It’s Complicated: How a Milken Educator Helps Students Talk About Difficult SubjectsSeptember 27, 2018
Paula Franklin teaches social studies at West High School in Knoxville, Tennessee. As Brett Kavanaugh's controversial Supreme Court nomination dominates the news and social media, she talked about how she handles discussions of current events, especially around polarizing and emotional subjects.
I teach AP U.S. Government and IB Global Politics, so the current Supreme Court confirmation hearing [of Brett Kavanaugh] and all the issues surrounding it fit well within what we do in my class. It took me a long time to figure out how to address controversial issues in my public school classroom, and I had to reevaluate even more after the 2016 election. I have a couple of strategies I use consistently.
First, you have to spend the time building a community in your classroom. I teach high school and my kids have been in school together their whole lives, so it might be natural to think this is a step you can skip. But you have to teach them how to interact with each other within the context of your content.
I find that I have to spend the most time with my “woke” kids. We talk about building a system of mutual respect, about how to talk to people who disagree with you without arguing or talking down.
Before I start a classroom discussion, I challenge my students to find reputable sources to support or challenge their viewpoints. When you build in the expectation of support and reputability of sources, any argument becomes less personal. We become less likely to injure the relationships we’ve built in our classroom community.
Each month, my students submit a current events analysis project in which they analyze three separate current events through the context of our course content. Within that analysis, there is a space for students to share their own personal reflection. I encourage them to be honest in this reflection and let them know that this is their space to express their frustration with or support of an event, policy, topic, etc. without fear of judgement from their classmates. Once they know that they have this outlet, they are less likely to be incendiary in class.
The issues surrounding Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination have prompted discussions in my classroom around what qualities a candidate for the Supreme Court should have, both personal and professional. This has raised some interesting discussion on the issue of our informal qualifications for a Supreme Court Justice considering the lack of formal qualifications listed in the Constitution. And also around definitions within relationships between young men and young women, what constitutes sexual assault within the context of current events, whether teenage behavior should be considered decades later, how the Senate is handling the nomination relative to their constitutional obligation of advice and consent, and how the media’s coverage of the issue is affecting the course of events. Some of the conversations have been emotional, and that’s okay. My job is to make sure we CAN have these important conversations in a safe, reflective, fact-rich environment that constantly refers back to our course content and builds objective analytical and evaluative skills that students will be able to use long after they leave my classroom.
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