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Strategies for Teaching Sensitive Issues in the Secondary Social Studies Classroom

‘Hot moment’: a sudden eruption of tension or conflict in the classroom. How might you handle such a moment? How can you use it as an opportunity to advance student learning?

General ideas to consider:

  • Think ahead about how you might handle challenging classroom dynamics -- and what aspects of your course content might produce them.
  • If tensions arise, do acknowledge them, in the moment or later.
  • Be flexible with your plans: if students are intensely attuned to an issue, consider giving it more time and attention than you’d anticipated. Can you use the intensity to facilitate students’ learning?

“Know yourself. Know your biases, know what will push your buttons and what will cause your mind to stop. Every one of us has areas in which we are vulnerable to strong feelings. Knowing what those areas are in advance can diminish the element of surprise. This self-knowledge can enable you to devise in advance strategies for managing yourself and the class when such a moment arises. You will have thought about what you need to do in order to enable your mind to work again.”

--Lee Warren (Derek Bok Center, Harvard), “Managing Hot Moments in the Classroom”

Specific strategies to consider:

Establish a Climate to Nurture Civic Spaces If tensions arise, let yourself take a moment to decide whether to address the issue immediately, take it up separately with individual students, or raise it in the next class meeting. Try counting silently to 10 before speaking or reacting. 
If you feel unprepared to deal with a question, comment, or topic in the moment, mark it as something the class will come back to discuss the next meeting – and then raise it at the next meeting when you feel more prepared.
Where appropriate, seek to clarify student comments that have sparked tension. Students sometimes say inadvertently insulting or marginalizing ideas or people when they are struggling to understand a new perspective or feeling the intellectual discomfort of having their familiar views challenged. Give students a chance to explain the thought process behind their remark (“What do you mean by X?” or “I heard you saying Y; is that what you meant to say?”) or just ask them to rephrase if it’s evident they understand they made a misstep (“Do you want to try saying that differently?” And then, perhaps, “Let’s talk about why that initial phrasing felt so problematic.”).
Try to depersonalize positions of disagreement that have emerged among students (e.g., instead of referring to “what X said vs. what Y said,” referring to “this disagreement about such-and-such” or “the use of phrase/word X in this context”). This can help minimize unproductive defensiveness and invite more students into the conversation.  Similarly, asking for additional possible points of view (e.g., “We’ve heard perspectives A and B -- how else might one think about this question?”) can helpfully move the conversation away from particular speakers to the ideas or perspectives they are raising. You can also depersonalize by acknowledging when a widely-held view has been raised:  “Many people share this perspective. What might their reasons be?” And then: “And why might others object to or feel disrespected by this view?” 
Help students in conflict find common ground. This might mean identifying a shared value (“I hear that you both care deeply about achieving X, but you have strongly divergent ideas about how to get there”) or asking the class to (“What do these perspectives have in common? How do they differ?”).
Establish Norms for Discussions Remind students of your discussion or participation guidelines. If you haven’t already established them, refer to the PGCPS Social Studies Discussion Protocols  OR use the Student Processing Guide to use to facilitate conversations. Remind students anytime discussions are focused on a  ‘hot moment’—the classroom climate must maintain the following ground rules. NO personal attacks, EVERYONE must be open to hearing a range of perspectives, EVERYONE  is accountable for the effects their words have on others.
Where possible, give students the benefit of the doubt when they speak words that seem to devalue or discount other people or perspectives. “I don’t think this is what you intended, but...” “You may not realize how this sounded…” “I hear that you’re trying to make a joke, and yet…” While giving benefit of the doubt, you can also explain the potential impact of given language choices:  e.g., “The word X is a label that’s often objected to by those it’s used to describe because …”  “I could easily imagine that your use of that metaphor would feel like an insult to people who …”
After discussing intense issues, guide students to reflect individually and/or collectively on the issues raised and the perspectives they heard on these issues. Consider using a questionnaire where students can share what they appreciated about the conversation, what they learned from it, and what remains unresolved. 
Use Writing as a Means of Processing Associated Emotions Invite students to journal reflections quietly, or take a few deep breaths, just to change the energy in the room before diving back in. Sometimes simply naming and then breaking the tension by doing something different with our bodies or minds can be very helpful for moving forward productively with a difficult conversation.
Give students some time to gather their thoughts in writing about the perspective, topic, or exchange in question before discussing it as a group. You might ask them to connect it to course materials or concepts. Writing can be especially helpful when students respond to tension with silence. You could ask them to consider, “Why is this topic so difficult to discuss?” or “What do you feel like you can’t say aloud right now?” You might collect such anonymous writings to help you make a plan for returning to the topic at another time.
Utilize Credible Anchor Texts to Ground The Thinking Find a way to connect the hot moment to course topics or learning goals. Ground the “hot moment”  with  credible sources. Facts help in helping students unpack the big emotion in the room and  establish clearer pathways for discussion.  Utilize learning objectives in your course related to critical thinking, perspective taking, or precise framing of an argument that can be reinforced through the ways you invite students to engage.
Always follow up Check in outside of class with the students most directly involved in the moment, to show your commitment to their success in the course, to help them learn from the experience, and to learn from them more about their experience of the discussion.
Connect with your own support network, especially if you felt targeted or personally affronted by whatever emerged in the classroom. It can be very helpful to process responses with trusted colleagues or friends in order to return to the classroom with confidence and optimism.

