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Addressing Sensitive Topics in the Classroom

By Nadyja Von Ebers on June 21, 2021 In Teachers

It's normal to feel nervous or hesitant to discuss sensitive topics in the classroom, but there are some best practices that will help you address important but potentially difficult content with your students in a way that fosters a healthy learning environment and personal growth

Preparing your students for class discussion

At some point as a teacher, you'll be faced with discussing sensitive or even controversial topics in the classroom. This may relate directly to content you're teaching (for example, a novel about social inequity, a unit on climate change, or a lesson on sex education). Or, content may pertain to current events or the current news cycle. Here's how you can tackle these topics in an empathetic and helpful way.

Prepare Your Students As Best As Possible 

If you know ahead of time that you're discussing sensitive curriculum, you can thoroughly prepare your students. For example, you can have them read about a topic ahead of time, provide any necessary context or information, and/or give them a heads up that a strong response to the content is normal. 

Part of preparing your students also involves being as clear as possible about the objectives of a lesson ahead of time. Letting your students know why you're discussing or studying a particular subject is extremely important to help them digest the information in a meaningful way. Is this lesson intended to accompany a debate? Provide information or a perspective that is lesser-known? Bring up important questions for reflection?

You can also set clear boundaries and ground rules for the discussion ahead of time, like letting one student talk at a time and avoiding any inflammatory language or remarks towards one another. Emphasize to your students that they do not have to agree with one another in order to respect one another.

Be an Empathic and Civil Facilitator

Chances are that you will have strong feelings or opinions about whatever sensitive topic you're discussing. While you certainly don't have to feign neutrality, remember that a healthy discussion with your students isn't about being on a soapbox or a tirade or coming up with the "right" answers. The more empathy you can have for the wide range of your students' lived experiences, the better suited you'll be to facilitate a civil discussion.

discussing sensitive topics in the classroom

Here are some of the ways you can quarterback a conversation on a sensitive topic without dominating the conversation, while also fostering everyone's well-being and, understanding, and higher learning:

  • Ask open-ended questions that get students thinking, rather than encourage them to "choose a side" on a topic 
  • Reframe questions in different ways 
  • Above all, listen to your students
  • Step in and mediate if students become disrespectful to one another
  • Correct any actual misinformation 
  • Relate what students share directly back to readings or assignments to ground the discussion in well-chosen learning materials
  • Emphasize that ideas are different than personhood; students can disagree about an idea and still honor one another.

Honor Strong Emotions 

Depending on the topic, different students will have different levels of emotional investment and sensitivity, and this is okay. 

Strong feelings, so long as they are not framed as insults toward other students, are a healthy reaction to many types of content and they don't need to be swept under the rug. In fact, cultivating a classroom where students feel safe enough to be vulnerable with their emotions is a wonderful thing. 

If possible, stay as calm and compassionate as possible, creating space for your students to work through strong emotional responses. You can always allow them to leave the room for a few moments if they become overwhelmed, or to seek the support of your school's guidance counselor. 

Encourage Different Forms of Reflection 

Sometimes verbal discussion of sensitive topics can be overwhelming for students.  Before, during, or after the actual discussion, encourage your students to reflect on the topic in different ways. For instance, ask them to journal on an open-ended question pertaining to the topic or have them ask anonymous questions ahead of time so you can get a sense of what they already do or do not know about a subject. 

Assigning student journaling

Always Error to the Side of Human Rights, Diversity, and Inclusion

This is arguably the most important one. While it's obviously key to look out for all of your students and acknowledge that each is entitled to their own opinion, human rights are not debatable. James Baldwin famously said, "We can disagree and still love each other unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist."

To that point, racism, intolerance, or bigotry of any kind, however subtle, should never be tolerated in your classroom, and the protection of your most marginalized and vulnerable of your student body should be paramount

diversity and inclusion in the classroom

Your students will likely come from a diverse background with different intersections of privilege or lack thereof, and it's your job as an educator to make sure that students' fundamental human rights are honored and protected. 

It's also worthwhile to note that while addressing human rights issues, feeling a little uncomfortable can be good and productive. When exploring issues of marginality and oppression, students may be pushed beyond their comfort zone, and this is part of the learning process. 

For more resources on this topic, please be encouraged to peruse our educator resources for teaching about racism and social justice, which contain many tips for fostering an actively anti-racist classroom and teaching about sensitive subjects related to race and identity.

Wrap Up The Discussion as Neatly as Possible

Try to leave a few minutes at the end of class to recap and regroup so that no one leaves the classroom particularly heated as the bell rings. Encourage further reading and reflection, and commend your students for productive, respectful discussion. 

Time permitting, you can ask some open-ended questions (or assign them as homework) about what your students learned, what questions they still have, etc. 

Foster Long-Term Empathy and Open-Mindedness

Really, the key to meaningful discussions about sensitive topics lies in encouraging empathy and open-mindedness all of the time. The more you normalize the integration and discussion of potentially sensitive topics with compassion and respect, the more your students will be able to rise to the occasion. 

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