Inviting Controversy, and Often

“If you could, keep any type of content that has to do with race and gender possibly politics out of any classroom discussion, videos, papersor anything of that sort. Its very controversial. . . It’s very debatable , especially when we have different values/ethics on subjects .”

If you can look past all the errors, perhaps you can see why this student’s message cut into my brain a bit. I invite open dialogue, so that a student felt comfortable emailing me with such a request took some of the edge off. Some. Of. It.

But really?!

Once my heart slowed a bit, and I got over the audacity of this child (Can you even imagine telling a teacher what is and is not appropriate to discuss in class?) I realized one important thing:  I am right on target.

Hard TopicsIf we do not discuss the hard topics in our classes, where will students ever learn to discuss the hard topics? Sure, we can hope they debate social, economic, and political issues in their homes, but we know many families do not have meals together much less conversations. And it’s the conversations, varied and diverse, that can help us view the world in a different light — sometimes a cleaner, clearer, more empathetic and compassionate light. I think we need more of this light.

Here’s part of my response:

I appreciate your concern about controversial topics; however, English is a humanities class, and as such, we should learn about the humanities. That means all the messy topics that make us human. We should invite controversial topics into the classroom. The classroom becomes a microcosm of the world outside of school. If we cannot learn to discuss and debate in polite conversation here, how can we expect to ever discuss and debate politely as adults?

I see it as my job to be sure we think and feel and share as individuals with diverse backgrounds, cultures, and interests. I will continue to use texts, including poems, that give us voice to our lives and thinking.

Side note:  The poems in question were ones I shared as quickwrite prompts to spark thinking for the college application essays students would soon begin writing, “Raised by Women” by Kelly Norman Ellis and “Facts about Myself” by Tucker Bryant. I still don’t see the controversy.

Yesterday I saw a post on a Facebook group I follow where ELA teachers often ask for help. One person posted:  “One of my students challenged me today to include more literature that is relevant to what they are seeing in the world right now. . . What should I include?”

I refrained from responding:  EVERYTHING in my Twitter feed.

We all know the importance of helping students see the relevance in the texts we study, and I don’t know the context of that student’s request, but I wonder if sometimes students believe relevance means:  reflects what I already believe and feel, instead of: often challenges what I already think and feel.

Maybe we need to do a better job of explaining why we must challenge our own beliefs, get out of our echo chambers, and at least acknowledge the opinions of those who differ from our own.

Maybe I failed my student because I didn’t explain enough at the get go.

Today he got his schedule changed. Right after I found this infographic, an argument for the humanities.

We’ll study it in class real soon — after we discuss Jared Kushner’s Harvard Admissions Essay and finish writing our own. (See what I did there?) Then we’ll brainstorm the most debatable topics we can think of — DACA, Black Lives Matter, Confederate monuments, everything A Handmaid’s Tale, gender rights, gay rights, women’s rights, and more rights– and engage in the critical, and oh, so vital discussions that help us understand what it means to be human.

How do you invite these critical conversations into your classroom instruction? Please share in the comments.

Amy Rasmussen is a trouble-maker. Tell her not to do something, and she will do it — especially if it leads to expanding the minds and improving the learning experiences of today’s youth. She teaches Humanities/AP Language and Composition and senior English at a large, diverse, and truly wonderful high school in North TX. Her hobbies are searching for controversial topics that spark debate, reading and sharing banned books, and challenging the status quo. And she loves the readers of this blog. Follow Amy on Twitter @amyrass and @3TeachersTalk; and please join the conversation over on Facebook at Three Teachers Talk.


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12 thoughts on “Inviting Controversy, and Often

  1. Brandon Gardom October 22, 2017 at 9:47 pm Reply

    I agree with your view that current controversial topics should be discussed in the classroom. Discussing a topic we may not necessarily agree with can help us to understand opposing viewpoints and helps students refrain from demonizing their opponents. However, there must always be a balance when discussing controversial issues. Controversial topics in the classroom can often lead to an undercurrent of distrust among students both inside and out of the classroom.

    When a majority of the students agree on something, they will often overpower smaller group’s opinions leading to a one sided discussion. While controversial topics do lead to some good results, they must also be carefully monitored to ensure students aren’t blocking others out of the discussion.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Amy Rasmussen October 23, 2017 at 11:08 am Reply

      I agree with you, Brandon. How can teachers be sure there is a balance? How can we be sure the quieter voices get heard regularly?


