Darlington School: Teaching Difficult Topics in the Classroom
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Teaching Difficult Topics in the Classroom

Melissa Smyly | October 30, 2017 | 347 views

This past weekend I was having a conversation with a friend of mine about school. She wanted to know if we were adjusting well to our new situation and how my classes were going. I told her that everything was great and that my classes were fantastic. Then I explained to her how at Darlington we structure our English courses around essential questions instead of thematic units.

My English II students have just finished up with our first unit: How are gender, race, and culture tied to a person’s identity?

“Wow,” she said, “That’s a tough unit to start the year, huh?”

As I thought about her question I realized yes, it was a difficult unit for the beginning of school, but at the same time, it was a perfect unit to really get our students thinking about who they are, how they feel about others, and what outside factors influence those feelings. One of the essays that we read in class was an article written by Brent Staples in 1987 called “Black Men in Public Spaces.” When we read through the piece, many of my students were surprised that it was written thirty years ago, as many of the issues that it discussed are front page news right now.

I have always felt that it is extremely important to teach students how to be comfortable having conversations about difficult topics, because dialogue not only answers questions, but also breaks down some of the walls that are built simply from ignorance on a topic.

Because all educators love a good acronym, I like to use the following plan that I found in an article written in 2012 by Alicia Moore and Molly Deshaies:


Set the stage for difficult conversations by assessing student readiness based on realistic, non-biased expectations. Set the stage by creating a supportive environment based on respect. Provide a framework that sets objectives connected to the curriculum when possible.

Enable and facilitate the discussion of ideas, not people. The teacher must support students and enhance their opportunities to grow in the discussion. The facilitator provides guidelines for safe, productive and respectful discussions and for interventions such as dispelling myths, helping students make curricular connections and clarifying students’ contributions to the conversation. Taking this role seriously can be the difference between a successful or unsuccessful conversation.

Never allow your personal bias and opinions to influence the facts or get in the way of opportunities for students to examine diverse perspectives. Know your biases and be aware of their impact on your thoughts, attitudes and behaviors related to teaching.

Seek out age and grade level appropriate digital media, readings and other materials that allow students to begin with baseline knowledge and that will be the basis of discussions. Identify materials that show students to “see both sides”: illustrate diverse perspectives and provide students with opportunities to analyze, synthesize and evaluate content discussed.

Interpersonal classroom activities that involve discussing sensitive or controversial issues should be complemented with intra-personal activities like self-reflection and personal awareness. Allowing the students to have time to reflect on their feelings, conscious and unconscious thoughts, and any new learning provides enhanced opportunities for growth. Seek feedback from students to inform your instructional decisions about upcoming lessons.

The act of summarizing conversations, either orally or in writing, provides students with a chance to recall new or interesting information, and review what was said and how it fits or conflicts with personally held thoughts and opinions. Summarization serves as a foundation for possible subsequent actions such as making personal changes, examining new perspectives, or learning to respect and value the diverse perspectives of others.

Invite disagreement. Encourage students to speak up with different opinions while still maintaining decorum. It is up to you to foster and maintain civility in your classroom and to help students understand the guidelines for discussing difficult ideas. One way to view civility is through the lens of the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Remind students that we all have the right to agree or disagree with others’ perspectives on sensitive topics.

Value the diversity of your students as an asset. Teach your students to do the same. Your actions affect the culture and climate of your classroom. In a classroom that truly values the contributions and differences of all students, authentic opportunities for teaching and learning are nurtured and embraced by all stakeholders.

Emotional and tense moments may arise during discussions about sensitive issues. Be prepared to help students work through them. Acknowledge that there may be times when they feel uncomfortable talking about the issue. Speak to this discomfort and share your personal thoughts and feelings about discomfort you may feel.

Always remember to be SENSITIVE in your classroom when discussing difficult topics, don’t shy away from them. As long as your students feel safe in your classroom environment some wonderful conversations can occur.