Last February, I showed an Ezra Klein video on the rise of Donald Trump in some of my history classes. The video’s thesis was that Trump is “the most dangerous major presidential candidate in memory.” My stated purpose was that the video served as a timely example of how one’s claim need not always come at the very start of an argument. Also, given the degree of interest my students had in the primaries at the time, it seemed particularly relevant. Yet as someone who had been following the primaries with particular interest as a student of history, a teacher, a father, and a citizen, I knew that I did like the video — not because I was “With Her” or “Feeling the Bern” (I wasn't), but because I was concerned with how flippantly the election of the most powerful person in world history was being treated, and I didn't appreciate the debased rhetoric that was making headline after headline. I didn't tell my students that I appreciated the video giving voice to some of my concerns, but students are smart, and I'm sure many of them sensed my bias.
As it turned out, later that night a parent called my principal, concerned about me “pushing my politics” on students through showing the video. My principal spoke with me the next day, and I submitted a written explanation of why I shared the video along with an apology. That same day, I told my kids I was sorry, and that I hoped any of them knew they and their parents were welcome to come to me with any concerns they had, that it was my job as a professional to listen and make adjustments based on feedback . All said, the problems my mistake started resolved in a gracious fashion (thanks to all involved), and I am very thankful for that .
All of that is to say that I made a mistake, primarily in the area of even-handedness (the First Imperative — see below). And the point of this article is to help you do better than me. So how do we teach controversial topics well, especially the ones in which we have pretty strong opinions ourselves?
The Three Imperatives for teaching controversial topics
The First Imperative for teaching controversial topics (or “teaching the conflicts,” as Gerald Graff wrote about years ago in his Beyond the Culture Wars: How Teaching the Conflicts Can Revitalize American Education) is that we must be as even-handed as possible. This advice isn’t my own; it comes from a recorded conversation I had with Dr. Graff (and his co-author, Cathy Birkenstein) several months ago.
According to Dr. Graff, “Nothing kills an argument more than when the students get the sense that they’re being browbeaten, that the teacher’s on one side trying to convert them, and that the other side isn’t really being aired.” If students sense the teacher’s bias (or see it in the lopsided sets of evidence we provide them with, like my example with the one strongly anti-Trump Ezra Klein video), we won’t really be teaching them to argue and think critically at all; instead, we’ll be teaching them that school is a place where they’re told what to think. Inevitably, this demotivates kids. There’s no autonomy in a one-sided argument.
2. Explicitly teach argument
The Second Imperative is that we must actually teach students to argue. Much has been written on this, but the simplest starting places I’ve found are the “Argument Builder” sheets produced by Les Lynn over at Argument-Centered Education. (See my review of Les’ Refutation Two-Chance here.)
3. Let kids argue
Finally, the Third Imperative is that we then let students argue. Here, classroom management is critical, and I recommend the Pop-Up Debate protocol as a management tool. The goal during a debate on a controversial topic is that everyone participates, that an atmosphere of intellectual engagement is maintained throughout the argument, and that respect and civility are the behavioral norms.
The goal of such lessons is that our students get closer to what I call Fulkersonian argument, from Richard Fulkerson’s Teaching the Argument in Writing:
The goal [of argument] is not victory but a good decision, one in which all arguers are at risk of needing to alter their views, one in which a participant takes seriously and fairly the views different from his or her own.
Teaching the controversies, to me, isn’t an optional teacher thrill; it’s not the sky diving of teaching. Rather, it’s a central part of the educator’s work in maintaining a democratic society.
- Just for the record, while I do wish the student or parent had come directly to me, I don't believe anyone meant to be unreasonable in the situation. I know that I didn't mean to be — I didn't wake up hoping I'd have the chance to be lop-sided in my treatment of a controversial issue — and I have full faith that the student and the parent didn't, either — they didn't wake up thinking, “Let's take a problem straight to the teacher's boss rather than talking to him about it.” Seth Godin treats this topic very well in his “No One Is Unreasonable” essay, which you can find here.
- Of course, every year there are teachers who receive much more than a complaint when they broach controversial topics — and sometimes, those teachers (unlike myself in this situation) broach such topics with the utmost of care. And since I don’t hope for any of you to lose your jobs using Kelly Gallagher’s article of the week assignment or teaching an argumentative unit or having kids use pop-up debate or leading a discussion on this fall's election, I hope this post helps.
[hr]Thank you to Jerry Graff and Cathy Birkenstein for being a constant source of help in contemplating the teaching of argument. Also, thank you to Jackie, a teacher in Tucson who graciously chatted with me about an earlier version of this post over email. If it is a better, clearer post now than it used to be, it is because of her.
