Bringing Tough Topics into the Classroom

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  • Bringing tough topics into the classroom is necessary for our students.
  • Strategies for bringing tough topics in your classroom.

I want to start by saying this: I am not the expert on tough topics in the classroom. But I have listened to many experts, those voices who have done the work, and found ways to grow myself. I bring that awareness, that learning, into my classroom to challenge my students’ perspectives and help grow their empathy.

When I share some of the things that we talk about in class, things like source bias, human rights violations, racism, and political agendas, people often ask me how I approach such matters with the children I teach.

A few years ago, I would’ve thought I was crazy. The idea of having a politically or emotionally charged conversation in my classroom would’ve stopped me cold and sent me running for the hills. Even talking about banned books in my language arts class made me nervous. I would get a difficult question from a student and shy away from it, redirecting the conversation as quickly as I possibly could.

I can’t really pinpoint a moment that caused me to change, nor can I tell you what changed in me. And I won’t tell you that the nervousness is completely gone when we delve deep into these issues. But I have realized one incredibly important thing: Shying away from the discomfort perpetuates the problem.

We cannot ignore it because it isn’t going away.

And while I am no expert, I can share the tips I’ve picked up along the way, and what I’ve learned from welcoming these tough topics into my classroom.

They crave more information on something that they’ve seen in the world and don’t yet understand. Click To Tweet

Kids are curious and observant.

They will often notice things–on the news, in literature, or on social media–that we think they blow right by. The idea that in this age of information kids are less observant is not something I’ve personally seen to be true.

They witness the events that happen around them, often in real time because of their access, and they can process more of what’s going on than we give them credit for.

Just last year, I had a student angrily point out that adults never seem to give kids the time of day when it comes to current events, especially controversial ones. That we don’t afford them the benefit of believing they could ask real questions or have legitimate concerns about them.

But the reality is that our students experience these realities, they bear witness to the world, and frankly, they have questions that should be answered. They just aren’t sure how to find the answers yet, nor do they know where to go for them.

We teach critical literacy.

And critical literacy includes the skill of analysis—looking at a piece of media, whether it be writing or another format, and being able to discern meaning based on a variety of factors.

It is viewing circumstances from multiple, well-informed perspectives, and then forming an opinion that they can defend.

While this certainly can be done using a less intense method, I often find that my students will choose an avenue that doesn’t have an easy answer. The natural curiosity I previously spoke to shines through. They crave more information on something that they’ve seen in the world and don’t yet understand.

Kids want to utilize their literacy skills for something that matters to them. And often, that something doesn’t fit into a category that yields a simple, black and white answer.

It is literally our job to educate the future.

For me, this realization was a turning point. It made me more willing to broach some of the more uncomfortable topics that I would previously avoid.

Our children sit in our classes each day, being shaped into the people they will become. They are taking in endless amounts of information, soaking it up like sponges. And much of it is unrelated to content area skills.

These kids are going to be citizens, parents, voters, homeowners, drivers, participants, in our world.

We are preparing them for these, and many other, roles. Providing them with what they need to do it successfully is vital. If we avoid entire areas, especially ones they bring up, we are doing them a disservice. We deny them the ability to acquire this knowledge in a safe, supportive environment.

When we leave their questions unanswered, we do two things. Prompt them to find information elsewhere, which could result in harmful or even false learning, or we knowingly keep them uninformed.

That being said, not every student is ready for some of the heavy issues that could be brought up, and it is our job to know that as well. We are the professionals, well-versed in the preparedness of the kids we have in class. Their developmental readiness for given issues may not be there, and some things are best discussed at home with families.

In this case, it is still our job to acknowledge them as learners and encourage them to find answers—either at a better time when they are ready for them, or with their family at home. I often reach out to families in this instance, giving them some background on their child’s question or concern, and offering my support.

Use literature as a starting point.

Sometimes, classroom discussions or questions aren’t the best way to help our students learn about complicated subjects. Literature can provide us with a window into the lives of those with circumstances different than our own.

Being in a language arts class, I take advantage of this fact as much as I can. My classroom library is ever-growing, and I make it my mission to diversify the voices represented in it.