  2. Michael Mendonca October 22, 2017 at 8:15 pm Reply

    Discussing controversial topics is part of learning. How are we supposed to form opinions when we do not know the full story? I love how in class we never feel like there is a wrong way to think, and no ideas or views are ever imposed on us. We become free thinkers, and free speakers, when we feel comfortable. Its also important to teach the value of accepting others views, so much goes wrong in the world today because we cant effectively communicate.


  3. Adrian Flores October 22, 2017 at 7:32 am Reply

    Personally, I agree with you that controversial topics must be discussed. I agree with you on this because if you can’t handle discussing controversial topics in the safety of a classroom, especially one that aims at teaching humanities, what do you expect to do once you leave the classroom. Not all topics of discussion are completely avoidable and the sooner students can accept that the sooner they’ll build their own opinions and add to the global conversation.

    Controversial topics also take you out of your comfort zone quite often, and it has been proven that you learn easier outside of your comfort zone. So, there really are no downsides to discussing controversial topics, only chances for growth and finding connections to diverse groups.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Braeden Kajs October 19, 2017 at 7:32 pm Reply

    I believe that your classroom is so great for many reasons, one of which being the fact that we are able to explore the many different viewpoints on “hot” topics. Although these topics might make us feel antsy or uncomfortable, these discussions are necessary. In order to grow as a person, one must step out into the open and listen and understand how others view a topic. Growth comes from compassion and understanding, even if you don’t agree with the topic at hand.

    When we listen, we grow. Thank you for helping us grow!


  5. Jordyn Ames October 19, 2017 at 5:45 pm Reply

    I agree wholeheartedly on your point of view. Discussions about the world and what goes on should be talked about in the classroom. Where are you going as soon as you leave the classroom? Into the world.

    People argue that those topics should be discussed at home, but leaving them just to the household doesn’t provide as many perspectives as a bunch of students who were raised in different households with different points of view than your own family. Discussing with people with different experiences is how you see the world from their perspectives. You can’t get the full experience of that with your family because they share similar experiences as yourself.

    The world is an uncomfortable place, and the sooner you learn how to work in that, the better you will be out in the world. Don’t shield yourself from that because then you’ll be like Ariel’s best friend: Floundering.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. […] need to invite conversation into our classrooms, and sometimes that means having controversial conversations. Provocative topics will get anyone talking–we’ve all seen evidence of this in our […]

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Oliver, Kelly P (TJH) September 19, 2017 at 8:58 am Reply

    I’ll ask.



  8. Shana Karnes September 19, 2017 at 8:32 am Reply

    Haha. I laughed aloud at this piece several times! You ARE a trouble-maker, and I love you for it! I think you’ve nailed why we need to read and discuss pieces full of controversy in our classrooms–comments like the ones on this post show me that what’s really crucial for our students (and teachers) to practice is truly open-minded dialogue about these topics. Dialogue, meaning both talking AND listening, is what our kids need to be having, and tough texts are the perfect thing to help practice this skill.



  9. Gretchen Egner September 19, 2017 at 7:07 am Reply

    Wondering aloud how often you present pieces mocking/criticizing liberal politicians for your class to study. I whole-heartedly agree that our ELA classrooms are ideal places to discuss messy, controversial subjects. However, when the teacher’s bias is blatantly obvious, when the teacher’s position is seen as the ‘right’, or at least ‘more-enlightened’ one, not every student would feel their perspective would be accepted.


    • Amy Rasmussen September 19, 2017 at 7:54 am Reply

      My personal beliefs and politics stay my own, and that drives my students crazy. I present texts from every angle, the best balance possible. Both sides. All sides. Although some views are much harder to find. If you have a college application essay that mocks a liberal, I’d love for you to send it to me. Just happens I came across the Kushner one in the middle of this unit…and it’s a good example of real world writing — and a bad application essay. Should inspire a good discussion on many levels.

      Thanks for the comment!


    • Shana Karnes September 19, 2017 at 8:39 am Reply

      I think workshop classrooms encourage students and teachers to remove themselves from the “teacher is right and I have to agree” mentality. I know Amy’s classroom, as a fantastic workshop classroom, urges kids to get to this place, and as she writes, to get to a place where they know their thoughts are valued.

      If we’re talking about bringing texts that are relevant into our classrooms, mocking liberals just isn’t relevant right now. During the Obama administration, it was much easier to find those kinds of mentor texts…but right now even the more conservative publications I read (Wall Street Journal, The Economist) are writing negatively about conservative politicians.


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