Get first steps for creating a respectful yet vibrant environment for students to explore diverse ideas on controversial topics, from politics to profanity, religion to racism.
The Newseum is committed to advocating for the First Amendment. The 45 words that protect freedom of religion, speech, press, assembly and petition are carved 74 feet high in stone on the front of the building. But since its ratification in 1791, this amendment has engendered vigorous debate – sometimes civil, sometimes not – about exactly what these freedoms should mean and how they should apply. With these debates touching on topics from politics and public protests to racial tensions and religion, teaching about the First Amendment inevitably invites controversy. But rather than back away from these potential flashpoints, we believe that the passion and interest these topics elicit can make them a powerful teaching tool.
The four guidelines and debate leader checklist below, based on NewseumED’s experiences and widely held best practices, provide a foundation for those seeking to steer productive conversations about controversial subjects. Yet the success of a conversation about a controversial topic depends on many factors, from the facilitator’s preparation to the mood of the students on the given day. Some of these you can control and some you cannot. These guidelines are designed to help you prepare and plan for as many of the controllable factors as possible and create a flexible environment and experience that can meet your students at their level. Think about these conversations as embarking on a sort of “choose your own adventure” lesson plan. Be prepared to twist and turn in response to your students’ questions and answers, and keep in mind that the measure of success will not be a single final product, but the overall exchange of ideas.
We want to hear your ideas, too! Share your tips for teaching about controversial topics.
GRADE LEVEL: Middle and high school
TIME: 30-60 minutes