I have books on gender, racism, and divorce. Books with main characters who have experienced mental illness, whether it be their own or that of a loved one. Titles that talk about addiction and its effects on the family members of those who suffer from it. Characters who are figuring out their sexuality and belong to the LGBTQ community. Protagonists who have lost parents, friends, grandparents, and pets. Books which take place in countries far from the one we are in.

There are books in my library to represent as many voices as possible. Because for students to develop a sense of empathy and understanding regarding these topics, they need an accessible way to experience them. Books can provide that access, that starting point, and help us have a conversation.

Make information accessible for students.

The sixth graders I work with tend to be more concrete thinkers (there’s that knowledge of their developmental readiness). So when we discuss more difficult subjects, they need a lens through which they can develop an understanding.

In one unit, we discuss that in many countries, people’s basic human rights are violated. In this literature circle unit, each book explores the meaning of culture and identity. My students also learn about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in social studies, which we bring in to our language arts class as well.

As we discuss these violations of human rights, such as girls not having access to education or children being forced to work on cacao plantations, my students wonder how countries get away with this.

From there, we begin talking about how systems can be put in place that allow rights to be violated more subtly, by ensuring certain groups of people continue to be successful, while others are denied access to the same opportunities. My students don’t quite understand how this is possible, as many of them don’t personally experience it.

So we create a concrete example.

Every student has a piece of paper and their chair.

I tell them the law: They are unable to take their feet off the floor or their booty off the chair. They cannot break the law.

Then, I place a garbage can up on a stool at the front of the room. I tell them that the garbage can  represents a successful future. A career, a home, comfortable amount of money, etc. They all can see it, so it’s fair. I remind them of the law, and how important the law is.

We ball up the piece of paper. I remind them again about the law and how bad it is to break it.

Then, I tell them that in order to have the successful future, they have to make their balled up piece of paper into the garbage can. We throw them.

There’s grumbling about the fairness of the students in front vs. the back as some struggle to make it in while still following the rules.

So we try again, but this time I make a few changes. I offer a small group of students easier access to some of their “rights”. Readily available food, education, water, money. I push those granted this access right up to the front, directly next to the garbage can, blocking everybody else’s view. This time around the small number in front made it in immediately, while those in the back were left even angrier than the first time around.

I tell them that I haven’t violated anyone’s rights because we all had access to the same piece of paper and we could all see the garbage can.

We all could make our paper into the wastebasket, regardless of our access to what we needed. The people in the back just weren’t working hard enough.

The room quiets. You can see the realization dawning on their faces, one by one. This is true. This is something that really, actually happens.

Connect the example to the world.

Then we talk about what kinds of systems might look like that. I specifically reference education and parental wealth. I end by asking the kids in the back how badly they wanted to break the law and get out of their chairs to have the future they want.

The example helps them to see that even if a violation to human rights isn’t blatant, it can still happen. It gives a picture of something that’s difficult to see, and it started a conversation about something that’s tough to talk about. It gives us a springboard to understand and seek out new information. Exactly like we need it to.

[scroll down to keep reading] Finally, ask a lot of questions.

I do my absolute best to keep my own opinions out of a conversation, especially one about a complicated or controversial matter. I’ve found that the best way to do this is by responding to my students with a question, or by helping them seek out their own answers.

When we answer questions ourselves, we tend to answer with our own biases at the forefront and lead people to an answer we want them to see. We offer them the lens through which we experience a given situation.

However, we check our bias at the door when we guide our students to find their own answers and solutions. We allow our kids to discover for themselves. And we give them the room to establish their own thinking, their own opinion, without the murkiness of our own.

Above all, they learn to be well-informed, active participants in their world. And that shouldn’t be shied away from at all.

About Katelynn Giordano

Katelynn Giordano is a Middle Level Language Arts Educator in Illinois and Training & Development Specialist for the Teach Better Team. She writes on her blog, Curriculum Coffee, and for the Teachers on Fire magazine.

In 2019, Katelynn presented information on action research in the classroom with a team at the National Council of Teachers of English Convention in Baltimore.

Katelynn is a dynamic educator who is passionate about student voice and empowerment, promoting equity, and valuing teachers as professionals.

Katelynn is also a member of the Teach Better Speakers Network.