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EL Education's Meg Riordan Shares Strategies for Integrating Controversial Topics into Lessons

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    Alexis Margolin

Meg Riordan, Director of External Research and Project Director for EL Education responds to Larry Ferlazzo's question: What are good strategies teachers can use when exploring "controversial" topics? Read the full response with commentaries by Meg Riordan, Lymaris Santana, Sarah Thomas, and Thomas Armstrong on Education Week's Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo

Meg Riordan Quote

Our world does not lack for controversy. One glance through newspaper headlines or Twitter feeds yields possibilities for topics that ignite passion and invite multiple perspectives. Fancy a debate about the 2016 Presidential Election? How about Black Lives Matter? Transgender rights? Minimum wage, internet privacy, and immigration? Or, perhaps the UK's vote to leave the European Union or ISIS peaks your interest? 

These issues capture our attention, sparking curiosity, fear, advocacy, and lively conversation. They capture our students' attention, too; especially those topics that resonate emotionally. In fact, research indicates that "emotion is essential to learning," and when teachers "understand that the best, most durable learning happens when content sparks interest, when it is relevant to a child's life, and when students form an emotional bond with...the subject at hand...", meaningful learning happens. 

That's what we want as educators: meaningful learning that lasts - learning that matters to our students. We want students to be engaged, build knowledge, develop critical thinking skills, and evaluate and synthesize information to construct arguments. We want students to understand multiple points of view and communicate effectively; essentially we want all students to experience deeper learning - learning that we know happens "when they are engaged, believe their studies are important, and are able to apply what they are learning in complex and meaningful ways." 

But exploring controversial topics might seem risky to educators, particularly when trying it out for the first time. Teachers might wonder: how will my students handle a discussion about immigration, racial profiling, or inequity? What if the conversation becomes heated - too personal or unsafe? How can I engage students in discussions about compelling, emotionally-charged issues and maintain "control" of the classroom? 

At Codman Academy in Boston, an EL Education network school, 12th grade students tackled a relevant and complex topic in their learning expedition, Policing in America, exploring the successes, challenges, and the possibilities of policing in the United States. This in-depth investigation engaged students in close reading of texts such as "The Ferguson Report" and "The New Jim Crow" as they grappled with the role and actions of police officers in our society. As students of color, largely growing up in the inner city, considering the shooting of unarmed African American teenagers strikes close to the hearts of this community; teacher Blair Baron indicates that this "is an unbelievably compelling topic..[one] that affects them every day." 

What can we learn from Codman Academy and other EL Education schools about strategies to effectively engage students in discussing controversial issues? 

1. Seek out compelling content: as research above suggests, issues that tap into students' lives, communities, and emotions are a powerful catalyst for engaging students - emotionally and intellectually. Blair confirms, "Once you find a topic that your kids really care about that is supported with great texts, your kids will work very hard, they will read deeper, they will question each other, they will push themselves, they will push each other, and they will be completely invested in this content." Her student agrees, "Because we're able to have a text to self connection, that's what makes us work harder." Rich material that matters to students makes a difference in sparking and sustaining engagement. 

2. Provide texts that offer multiple perspectives on the topic: Exposing students to a variety of primary sources provides opportunities to grapple, analyze, evaluate, interpret, and synthesize - all key to developing deeper learning skills. Another EL Education teacher from Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School (WHEELS) in New York City, Anthony Voulgarides, advocates that students should "have a window into society" and that "by choosing a variety of texts that lend themselves to analysis...[we encourage] a process of thinking" whereby "disagreements about topics become less about the subject matter and more about the presentation of an argument," with evidence to support claims. In fact, research on teaching controversial issues found that engaging students in exploring multiple perspectives helps students focus their attention, increases motivation, encourages higher levels of cognitive reasoning, and promotes higher levels of achievement and retention (Johnson & Johnson, 2009). Also, exploring texts with varying perspectives helps illuminate the complexity of an issue, meaning that teachers can model - implicitly and explicitly - that there is no one "right answer," when considering controversial topics. It is important for educators to be mindful - vigilant, even - of not preaching one perspective on a topic; this is an opportunity to model balanced perspective, allowing students' ideas and feelings to be respectfully heard and considered. 

3. Establish and review norms for discussion: Creating safe spaces is essential when engaging in controversial topics. Anthony shared, "Students bring a wealth of different and often direct experience to controversial topics," so as teachers, "we need to honor experiences while pushing students to think beyond a single point of view." The video of Blair's classroom at Codman Academy offers several norms: - Talk to each other, not to me 

- Listen and respond to each other, rather than just stating your opinion. Your comment must connect to what was said before you
- Take a stand, making a claim supported by evidence
- Be critical, but kind 

Creating norms is a process that takes time, trust, practice, and commitment, allowing students to feel safe engaging in subjects that might otherwise make them uncomfortable. In such cases, norms are not constraints, instead acting as "guardrails." Anthony asserts, "When students can predict how the community will [engage], they begin to take risks with thinking."

4Use sentence starters, graphic organizers, and discussion protocols: Providing students with tools for a conversation helps to build organizational and discussion skills. Graphic organizers are a visual listening and thinking structure that support students in understanding challenging content, while sentence starters launch respectful responses, questions, affirmations, and disagreements. Blair indicates that students “review sentence starters for how to agree, disagree, and how to ask a question,” which gives them a toehold into language to discuss controversial topics. 

She uses graphic organizers “to push the power of listening and the importance of taking time to process and think about what was said” before responding. In the video, two students disagree about the role of the police department. While one asserts that it was “created to protect us as citizens of America” and not “to put the black man down,” another responds, “I think that our country is in a national crisis and...that it’s people like you who don’t feel connected to it; I feel like that’s the problem.” Blair suggests, “Let’s pause. I want you disagreeing with one another - you’ve been doing so respectfully; continue that. A lot was just said. Everyone should take 2 minutes to jot down what was just said.” In this instance, the graphic organizer becomes a place to sort through emotions, process understanding, and harness emerging thoughts and questions. 

Protocols, while not explicit in this video, create steps to support conversations, often identifying time-frames for responses or targeted questions that promote equity of voices (meaning, all students are heard). Within the supportive structure of protocols, students can safely engage in discussion of ideas without worrying that the conversation will go awry. 

5. Collaboratively reflect and debrief: After engaging in controversial conversations, Anthony emphasizes the importance of debriefing with students. He and his students discuss: what were the strongest parts of our conversation, and why? Where did we struggle as a community? What could we do better next time? He believes that, “by making visible the places where there was success and failure, the classroom learning community can begin to self-monitor for future discussions.” 

As educators, our role is not only to prepare students for college and careers, but also to prepare students as citizens and participants in a society where they can, as Blair states, “do something..” and “not just sit back and watch.” Using rich texts and an academic lens to look at controversial issues offers students access to debate in a deep way. They can, as her student emphasizes, “let their voices be heard and take action where it counts.” Engendering students with this power to engage with difficult texts helps them to support their feelings with evidence, more deeply understand the often controversial world we live in, and build tools for lifelong learning.