Hot-Button Handling

Hot-Button Handling

Social studies and hot-button issues go hand in hand. Here's how to prevent inevitable sparks from f

Curriculum director Jerry Foucher says nobody paid much attention to the development of course content for social studies and civics classes in his district. Until last school year. Then there was uproar.

The controversy started in March, about the time of the outbreak of war in Iraq. The district, Farmington (Mich.) Public Schools, was introducing changed graduation requirements, including a new international affairs class geared toward making students better global citizens.

After hearing about the class, some parents were unhappy. And they complained. Bitterly.

One objection was that the parents felt certain Web sites included in source lists for the course contained biased and anti-American views on U.S. foreign policy and the war with Iraq. But they learned from district officials that those sites were meant to be used as teacher research only. Administrators agreed to add other resources to present a more balanced list.

When the school board adopted the curriculum in June, Foucher had it reviewed by Mideast experts. But some parents are still unhappy, saying the course gives too much weight to other culture's viewpoints.

"We have to be able to discern as citizens policies that are good and policies that are bad. There was no problem challenging American policies, but there was no challenging other countries' policies,'' says Don Cohen, a founding member of The Farmington Public Education Network and father of a sixth grader and an eighth grader.

The parent group, which has about 25 members, filed Freedom of Information requests demanding the school district reveal how the international affairs curriculum was written and adopted. Administrators complied.

"We are after recognition that the community has a role and should be consulted on these types of issues,'' Cohen says.

Foucher acknowledges that he and other administrators in Farmington learned a valuable lesson from the uproar, even if they were stunned by the emotional intensity of it. "There are some topics people have deep investments in. I've learned that when folks have deep connections to [issues]--like the Mideast--I need to listen carefully, walk slowly and give folks a lot of room for input,'' he says.

Farmington is not the only U.S. school district facing angry parents over class discussions about the Mideast, war in Iraq and 9/11 terrorist attacks. And these hot-button issues are just the latest ones to spark a review of whether certain topics belong in the classroom.

Topic of the Day

The very issue of discussing controversial issues in the classroom is as controversial as some of the topics can be, say education experts. On one side are educators arguing that one of the basic goals of public education is preparing students to become good citizens. That means they need to learn how to become critical thinkers and discuss issues facing the nation.

On the other side are some parent, political or religious groups who say schools are not the place for a discussion on such topics as abortion, creationism or, these days, the Mideast. They say teachers can be biased and indoctrinate students to a certain line of thought. Some fear that teachers will sway children away from particular family values.

Then there are the teachers and administrators stuck in the middle, who want students to learn to be critical thinkers but fear a public uproar if they introduce certain topics.

Education experts say that discussion of controversial topics in the classroom dates back to the Founding Fathers, notably Thomas Jefferson.

"It is not a crazy, new idea,'' says Peter Levine, deputy director of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at the University of Maryland. "It's why schools were established."

Prior to the 1960s, students routinely took several semesters of civics classes that included discussion about problems in democracy, he explains. But with the onset of the Vietnam War and the debate about abortion, schools started to shy away from it.

Although many districts include making students better citizens in their mission statements today, civics classes have increasingly disappeared from the curriculum. With budget cuts and pressure for achievement on standardized tests, educators often complain that there is no time or room in the curriculum anymore for in-depth discussions on civic topics, Levine says.

He and others argue that schools are doing students a disservice by not engaging them in discussions about topics of the day. A recent report endorsed by the America Federation of Teachers, the National Council for the Social Studies, The Heritage Foundation and others argues that teaching controversial issues in schools helps students become more engaged in the democratic process.

Levine co-authored the report, The Civic Mission of Schools, which was released by the Carnegie Corp. and CIRCLE in February. Schools are in the unique position of being able to impart citizen norms and help reverse the trend of political apathy among young voters, it states. In addition, schools are the only institution that has the capacity to reach virtually every young person in the U.S.

Why are schools perhaps the best environment in which to discuss controversial issues? Diana Hess, an assistant professor of social studies education for the University of Wisconsin at Madison, says it's because schools are rich with diversity and differences in religious, cultural and ethnic perspectives. Teaching students how to research issues, critically review arguments and perspectives and discuss them in calm and respectful ways teaches them how to behave in a democracy, she says.

"It's important to teach kids how to weigh arguments, evaluate evidence, form an opinion and articulate it to others. ...Those are the skills people in democracy need to have,'' Hess says. "And the only way for kids to learn that is to do that."

Students who are engaged in lively discussions about current topics become more involved citizens later in life, experts say. "We have a fairly solid body of research that shows that the inclusion of controversial issues taught in a certain way appear to be correlated positively with helping students develop attitudes that will spark later political participation,'' Hess explains.

Still, teachers may worry about the consequences of covering these topics if they don't have support from the top. That's why experts such as Carole Hahn, a professor of educational studies at Emory University in Atlanta, say building- and district-level administrators should encourage teachers through professional development. Adding to the district's core mission statement, "preparing students to become better citizens," is recommended, as is supporting teachers if parent or community member objections arise. "Teachers are more likely to do it if administrators say it's important and valued," Hahn says.

