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How to Cover Sensitive Topics in Class

Tuesday, September 3, 2013 -- Scott Sterling

August 28th marked the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Subsequently, various days in September mark the 50th anniversaries of schools in southern states and cities being desegregated, sometimes with hostile results.

This was a painful, yet important, time in the nation’s history. It would be a disservice to those who fought for civil rights to ignore the period. Nevertheless, in some schools and classrooms, race relations may be a sensitive topic. Others come up throughout the year as well. What are some things to keep in mind when covering topics that make some teachers uncomfortable?

Speak factually

You’ve spent the first few weeks of the school year building a good rapport with your students. Now would not be the time to interject your opinion into the subject, no matter how good your relationship is. In every election year, for example, teachers find themselves in trouble for discussing their personal political views. The same could happen here. Stick to the facts and let the kids form their own opinions. That’s the point, right?

Model respectful discourse

During the lesson, you’re going to eventually let the students speak. As multicultural and diverse as our schools now are, chances are that a student has a unique perspective to lend to the conversation. However, teachers can be rightfully nervous any time the children speak on a sensitive topic. They have no filter. So it’s important to model what respectful, polite discourse looks like throughout the year. If you stay professional, chances are that they will, too.

Use video and audio extensively

As I was watching the coverage of the anniversary of the March, I realized the only video I’d ever seen of Dr. King was the speech itself. I went to YouTube, found a lot of his various TV appearances and debates, and got a much clearer picture of the man. Use as many of the tools at your disposal as you can to give the students a well-formed experience of the topic at hand. If you choose your media wisely, you also don’t have to worry about opinions being interjected.

Let parents and students know in advance

Some parents might not want their students participating in certain conversations, even if the topic is included in the state’s adopted curriculum or pacing guide. Be courteous to your parent-partners when a sensitive topic, book, or film is coming up and send a short note or e-mail home. They may opt out of the lesson, which is fine. They will all certainly appreciate the heads-up to prepare themselves for what may be an uncomfortable conversation in the car or at the dinner table.