. But feel free to follow along.
And right out of the gate, we’ve got one of my new hot topics: controversial topics on the classroom. I’ve talked about this before, especially as it relates to civic and information literacy. (If you’re curious, read some of that here, here, and here. Oh yeah, and here.) So I’m excited about what Charles Vaughan is going to share. (I mean, the guy is rocking a bow tie. That automatically means awesome.)
Charles teaches high school kids in South Carolina and he kicks the session off by acknowledging the fact that integrating controversial topics is not an easy thing. And by showing a photo of an activist who scaled the flag pole outside the South Carolina statehouse and pulled down the Confederate flag that had been flying there for decades.
In South Carolina, that’s a big deal.
He continue by quoting from The Case for Contentious Classrooms from The Atlantic:
Schools teach many things. For the most part, though, they have not not taught students how to engage in reasoned, informed debates across society’s myriad differences.
This is why we need to have these kinds of conversations. It’s important. Our kids need these kinds of skills to be informed and knowledgeable citizens.
Why do we avoid controversial issues? The Atlantic article suggests a few reasons:
- Too few hours available to address events deeply
- Teachers either lack necessary background knowledge or think they do
- There is a lack the academic freedom to do so – often because administrators don’t want to deal with possible fallout
- Teachers are afraid of being labeled as “controversial” and see it as risky for their career
(He also mentioned the current Social Education journal this month which focuses on the topic. FYI – a few articles are available but full access requires an NCSS membership.)
He shared some ideas for creating what he and others are calling political classrooms based on a book titled The Political Classroom by Diana Hess and Paula McAvoy.
During an interview titled Politics in the Classroom. How Much is Too Much? on NPR, McAvoy asks:
How political do we want students to be? That’s really a question that a lot of communities struggle with and a lot of teachers struggle with. And the point of the book is to say that, in general, to be able to talk about politics is a skill that people need to learn. And it would be great if it were learned in school because these are great moments in which you bring a group of young people together who are forming their political views. They can really learn to engage across their differences and to start to see that political conflict is a normal part of democratic life.
There’s a difference between current events and political issues. As in shooting in Ferguson versus militarization of police. They can be connected but need to be seen as different. Hess says:
One of the problems with discussing events that just happened is that often we don’t know enough about what happened. There’s a distinction between current events … and discussions about controversial political issues where kids are preparing in advance and being deliberative. In the best-case scenario, teachers are able to take advantage of current events and use them as opportunities to get kids to talk about controversial political issues. There’s a big difference in talking about, “What do you think happened?” and talking about a policy issue like “Should police officers be required to wear video cameras?”
Part of creating a Political Classroom involves the decision of sharing or not sharing our personal opinions. Charles shared a great article at Huffington Post titled Should Teachers Share Their Political Views with Students? by David Cutler:
Instead of “appearing neutral” (a species of mild dishonesty, after all), let’s admit our biases openly. Let’s express them, explain why we have come to hold them, clarify what is troubling to us about them, and then articulate our best version of our opponents’ arguments — all in the spirit of encouraging our students to examine their own beliefs, scrutinize their own biases, and thereby move to higher levels of understanding.
He also shared a few resources that he and his kids use as part of their controversial conversations:
A few of other things might also be useful as we figure out what this can look like in our classrooms:
- Keep the learning engaging & fun
- Use technology
- Keep the peace
One teacher used the phrase “harness the passion without bogging down in partisan muck.”
Need a bit more specifics?
Start with Yes, Race and Politics Belong in the Classroom, a great article published a few weeks ago by EdWeek. It’s a nice resource that supports the idea of doing this sort of thing in the classroom – useful if principals or parents come to you suggesting that this is something you shouldn’t be doing.
Then head over to this Google document that list both Dos and Don’ts of controversial topic conversations. You’ll also find a handy list of articles and resources for facilitating difficult discussions.
Use iCivics. This is a no-brainer. Sandra Day O’Conner’s awesome civics / government site has interactive simulations, teaching tools, and lessons. And we know that quality civic engagement instruction must integrate the use of civic simulations. Use it for free but if create an account, you get access to more stuff. So . . . uh, you should sign up for more stuff.
The Civic Action Project is a project-based option from the Constitutional Rights Foundation. You’ll find lessons on how to help students research issues they care about and connect those concerns with public policy.
“Think of it as a culmination of students’ social studies education, a chance for them to apply what they have learned to the real world and impact an issue that matters to them.”
Kids can also find a variety of civic involvement toolkits and social media connections where they can post videos and get feedback from other CAP participants.
Harvard’s Graduate School of Education recently launched One and All designed to highlight strategies of higher ed folks and classroom teachers – via video, text, and podcast – for encouraging student empathy and respect. You’ll also find strategies for guiding discussions of controversial issues. The site asks that teachers share their own ideas via Facebook, Twitter and other social media networks.
You can also find resources on a site called ISideWith.com. Support politics and government discussions by having students take the online quiz that analyzes their answers to questions on topics as far-ranging as legalizing marijuana to judicial responses to arrested terror suspects. This gives students the chance to really get a sense of their actual beliefs rather than what they think are their beliefs. Knowing more about self is always a solid place to start a conversation.
You might also find useful stuff at ProCon.org, a collection of the arguments for and against a wide variety of issues. This can serve as a starting point for conversations about different topics. Another handy tool for gathering information is Newsela, a site I’ve talked about before that organizes primary sources and current event articles from publications such as the Washington Post, Scientific American and the Associated Press. The cool thing is that you can adjust the reading level of the texts – ensuring that all of your kids can access information.
Use the NCSS C3 Framework to talk about issues. He used Confederate monuments as an example:
He and students mapped the different monuments that are outside their state capital building.
The basic idea of all of this? Yes . . . you need to have and guide conversation around controversial issues.
Thank you. Having taught both World History and World Literature, I know the tension in deciding whether to address head on controversial topics. I greatly appreciate your pointing the way to resources that can help those we teach, whether in the classroom or other venues.
Thanks for stopping by! And glad you found some useful stuff. These types of conversations are never easy but so important. Good luck!
Thank you for this post and all the great resources! I agree that having these conversations is important but I have to admit, it’s a little daunting as I prepare for my student teaching semester. My most recent placement was with 7th grade geography and 2 hours of 8th grade US history in which my mentor teacher frequently opens the floor for these difficult conversations. Her students are passionate and unafraid to use their voices–at one point, there was a lengthy debate in 8th grade about Shay’s Rebellion and, in 7th grade, there was one about whether or not bail should be abolished. It was so interesting to see how even at their age they were interested in these topics and able to express their beliefs with their peers. Having these types of discussions has not come without consequence for my mentor teacher, however. There have been a few times in her career where administration has spoken to her about the topics she broaches with her students. She’s been doing this for 30 years so she’s generally been able to avoid too much trouble. As someone just coming into the profession, I fear I won’t be given the benefit of the doubt the way she has been. These resources will be invaluable as I continue to develop my teaching style and take over more responsibility in the classroom.
Thanks for the insightful comment! While these sorts of conversations can be difficult, there is so much support for why we need to do them – especially for creating competent and responsible citizens.
Check out the PDF document titled Six Proven Practices for Effective Civic Learning. Check out the info, examples, and research on Strategy Two:
Click to access 11048.pdf
You also should download and read the booklet that highlights something called the Civil Dialogue Strategy:
Click to access IGC_Essentials%20of%20Dialogue_English_0.pdf
Lots of very specific examples and techniques to use during these types of class conversations.
Good luck as you continue your teaching career! Let me know if there’s ever anything I can do to help: