Discussing Controversial Topics

Controversial topics will probably arise in most upper-level and some lower-level classes. Some topics will be inappropriate, and you will want to stop those discussions as soon as they begin. However, there are times when you will want to address important, current topics. For example, if cloning is in the news, it might be a good time to discuss it in a government or science class. Your job as the teacher is to facilitate and lead the discussion in an appropriate manner.

Avoiding Stereotypical Speech

Be prepared to address the way students frame their thoughts when talking about controversial topics. For example, it would not be appropriate at any time during a whole-class discussion for students to begin teasing or name-calling others for their beliefs.

Similarly, it would not be appropriate to allow students to speak in a stereotypical manner about others. It is best to require your students to prove any claims they make. In other words, if they are going to make an inflammatory statement, they should have the scientific proof to back it up.

It is also important that you, too, follow this precept in your class. Do not lump a group of people together to make claims about them. For example, do not say, “All teenagers need to learn how to drive better.” Politics is another area where this could occur, and will be covered in greater detail later in this chapter.

The meaning and context of words is continually evolving. Students today use many words to refer to each other that once were considered racial slurs. Still, if you feel a word is inappropriate and offensive, you should require students to avoid using it.

Holding Classroom Debates

Debates are an extremely important and effective tool for teaching students how to research and approach a topic. You should not shy away from them simply because they can lead to controversial discussions. You can minimize the problems associated with debates by following some simple steps:

  • Give students ample time to research their debate topics.

  • Make sure that students know that inappropriate comments and speech will not be allowed.

  • Give all students a rubric explaining exactly how the debate will be graded.

  • Explain on your rubric that points will be deducted for stereotypical speech and name-calling.

  • Make it clear that all points introduced in the debate must be backed up by credible sources and require students to turn in a bibliography at the end.

  • Strictly limit speaking time, and make sure that only one student speaks at a time.

  • Allow for guided, open discussion at the end of a debate to talk about any important issues that might have come up during the debate.

Debating can be a lot of fun and is very interesting for both the students and the teacher. But don't let the fun distract you — it is still up to you to keep the students focused on the topic and speaking in an appropriate manner.

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  4. Discussing Controversial Topics
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