Discussing controversial topics in the classroom

We are living in turbulent times. Now more than ever before, classroom teachers are faced with addressing students’ concerns and questions they have over events unfolding before their eyes.

The divide in the country, ideology, culturally and racially has rarely been wider. Never has the plethora of misinformation and hate speech been so prominent in everyday life. Students look to us for gaining information and developing answers. They need guidance in navigating the massive maze of media onslaught.

Many teachers either feel unqualified to discuss controversial issues and events with their students, or believe it is not their place to address such topics. Teaching in some classes, such as history and civics, is inherently about political activities. If our charge is to teach our students how to be better citizens and active participants in shaping and advancing our country, we need to have these hard conversations to help our students learn and grow.

We cannot stand by ignoring what is going on around us, and what our students see every day. Educators need to be for equity and justice and encourage dialogue and interaction to better serve our students.

Racial and social justice

According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, in 2017 the percentage of Black and brown students in American public schools was 42%, while white students accounted for 48%. Roughly 50% of our students are from historically disenfranchised groups. All of our students live with the consequences of systemic racism in our racially divided nation. They need to have a forum to express their thoughts, fears and ideas. Many of our students turn to us for advice, guidance, and a haven to freely express the fear they are experiencing.

Teachers may worry about their ability to answer students’ questions about race and racism. Do not purport to be an expert handing down wisdom and solutions. Commit to accepting that you don’t have all the answers. Embrace the opportunity to learn with your students.

Why talk about race and diversity? Students need to learn about the world, know how to analyze information, and think for themselves. You may have planned conversations; other times it may be spontaneous. Students may make discriminatory comments. Don’t overreact to comments or questions. Don’t ignore them either. There are phrases that will help move the conversation in a thoughtful direction:

         “Let’s talk about that for a minute …”

         “What made you notice that?”

Just “winging it” is never a good idea, especially when it comes to controversial, sensitive or difficult issues. Ignoring or dismissing a student’s concern is disrespectful to the student. It’s OK to “buy time” by acknowledging the concerns and giving all stakeholders time to gather themselves and set up a time and space to address the matter.

When you plan on addressing the topics, consider what your goal is in teaching controversial issues. They may be used as teachable moments to learn how to have discussion and build consensus. Students increase their ability to recognize and accept different sides of an issue though critical thinking.

Creating spaces to be brave

Before jumping in, it is essential you do some self-assessment and examine your bias. We are all biased because we are all human. You can’t be unbiased, but you can be aware of it. Being authentic with your students is critical to gaining their trust.

Helping your students feel safe is good. Encouraging them to be brave is better. Being too safe can lead to an environment that is too polite. Students will not ask difficult questions out of fear they will hurt someone’s feelings or be labeled racist, sexist, homophobic, etc.

If the goal in discussing controversial issues is to gain other perspectives, then students need to be brave enough to share their views honestly and to listen to the views of others, even if it is unpleasant. Keep in mind, you are not facilitating a debate. Debate implies there is a winner and loser. That does not move the conversation forward. Teachers need to foster dialogues where the goal is to understand the reasons for an event or for an individual’s actions. The aim is not to condone or accept, but to gain insight and reason.

One of the biggest concerns teachers may have regarding discussing hard issues is possible resistance from parents or administrators. This is a valid concern. Good preparation and good communication will help. If you have a clear set of goals and a precise plan, you can answer critical questions with confidence. If proper guidelines have been set in your class, student buy-in will be high and they will be an avenue of support for this effort.

It may be time to start getting comfortable with being uncomfortable! You owe it to your students—and to yourself.

Preparing for discussion

It is not only teachers who may need help addressing controversial issues in the classroom. Some basic ideas on civil discussion would also be helpful with neighbors, friends and family who think differently about today’s political and economic issues. Basic ideas such as:

        We all have freedom to express our opinion.

        Opinions may differ, but all words must be truthful and factual.

        Hate speech is not an opinion, nor is it factual. It will not be allowed.

        Valid opinions require relevant and factual examples.

        When listening and speaking, respect flows both ways.

In the classroom, there is always the possibility a student unexpectedly raises a controversial issue. Younger students often bring into the classroom what they have seen on television or the computer or what they have overheard from parents or friends. Older students usually wait for a topic in class that is somewhat related to a controversial issue. A natural response is to acknowledge the student and mention other students may have different ideas.