Instructional Articles & Resource Links:

Resources Links For Families & Communities

Adapted Facing History Lesson Plan Template

Can be used for a variety of sensitive issues impacting society which finds its way to the classroom. The lesson format supports examining a case study to determine how current events are portrayed and how students can make sense of the media and its impact on society.

Essential Questions

How can teachers and students create a safe and supportive classroom space in which to discuss difficult issues?

What are the different ways that people receive information about current events?

Learning Objectives

Students will be able to establish a safe space for holding difficult conversations.

Students will be able to acknowledge one another’s complicated feelings about the selected topic.

Students will be able to develop a shared understanding of the basic facts surrounding the selected current events.


This lesson provides the foundation for the lessons that follow. Because the events and issues at the center of this exploration are complex and disturbing, an essential first step is to create a safe and reflective classroom where students feel they can speak honestly about difficult issues without being judged or shut down by others, where they develop listening skills and the ability to hear perspectives different from their own, and where they learn to have civil discourse and not debate. Students are then given the opportunity to express and process their initial emotional reactions to _______________ as they develop a common understanding of the basic events.

Materials (Select materials which offer different perspectives about the selected issue)

Video: (Should not exceed 7minutes in length)

Graphic organizer: (Break down the theme)

Activities: (Should engage students in thinking about a topic i.e. socratic seminar; researching to raise awareness; engaging with experts in the field to ask questions etc.)

Introduce the Unit

The overarching goal will be to consider what journalism means in the digital age, what role it plays in maintaining and strengthening democracy, how we can become effective and responsible consumers and producers of news and information, and how these activities can support civil dialogue about sensitive issues. 

Begin by asking students: How do you find out what’s going on in the world? Where do you get your news? On chart paper, brainstorm a list of the most common news sources for teens. Then ask: How do you think your parents or other older people might answer that question? (Make sure to save this list, as you will refer to it later.)

Define social media and brainstorm a list of the most common platforms. Make sure students are familiar with how Twitter and Instagram work, as these were key social media platforms used to share information about the selected topic? If not, ask for volunteers to explain.

To introduce the unit, explain that this is a news literacy case study that will explore how established news organizations reported on the events surrounding the selected topic, and how the information shared by the public on social media added to this coverage.

Establish a Safe Space

One of the underlying themes that we will be navigating in this unit is ________. We believe that conversations about selected topics should be conducted in a safe space. The following activities are designed to create that space.

Start with a journal prompt: Tell students that the following writing exercise is a private journal entry that they will not be asked to share with anyone, so they should feel free to write their most honest reflection. Have students take several minutes to complete this sentence: “I mostly feel ____________ when discussing selected topics, because _________.”

Now that students have gathered their thoughts, tell them you are going to do a group brainstorm. They should not make “I” statements or share how they feel or what they wrote. Tell students: Let’s put words on the board that represent the feelings that we think may be in the room when we discuss a selected topic. At this point, we will just list and not comment on them.

Now look at the list. Ask students: What do the words have in common? (The words are usually mostly, but maybe not all, negative.) What else do you notice? (The words are not just surface observations; they are deeply personal feelings.) Do you have any other important reflections? (The words represent a wide and varied range of responses.) Which of these feelings are most valid? (They are all valid. You may want to acknowledge that this is a rhetorical question, but it is important to validate everyone’s feelings.) Where do these feelings come from? (Personal experiences, stereotypes, etc.)

It’s important for teachers and students to acknowledge that these feelings are in the room and that they need not be afraid of them. Each person should be allowed to enter this conversation wherever he or she is without being judged or shut down. Everyone needs to feel free to participate without fear of being called names or given any other label. (You may also want to review some articles that address these issues of language used around this topic.) 

Create a Classroom Contract

Follow this discussion with the short video that synthesizes the issue. Give students an opportunity to discuss their responses, in pairs or as a group.

Ask: What does the author mean by key concepts (preview the videos and pull key concepts) as depicted in the video? How is that different from the class conversation?

Ask: Do you agree with what the author suggests? Why is the difference important?

Now create a classroom contract. Acknowledging that these complicated feelings are in the room and considering what the sources depict, ask students: What do we as a community of learners need from each other to have a safe yet courageous conversation about the selected issue (insert issue here ) addressed in this unit?

Use the anchor texts to guide students through the Know-Heard-Learned Protocol

Use a Know-Heard-Learned Charts to ground students

Ask students to use this graphic organizer for subsequent classes.

Construct a timeline. Have students take ten minutes to fill in what they can in the “What I Know” column for each event on the timeline, identifying the source of that knowledge if possible (they can add to the “What I Learned” column at any time; the timeline is for their reference only). When their initial timelines are complete, have students spend five minutes reflecting in their journals on what revisiting these events makes them feel. What do they feel confused or uncomfortable about?

As a final discussion, invite students who feel comfortable doing so to share what they remembered, wrote, thought, and felt.

Sample Lesson Plan Secondary Grades 6-12-Youth As Changemakers Lesson Plan