Talking About Tough Topics: Tips for Educators
Here are some tips for talking about tough topics and current events when they come up in the classroom. This article is part of Navigating Tough Topics in the Classroom: Tips for ELL Educators.
Photo credit: Photo by Allison Shelley
This project was made possible with support from the American Federation of Teachers.
It is very likely that complex, controversial topics will come up in the classroom, either in response to current events or as part of planned instruction.
Here are some tips for navigating these conversations, particularly with your English language learners (ELLs).
Before Reading: Reflection Questions
- What are some topics you may be concerned about discussing in the classroom?
- What skills do I want students to have in dealing with difficult discussions?
- What can I do to prepare for difficult moments or controversy?
- How do I respond to stress and how can I manage stress in the heat of the moment?
Find out what your resources are
Ask a trusted colleague, administrator, and your local teacher’s union what kind of resources are available to help you navigate difficult conversations in the classroom, both from a content perspective and a personnel perspective. Talk with your administrator about successes or problems in the past. Starting the conversation early will help you when a tough topic arises.
Brainstorm possible responses
Consider how you might respond when a tough topic comes. What are some options you have? What can you do to give students more practice in discussion?
Responding to Current Events
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This guide is also available as a downloadable PDF.
Consider the impact on students
Students may vary in their desire or interest in discussing current events, as well as their own emotional response to the events. This is especially critical to remember since ELLs and immigrant students bring their own histories and perspectives to current events that may differ from other students and they may have experienced trauma. Students may have strong feelings related to events that are in some way connected to students’ prior experiences. In addition, students may be strongly impacted by events that are unfolding in their home countries, such as a natural disaster, political news, unrest, or other significant events.
If you teach students who are impacted by a global crisis:
- Do not put them on the spot to comment on current events.
- Let them know that you are available to talk if needed.
- Talk with family liaisons or others who know their community well to find out how they are responding to current events and what kind of support the school might offer.
- Consider pulling a team together of family liaisons, parents, and mental health professionals to discuss culturally appropriate forms of support.
If this is an event you will be covering in your instruction:
- First, consider whether the topic is appropriate for discussion in the classroom.
- Don’t hesitate to create some space. For example, after a major event, you could give students a chance to write in journals privately and tell them that the class will be returning to this topic after you’ve had time to read their journals and create a plan.
- Do some research to see what resources are available from trusted organizations.
- Check in with administrators and your local teachers union for guidance.
If you are discussing these current events in the classroom (either in a planned or unplanned discussion):
- Remind all students to show respect for each other.
- Refer back to your guidelines for classroom guidelines and discussion guidelines.
- Do not put any students on the spot to share their experience.
- Keep in mind that students will bring multiple perspectives about these events.
- Ask colleagues for advice and support where needed.
Video: Omar Salem on teaching a social justice class for ELLs
Resources related to current events
- Partnering with Ukrainian Families: Tips for Schools
- The Invasion of Ukraine: Resources for Educators and Families
- How Schools Can Partner with Afghan Refugee Families
- Welcoming Afghan Families: Lessons Learned from Austin ISD
- How Immigration Issues Can Impact Students
For additional suggestions related to teaching current events, see the following:
- Educator Voice: Tips for teaching history in today's political environment (PBS NewsHour)
- Current Events in the Classroom (Facing History)
- Culturally Responsive Instruction in Social Studies (3-part series from Education Week)
Ensure ELLs can fully participate in any lesson or discussion
If you proceed with a discussion or lesson plan, ensure you include ELLs by:
- considering how the topic might connect to students’ experiences (without making those connections explicit)
- teaching important background knowledge, vocabulary, and academic language
- scaffolding the lesson for various levels of proficiency
Teaching Social Studies and History to ELLs
- Preparing an Engaging Social Studies Lesson for ELLs
- Primary Sources, the Library of Congress and English Learners
Responding to current events
- Discussing political violence with ELLs and refugees (Colorin Colorado)
- Creating a Safe Space for Students to Discuss Current Events (Edutopia)
- Making Space: Teaching After Trauma (Edutopia)
- Current Events in Your Classroom: Ideas for Middle and High School (Facing History)
- The best way to teach current events? Let students lead (KQED)
Teaching big topics
- What are good strategies teachers can use to explore “controversial” topics? (Ed Week)
- Fostering Civil Discourse: How do we talk about topics that matter? (Facing History)
- Building Perspective Through Meaningful Discussion (Edutopia)
- Journals in a Facing History Classroom (Facing History)
- A Journal Can Be Anything (Teaching Tolerance)
- Ideas for Student Civic Action During a Time of Uncertainty (The New York Times)
- Scaffolding Social Action for Your Students (Edutopia)
Topics in the News
Talking about immigration may cause extreme anxiety for students. At the same time, immigrant students may welcome the chance to discuss a topic that affects them so directly.
- If you are planning a lesson plan related to immigration (even if in a historic context), proceed with care and extensive planning.
- Recognize that you are not an immigration expert.
- Tell students you are open to their experiences, but any information that students share about immigration policies must be informed by research.
- Consider talking privately with your immigrant students beforehand on whether they feel comfortable with the topic.
- Do not put students on the spot or ask them to share their experience directly.
- Never refer to a student’s immigration status publicly or privately.
- Remember that all students have a right to a public K-12 education regardless of immigration status.
- Include immigration as a characteristic that is protected against discrimination and bias.
- Be mindful of your language and consider developing a shared list of helpful terms and vocabulary: refugee, asylum, “undocumented” (instead of “illegal”), etc.
- Remind the class that students can discuss the merits of immigration policy while maintaining a respectful tone about the people involved.
- How Immigration Issues Impact Students
- Classroom resources: Teaching About Immigration
- In “achingly beautiful” letters, students who are learning English share their hopes (The Washington Post)
The COVID-19 pandemic
It is important to proceed with sensitivity in discussions of the pandemic. Students may have experienced illness, loss, hardship, or other challenging/traumatic experiences. Keep in mind that your students’ experiences will have varied greatly based on their circumstances at home. Learn more about some of the particular challenges ELL and immigrants have faced. For guidance on discussing topics related to the pandemic, see these resources from the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement.
If you are considering tying the pandemic to learning, consider a student-led inquiry- or project-based approach, such as the activity teacher Keisha Davidson describes below.
Incidents related to violence, hate, bias, or racism
There are so many kinds of distressing events in the news for young people to process. It can be difficult to know how and when to discuss current events that students may be learning about in the news, on social media, or from peers. For specific ideas and resources, please see the following resource pages, which are curated and updated by Colorín Colorado.
- 15 Tips for Talking with Children About Violence
- How to Address Bias and Bullying: Resources for Schools
- Responding to COVID Bullying, Bias, and Violence Against Asian Americans
- Addressing Anti-Semitism and Incidents of Hate
- How Schools Can Create a Safe Environment for Muslims
- Talking with Students About Racism and Violence: Resources for Educators