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Responding to Controversial Topics in the Classroom

Here are some suggested responses to common questions teachers may encounter as they introduce their students to important and, at times, contested resources and perspectives that students need to explore in order to truly be active citizens of our world.

Aren’t you indoctrinating kids with your values or beliefs?

Fostering critical thinking skills is a primary goal of our approach as educators. We always introduce topics and materials through a lens of inquiry and multiple perspectives, voices, and opinions. Engaging students in active discussion actually helps guard against indoctrination by teaching young people to think critically and independently.

Is this part of a radical or leftist agenda?

Whenever teaching about real-world issues, the goal is to help students uncover the causes and consequences of exploitation. This teaches them to question who benefits from promoting or allowing harm to others, as well as how this harm affects ourselves and the people, animals, and natural world we are connected to in so many direct and indirect ways. The capacity for exploitation doesn’t have an agenda, as harm and abuse of power can be found among all political and social groups. Education helps students develop their own views and priorities for action by introducing real-life topics, transparently sourced, within an open, critical, and respectful learning space.

Are you teaching critical race theory?

Critical race theory is a specific framework that is both complex and more likely to be taught in law school or grad school classes versus the K-12 level. Our ethical commitment as educators is to use evidence-based, well-researched, and non-dogmatic resources in teaching about both historical and current forms of exploitation and harm to people, animals, and our natural environment. We also teach about the ways in which people have taken action to create a more just and equitable society. Teaching about racism in our history – both its impact on larger social structures and in our daily lives – is essential to helping students understand the complexity of our modern world. This provides opportunities to reflect personally and take action collectively in working towards achieving a more equitable future for all. Avoiding our history does not erase it, and the point of teaching about it is not to make anyone feel guilty. In fact, understanding our history empowers us to take actions toward connecting with our communities and healing together.

Why does your class have books and resources that undermine traditional values?

Sharing diverse perspectives (including LGBTQIA+, multiple faith traditions, and geographic, racial, familial, and ethnic experiences) doesn’t undermine anyone. In fact, it helps students understand and affirm that all identities are worthwhile, including their own. By acknowledging and respecting these multiple perspectives, as well as identifying our mutual interests with others near and far, we give students permission to share their deeply held beliefs and cultural traditions, bringing them to life in active discussion around issues that they will soon — or already — think about and act on. Moreover, students benefit both emotionally and academically from learning about multiple perspectives and through the representation of diverse experiences in lessons and books.

Won’t this upset students?

Young people are acutely aware of the challenges we’re facing as a society, such as climate change. Avoiding topics does not make them go away, but instead leaves young people to grapple with these issues on their own. The ongoing impact of the pandemic has only increased the importance of giving young people an opportunity to openly discuss difficult topics, acknowledge concerns, and problem-solve with others to reduce stress, anxiety, and feelings of helplessness. Education should be delivered in a developmentally appropriate and nurturing manner that helps young people deepen their understanding and thereby reduce their fears about issues as they learn ways to address them. Younger generations will inevitably be the ones to inherit these problems. The sooner they begin to grapple with real-world issues, the better prepared they will be to contend with them. For this reason, shielding them from the gravity of these issues is a greater disservice.

Shouldn’t you just focus on academics?

As educators, we seek to teach students to be competent across disciplines while studying real-life subjects that are interesting and motivating to students. When content is relevant, students are more engaged and learning is more likely to occur, even by standardized measurements. We teach these skills by connecting them to real-world situations that are relevant to our students’ lives. It is not a matter of real-life issues vs. academics, but rather how we can teach academics more effectively by framing them within real-world issues. The goal is to support students in applying their academic learning to their actual lives in ways that are meaningful while taking the feelings and needs of those around them into consideration.

2 thoughts on “Responding to Controversial Topics in the Classroom”

  1. These are well-thought-out responses. Only now have I heard of your organization in Best Friends magzn, an organization that changed my life in 2000. Your efforts should hopefully help the next generations make this world a better place.

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