The teacher has a key decision: discuss it now or think about it and prepare for it. Whenever a controversial topic is raised, a structure should have already been created that leaves room for productive and respectful discussion. Ground rules created by and with the students will provide safer and braver spaces to deliver their ideas appropriately while respecting other ideas.

Ground rules

To include all students in a whole-class discussion of ground rules is difficult. Using small groups (that safely accommodate social distancing) and report-outs, the class will hear from students who may not speak otherwise.

Examples of rules such as these may emerge:

         Respect each one of us.

         Listen without interrupting.

         Do not criticize people—just ideas.

         Share information.

         Avoid inflammatory language.

         Everyone has a chance to speak.

The teacher should also submit a ground rule: to facilitate discussion, to provide information, but not to offer a personal opinion.

When proposing a ground rule, a student explains why it is important.

Maximum student ownership develops with this process. But the question will come up: “How do we make sure all members of the class follow the rules?” and “What happens if someone does not follow the ground rules?”

Whether the teacher has listed the rules on chart paper or a Google Doc, there should be a way for students record their assent. For a potential rule breaking, suggestions from students might include comic relief to bring the violator back on track, but immediate recognition of the rule violation by classmates may be sufficient.

NJ Student Learning Standards

Naturally the words “controversial issues” may evoke concern about the appropriateness of such classroom discussions in the school district. Fortunately the New Jersey Student Learning Standards for Social Studies call for an education that fosters a population that is “civic minded, globally aware, and socially responsible” and that:

        Exemplifies fundamental values of American citizenship through active participation in local and global communities.

        Makes informed decisions about local, state, national, and global events based on inquiry and analysis.

        Considers multiple perspectives, values diversity, and promotes cultural understanding.

In response to domestic terrorism at the U.S. Capitol Jan. 6, acting Commissioner of Education Dr. Angelica Allen-McMillan, sent a special broadcast to school districts, writing, “There is a responsibility that the education system must bear for this travesty: how can we effectively improve education in civics and government?” To that end, Allen-McMillan’s broadcast included 11 resources for educators. You can read the broadcast and examine the resources here.

What are the advantages of preparing for, engaging in, and modeling respectful discussion of controversial topics? It develops critical thinking to help understand the complexity of issues. It intensifies personal skills to discuss and document positions in other classes. It relates a classroom discussion to the role a citizen has within the community to identify a core problem creating conflict and explore possible answers to the

Eric Fieldman is a special education teacher at Collingswood High School. He is the adviser to the Collingswood Social Justice League and a member of the NJEA South Jersey Social Justice Coaltion. He can be reached at fieldmanfamily@verizon.net.

Norman Goldman is a former editor of the NJEA Review. He was the first director of what was then called the NJEA Instruction and Training Division. After NJEA retirement, he served as director of community relations at Monmouth University. Currently as a volunteer, he is a guest columnist on education in Florida. He can be reached at normg68@aol.com.

A recipe for controversy

Ground Rules


  1. Explain the importance of creating ground rules for considering—in a respectful way—different points of view.

  2. “You (the students) will create the ground rules.”

  3. I (the teacher) will facilitate the discussion and provide information. Please do not ask me for my opinion.”

  4. “Before we begin, let’s define ground rules, consensus, and commitment.”

  5. Discuss why ground rules are essential.

The teacher is prepared with either chart paper and markers or an open Google Doc (or other collaborative digital file) accessible to all students.


  6. Divide class into small groups (4-5 students) as appropriate with respect to social distancing guidelines. Provide task: “Develop two to three ground rules for a respectful discussion, pick someone to report out, and when you report out, tell why the ground rule is important.”

  7. Time to share. Teacher is ready with chart paper/poster board/Google Dock with heading “Ground Rules” to list rules. Each group’s rep shares their ground rules with class. (Discussion for clarity if necessary)

  8. For repeats on rules, mark a star on the one already listed to indicate support.


  9. “How do these rules make for an accurate, respectful discussion? Do you want to vote on each one?”

10. “How can we make sure we follow these ground rules?”

11. “And what happens if someone does not follow these ground rules?”

After consensus on the ground rules is reached, students are asked to commit to the rules by signing the document, either on a physical chart (if it is safe to do so with respect to pandemic guidelines) or electronically. When posted, it serves as a visual reminder. Students are commended for their efforts to understand and strategize for an appropriate way to handle the complexity of a controversial issue.