Keeping controversial topics out of schools, say educators, is virtually impossible anyway. With advances in technology allowing stem cell research and cloning, even science has become a subject wrought with controversy. Experts say there's often no way to avoid controversial topics when discussing history, social studies or civics.

"Conflict is woven into every aspect of our history,'' says Robin Haskell McBee, a professor of elementary and early childhood education at Rowan University in New Jersey. "Our popular media is full of conflict at all kinds of levels in popular television shows and movies. It's all around us and to say we want to protect our children from that by not having it at all is unrealistic. It's there anyway. Better to teach them in an informed way."

And students want to talk about issues going on around them, experts agree. Amid complaints that academic subjects are irrelevant to their lives, students feel more engaged when discussing topics that they are seeing and hearing about in the media.

Controversy in Action

There is little that Erik Shager, a 12th-grade social studies teacher at an alternative high school in Wisconsin, shies away from. He says he dives right into discussions on hot topics, which have included the health care costs of keeping premature babies alive and book banning in schools. Last year, his class discussed the issue of patriotism and preemptive war.

"Most parents are pretty supportive,'' says Shager, who teaches at The Work and Learn Center, part of Madison Metropolitan School District. "Their kids have been through quite a bit and they've been through quite a bit, and if something is engaging their children they are pretty excited about it."

How you present a controversial issue is as important as the topic you are trying to introduce, say Shager and other educators.

First, the discussions should be infused throughout the curriculum and at most grade levels. Perhaps one of the worst things an educator can do is throw a few heated topics out for discussion in a class midstream without setting any ground rules or informing the community that students will be expected to talk about some of these issues.

Before a new class starts its first discussion on a hot-button issue, Shager sets ground rules. The goal is to make sure every student feels safe expressing his or her opinion, he says. "The biggest thing you worry about is students' feelings. We set some rules, which are established by the students, like making sure only one person talks at a time, no put downs, telling students to ask questions [and not being] afraid to say you don't know."

Shager says he was at first concerned when the class discussed the rights of children of illegal immigrants a few years ago. After all, one student in the class was the daughter of illegal immigrants. On the issue of whether children of illegal aliens should be allowed to attend school, the student didn't offer her perspective.

Later, though, she wrote in her journal that she was very upset about what some students said. Shager wrote back, urging her to speak up about her experiences. She did, and later he revealed to the girl that her arguments were convincing. So convincing, in fact, that the student whose comments had most upset her had written about how he had changed his mind on the issue.

Topics should also relate to the content area and discussions should focus on public policy questions. For example, teachers could bring up the war in Iraq following a discussion on presidential power issues, or abortion in the context of whether the state should fund it.

Eighth-grade social studies teacher Marquetta Thomas started this school year at Campus Middle School in Englewood, Colo., with a class discussion about the Pledge of Allegiance. The state's legislature had recently passed a law saying students had to stand and recite the pledge. The students will also discuss affirmative action cases before the Supreme Court and civil rights. Thomas says she informs parents at the beginning of each year that their children are expected to discuss these topics.

"We encourage our kids to go home and talk to parents. At back-to-school night, we tell parents that this is what is in the curriculum and they can fill out a form that tells what their expertise is. If we can use them, we ask them to come in and be a part of what we are doing,'' she says.

Involving parents is encouraged throughout Thomas' district, Cherry Creek Schools. This gives families the option of removing a child from the classroom if they object, says spokesperson Tustin Amole.

Brainwashing, It's Not

Social studies teachers say the goal of discussions is not to necessarily change minds, but to forge a deeper understanding of issues. Sometimes parents view it differently. They fear a biased teacher will sway children, or they don't understand there are two or more sides to an issue, not just their side.

Last year, one of Thomas' students wanted to research the issue of gay rights, but the parent refused to allow it. "The parent came in extremely upset and said, 'How dare you give my child an option to do this,' '' she says. "The mother made her change her topic."

Experts acknowledge that some teachers may push their own agendas, though they say good classroom facilitators actually stay out of students' discussions. "There is no question that there are horror stories about partisan teachers, racist teachers, teachers that give extra points for bringing in certain campaign signs. Those are disciplinary issues and should not be allowed to happen," Levine says. "But do we throw the baby out with the bath water?''

Cherry Creek certainly doesn't. Its policy on controversial and sensitive issues, originally adopted in 1967, states that teachers have both the right and the obligation to cover these issues in the classroom. However, other obligations are to be as objective as possible and to fairly present all sides of an issue. Professional responsibility and ethics, as well as good taste and common sense, all come into play when teachers exercise academic freedom.

To help ensure instructional value of a controversial topic, the district encourages teachers to ask permission of building administrators before introducing it.

Policy aside, research shows teachers actually don't often sway students, Levine points out. "There is no evidence that kids are greatly affected by teachers with certain political messages. Often they form opinions that are opposite of their teachers. But what is of lasting importance is their interest in current events."

Meanwhile, administrators in Farmington and elsewhere are grappling with giving teachers freedom in the classroom--while addressing the concerns of parents at the same time.

"There is a creative tension between wanting parents to be comfortable with the curriculum and [to] share their concerns, but at the same time you don't want to abdicate your responsibilities as content area experts,'' Foucher says. "It's not easy."

Fran Silverman is a freelance writer based in Norwalk, Conn.


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