7 Tips for Tackling Controversial Topics in Social Studies

A few years ago, I got caught up in a controversy that changed the way I teach.

I had decided I would require a “standing assignment” for my AP Government classes. It seemed simple enough…each week, students would be required to watch one of the Sunday news shows (i.e. Face the Nation, Meet the Press, etc.), and write a one-page summary about the topics covered on that week’s show.

During my explanation of the assignment, I noted that I wanted students to only use network news shows, and not use Fox News (or MSNBC). I felt that content on cable news shows might be less objective than network shows. I did tell students that if they wanted, they could use cable news, but I wanted them to talk to me about this first.

A day or two later, I received a somewhat concerning e-mail from my principal. Apparently one of the elementary school principals had seen posts on Facebook that a high school teacher (me) had made some critical remarks about Fox News, and that this was unfair. A student told her father that I was unreasonable about this, and he decided to post critical comments on social media. He also later called my principal to complain. The “compromise” we reached was that the student would use Fox News after consulting with me (which is what I stated from the start).


Teaching controversy with objectivity

While this issue was easily resolved, it does highlight a problem many social studies teachers face. We face controversial issues frequently, from issues surrounding the 2016 presidential campaign, to various scandals on the national level. How do we teach about these issues in an objective manner? Here are some suggestions on how to handle controversial topics in the classroom.


1. Communicate with parents

Keep parents informed about lessons or activities that may have a controversial aspect. For example, I recently “field tested” some lessons for the upcoming series The Vietnam War (2017)  from PBS. While there’s definitely a value for using this series in the classroom, it does contain adult language as well as violent scenes.

Before I showed any content to my students, I gave each of them a note to take home informing parents about the content. I included the school phone number as well as my e-mail address in case they wanted to contact me. No one did. I felt that I had covered my bases and if a parent complained later, I could refer back to my note.

2. Communicate with your administrators

Keep your school administrators informed. When I decided to “field test” lessons related to The Vietnam War series, I e-mailed my principal to let him know. I also asked him what he would suggest as far as telling parents about language and violence issues. He’s the one who suggested sending a note home.

3. Inform without bias

The 2016 presidential campaign provided a great deal of news and controversy. The best way that I found to deal with this with my government students was to approach things in an open, yet scholarly manner, while at the same time not letting my class know my own political leanings or which candidates I supported. Especially since many of the students I taught were preparing to cast their first ballot, I felt it was important for them to be armed with the information they needed to make an informed choice.

4. Make corroborating news a part of the assignment

In instances where the teacher wishes to have students do research about political or other controversial issues, care should be taken to explain that not every website or blog is reviewed for accuracy. Teach students to look for outlandish claims, bias, and subjectivity in information they find online. Suggest that for any claim about a politician, celebrity, or cause online, they try to find another site that corroborates the original information.

5. If showing biased information, keep it balanced

During the campaign, I would occasionally show clips from various talk shows or parody shows that featured content about the candidates. I tried to balance this so that both candidates were featured roughly equally. In some instances, while I thought content was good (or funny), I felt it better to not use it if it had something I might have considered “off-color” or overly controversial.

6. Avoid heavily biased news unless it is part of the lesson

I felt it was important that my students have an opportunity to watch the inauguration ceremonies for President Donald Trump in January 2017. However, we viewed the swearing-in and inaugural address on what I thought would be a more unbiased network. I would likely avoid letting students view content from what might be considered a more biased network, unless there was an overriding reason to allow them to view it.


7. Review content thoroughly before sharing

Definitely preview content thoroughly before showing it to students. Look for possible “booby traps,” or content that might be objectionable or controversial. If you plan ahead, you are much less likely to create an issue, or worse, an unpleasant confrontation with a parent.

With social studies, it’s always controversial

In conclusion, while social studies teachers frequently deal with what might be considered “controversial content,” with a little forethought and planning teachers can effectively avoid conflict with students, parents, and administrators.

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Michael Hutchison is social studies department chair at Lincoln High School in Vincennes, Indiana.  A 39-year teaching veteran, he has written multiple titles for Social Studies School Service  as well as lessons for several Ken Burns films, including The War, The Roosevelts: An Intimate History, and The Vietnam War.  In 2014, the Indiana Historical Society named him Caleb Mills History Teacher of the Year.

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