Thanks Dave, an important post for the times and while you disclosed your leanings – it is important to remember that we certainly do not have all the answers. Many times our students come in repeating the views of their parents – and sensitivity on many levels must be maintained. I like the way you ‘humbly’ received the parents critique – rather than rally and attack their viewpoints. There is heat about this election and both sides have their strong arguments which are valid and cause for consideration. We must “deconstruct” the impulse to name call – especially when the “racist’ tag is s easily used. I like to tell my students that whoever is elected – I will honor their role as the President of the U.S. We as teachers can offer a sense of unity and “oneness” through which healing can occur and matters of politics and debate which is critical, can be less heated and more exalted – indeed that we even have the space to air our viewpoints. I am a teacher in the Bronx, NY – 12th grade – where issues of race, class, and identity and long-standing beliefs need to be handled with care. I believe my effective modeling can be a benefit for my students. Thanks for a good post!
Sarah G. says
Because of my obvious bias, I’ve tried really hard to find texts that allow students to think critically instead of just hearing what other people think. I was surprised at how much thought they put into analyzing Trump’s speech from the RNC and Michelle Obama’s speech from the DNC. They were critical of both, and many of them were excited to be a “part of the conversation”. Both were articles of the week, and I got 100% completion from all my classes (compared to the article on picking a college major that only half of them did). Kids like to argue when they know they have an audience that will take them seriously and when they have the skills. I’m trying my best to do provide both, and I am so thankful for the help in doing that. Yay for Pop-Up Debates and all the great links!
I’m wondering if you (or any of your readers) have advice for science teachers on this topic. Every year, I make sure I give my admins a heads up when I’m going to be teaching evolution or climate change. While scientists do not view these topics as controversial, many Americans do. I don’t feel like “teaching the controversy” in these cases is the best way to go about it (especially in the case of evolution), because the sides in this argument are using entirely different frames of reference, and it’s my job to teach science, not theology. Thankfully, I have state standards that I can point to to justify my inclusion of these topics, but I still make sure to preface my unit on evolution with “I’m not telling you what to think or believe, I’m just showing you the best explanation science has come up with.”
Lorna Waye-Munn says
I try to emphasize to the students that we all have biases, including myself but it is most important that they recognize them and that they learn to choose their biases wisely. That means understanding, knowing and continuing to learn, about the argument. This also means a willingness to change their choices as they learn more. I also tell them one of the reasons young people don’t vote is that they are afraid to choose a side they don’t wholeheartedly agree with. This can marginalize them from the political process. I like to frame their participation in the political process as not so much about civic duty but more about them not being afraid to make choices. Even if they find they are on the other side of the argument later on.
This is a post I wrote the day after the election. I would like to repost it here as it addresses this very topic:
I am going to re-post something I wrote yesterday in a different form because it speaks to the protests last night. Today, [the day after the election], in class, [I am a NYC teacher], kids came in really scared that they would be immediately deported. This was concerning to me b/c that is what the Spanish stations were feeding them. I know because I speak Spanish and were watching those same stations. This fear made me extremely sad. I had to address their concerns as an educator. Together, we watched the Trump acceptance speech, Hillary’s concession speech, and Obama’s speech and we spoke about their tone. The students themselves, came to the conclusion that there wasn’t a witch-hunt brewing and that they weren’t going to be dragged from their homes. They calmed down taking their cues from the primary sources – the speakers themselves, which is what we teach. This was refreshing. While social media is telling them that they will all be deported and vilified, foaming resentment and alienation – they were able to be positive role models amongst their peers. The fear is palpable and must be deconstructed. This is why Thomas Jefferson said, “An enlightened citizenry is indispensable for the proper functioning of a republic. Self-government is not possible unless the citizens are educated sufficiently to enable them to exercise oversight. It is therefore imperative that the nation see to it that a suitable education be provided for all its citizens.” Literacy has become the dominate theme in school and as we become more selective in our consumption of “news” our diets begin to change and the main street media stranglehold is broken. Thank God!
To add to this post, the mayhem was lesser today, but messages of fear prevailed. I was saddened to see protesters on the streets that when questioned by reporters were not articulate, could not fully express why they were there, and at times a little hysterical. What we must remember is that there are elements who want to destroy the peaceful transition of power. They do not want to ‘Keep an open mind and give Trump a chance,” as Hillary and President Obama exhorted. From my own parents, who emigrated from Communist countries I can tell you that using “resentment and fear” is a tactic to incite rebellion, distrust and hatred. It is up to us that love this country and all its people to be the voice of unity, love, open-heartedness, and justice. Yes, we need to listen to those who have legitimate concerns, and we also need to be able to distinguish from those who want to create havoc. Let us bring our country together – and practice by illustration the American values of fairness, justice, and equality for all.