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Heed Warnings to Avoid Controversial Subjects or Persist?

by Dr. Jenny L. Santilli, NBCT

Dr. Jenny Santilli

“You’re not going to change my mind. I hate it when people try to change my mind.” A student was vehement that Christopher Columbus was a hero before I even started the lesson. I replied, “It’s not my job to change your mind. My job is to present you with facts you may not be aware of.”

In the end, he said, “You’re right. I learned new stuff.”

Unfortunately, this exchange epitomizes what our nation and many parts of the world are facing: intolerance for differing viewpoints.

I see my students as holistic beings capable of becoming globally competent citizens and multiperspectivalists who care about their communities, state, country and world. I want them to learn that they can explore opposing opinions or facts not widely known without compromising their own core value and beliefs. What teachers do in the classroom matters now more than ever.

My Spanish III class in the fall of 2016 solidified my resolve to incorporate controversial subjects into my curriculum. Even though our administrators admonished staff to avoid them, especially any related to the upcoming elections, I persisted. My students were unrelenting in having presidential debates. I chose to honor their request and narrowed the debates to immigration issues, a natural part of our curriculum. Pro and con sides were chosen at random, and two student moderators asked questions and monitored the debate. Students were thorough in their research; and, though passionate when arguing, they modeled civil discourse. They then insisted on sharing their personal beliefs. They were paired at random, and it worked out well even though students’ viewpoints ranged from conservative Republican to Independent to liberal Democrat. More impressive than their Spanish communication skills was their ability to treat each other with respect.

It wasn’t until the day after the 2016 elections that I realized what a strong community the students had built. One girl, a liberal Democrat who has two mothers, was distraught that President Trump won. A classmate, a conservative Republican, trying to console her, said, “I think everything’s going to be okay.” She shot back, “That’s because you’re a white, straight male!”

He looked like she’d physically slapped him across the face. I admonished her. “You can’t talk to him like that.” She then looked like she had been slapped. I continued, “He doesn’t understand how you feel. You have to explain it to him.”

They went in the hallway to talk. Later in the day, they both came to me separately, reporting they’d talked to each other again and had apologized to each other.

Wouldn’t it be a better country if all adults could behave like these two political polar opposites who found a way treat each other with respect? These soon to be voters understood a perspective different from theirs through the eyes of another. I doubt the situation would’ve resolved itself as it did had the class not learned the value of civil discourse.

Exploring controversial subjects results in additional benefits. Students embrace the study of otherness. They sharpen life skills such as critical thinking, problem solving and evaluating resources with a critical eye. They learn to listen. They understand that different is just different – not weird, stupid or wrong. They build a community within the classroom. They see value in making a difference in their communities and the world and of becoming informed voters. But, my favorite is that students begin to define who they are.

Teachers need to justify their curriculum to administrators and parents who may disapprove. One parent screamed at me on the phone for 30 minutes straight, accusing me of being a flaming liberal (I’m a moderate.), questioning why I told his child to not quote Fox News (I also told them to not quote MSNBC.) and thinking I needed to teach only grammar and vocabulary. But, as journalist Flora Lewis points out, “Learning another language is not only learning different words for the same things, but learning another way to think about things.”

I give that father credit for talking to me directly rather than others who made an anonymous phone call to the assistant principal because they were afraid I’d “take it out” on their child. Some questioned why I stayed on the phone. I did because I heard a father who was afraid for his daughter, and I needed him to understand my goal was not to change her mind but to broaden her knowledge base. I’m glad I waited him out because we then talked for another 30 minutes. He was shocked when I accurately described his child’s political position.

I said, “This is how my class is designed. We communicate.” He asked that I be careful about the information I presented, and I later took a hard look at it and made sure it was balanced. At the end of our conversation, I said, “I think you can see our values are a lot closer than what you thought.” He agreed.

If I had hung up, we never would’ve understood each other.

Because of this backlash from a few parents, I decided to conduct a small case study to determine if my practice of exploring controversial subjects was in fact resulting in the benefits for students I perceived. One set of subjects included three female and four male seniors who’d taken one to three of my Spanish classes. Three students identified as liberal Democrats, two as moderate Republicans, one as conservative Republican and one had “no idea.” The following themes emerged. Students felt they were in a safe environment to discuss and disagree. One said, “…it was nice because it was a classroom setting so you’re not just out in the real world screaming your head off.”

Second, they had a sense of personal satisfaction. “I liked it because it’s not something we can do a lot in school.” Another said, “It’s something that everyone needs to know about…and be involved with because they can’t make informed decisions about when they vote.”

Third, students learned a different perspective. “I think seeing everyone’s point of view allowed me to understand more and to see more than just what I believed.” One learned “there are a lot of gray areas when it comes to immigration.”

Fourth, students felt their teachers “usually shy away from” class discussions of controversial subjects.

Fifth, some students felt their parents wanted them believe as they did, but one was free to form her own beliefs.

Sixth, three students were not as interested as the others in politics; and, one found that practicing Spanish in this context difficult.

Seventh, none of the students changed their basic political views but learned they “don’t necessarily have to agree or disagree.”

They realized they could listen without being judgmental.

I concluded that even though my administrator would prefer my colleagues and I not cover controversial subjects, I will persist. In our current political climate, I have an even stronger resolve to guide my students in honing their civil discourse skills and become globally competent, active, politically aware citizens and voters.

As I move forward, it’s important I keep the following in mind: designing lessons with my school and state standards in mind, knowing my own biases and values, modeling civil discourse at all times, teaching students how to research responsibly, guiding them to research all aspects of a topic and not just their viewpoint, ensuring materials are balanced, letting parents know what topics will be covered in class and being prepared to justify my choices. As Richard Cady said June 30, 2017 in the Record Delta, “If each of us has a broader understanding of the world, we’ll do a much better job taking care of America.

Dr. Jenny L. Santilli, NBCT teaches Spanish at Bridgeport High School and Fairmont State University. She mentors pre-service and novice teachers. She also mentors national board candidates and is co-author of National Board Certification for Teachers: Mapping Your Journey.

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