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Teaching Controversial Topics in the Classroom

Editor's Note: Kaitlin E. Thomas is a Lecturer of Spanish at the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth and Norwich University. Here, she shares how to be neutral and objective when teaching controversial topics.

By guest blogger Kaitlin E. Thomas

In a foreign language classroom, it's inevitable that topics will arise that challenge students to explore notions of nationality, culture, identity, and belonging—particularly if the language being taught is one that is, broadly (and irresponsibly) speaking, represented alongside terror (Arabic), law breaking (Spanish), or sabotage (Chinese) within American media and political spheres. 

How then, as teachers of these languages, do we best tackle meaningful cultural instruction within the realities of the current contentious climate? How do we use instruction that exposes our students to contemporary language use, opens them to international dialogue, and does not shy away from talking of such things as religion, borders, and non-democratic models of governing? These are questions I have pondered daily this year as I took on the challenge of teaching a course about the U.S.-Mexican Border and immigration to the U.S. from our southern neighbors. 

Of course I have opinions about the matter, but it was vital to my own pedagogical code to not let my stances be known. You could argue that students being aware of one's socio-political perspective would be useful, but in this case, I did not want to contaminate, even a bit, what was really an exercise in unlearning. This was much easier said than done, particularly when it became obvious that what little my students thought they knew on the subject was painfully inaccurate or almost comically regurgitated from partisan talking points.  

kaitlin_thomas.pngSo then, how to adapt? How to maintain neutrality and objectivity on a topic that inspires emotional reaction? I found two tools to be useful. First, I required a weekly dialogue journal in which students would write reflections or responses to the topics of the week. No one would read them except the author and myself, ensuring that it was a completely safe space to question and write things that they might feel uncomfortable saying out loud in class. I would write responses back to them for each entry. By the end of the term, I found that these weekly entries were something I very much looked forward to reading. They became heartfelt writings by this group of young people seeking to best and more accurately understand a desperately complicated situation. 

Additionally, I made extremely conscious student pairings that would change each week. This was to give everyone a chance to work with each other, but more importantly, to build partnerships in a way that would facilitate meaningful dialogue and reflection. Fortunately, I knew most of this group by virtue of having taught nearly all of them in previous classes, which meant that I was able to predict who would best speak about what with whom. Some were conservative, others liberal, some pro-reform, others anti, some able to distinguish politics from humanism, others struggled. But, it was through conscious pairing that each group successfully and consistently challenged their partner to go beyond the superficial while respecting the exchange.

What resulted was a tremendously meaningful term in which, as a group, we were able to examine contentious and polemical issues. By the end we still did not all agree on all matters, but what we achieved was a depth to the content that unequivocally proves how we must not shy away from the teaching of controversial topics, but rather, embrace them in our foreign language classrooms.

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