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Controversial topics make many teachers want to run away from the curriculum screaming, but for ESL teachers they offer an unequalled opportunity to foster discussion in the classroom. Though you may feel queasy at the idea of teaching some topics, use the following strategies to make it a teaching triumph rather than a classroom catastrophe.
How to Teach Controversial Topics
Introducing the Topic
Before giving students any materials supporting one side or the other about a controversial topic, ask them what they already know about it. This is only the first of many opportunities for discussion in your class. If you are teaching adults, you may be surprised at the experience your students may already have with a given issue. Also, letting students volunteer information may give you a heads up that they could have deep personal connections to the topic.
Present Both Sides of the Issue
Though you almost certainly agree with either one side of a controversial issue or the other, leading a unit on a touchy subject requires the teacher to be the moderator. As such, it is your responsibility to present both sides of the issue no matter where your opinions lie. You can present both sides by giving students two separate selections, each supporting the opposite opinion, or by presenting material that covers both points of view in one piece. Either way, make sure your students understand the issue, the problems connected with it and any unfamiliar vocabulary they may encounter.
After presenting both sides of the issue and making sure students understand the controversy, give small groups of students an opportunity to discuss the arguments each side presents. They will be sure to offer their own opinions, perhaps vehemently, and you should not pressure them with discussion as an entire class. As students talk about the issue, they will be able to help each other further understand the arguments posed by each side. Just be sure that all groups are allowing free expression from everyone. You may have to step in if one or two students are being bullied by opposing opinions. You want all your students to feel free to speak and express themselves even if their opinion is the minority. Remember, you are the facilitator.
Express Your Own Opinion
After introducing both sides of the issue and allowing students to discuss their opinions, you can express your own opinion on the subject. Waiting until this point to uncover your own view point gives your students the freedom to express themselves honestly without fear of repercussion. Students can be intimidated to support a point of view in conflict with their teacher’s. If you wait until students have already had the opportunity to discuss their opinions, you remove the intimidation that comes with disagreeing with the teacher.
Present a Case Study
Case studies are always a great opportunity to foster discussion. A good case study will not have a clear cut or straightforward course to a happy ending. Not only will struggling with the situation encourage discussion, it will provide a more lifelike and realistic use for language. Life itself is not cut and dry, and if your students will be using language in real world situations they will have to express themselves in difficult circumstances. Encourage your students to take risks and express their opinions.
Facilitate (More) Discussion
Now that students have heard both sides of the issue, discussed the topic with their peers, learned where you stand on the issue and looked at a real life case study, it is time to discuss the issue again. Go back to the discussion questions you provided at the beginning of the unit and allow students to express any changes in their opinions or share things that they have learned. The goal in teaching a controversial subject is not to sway students to one opinion or the other, but they may change the way they feel after further discussion. They may also strengthen the beliefs they had at the beginning of the unit, but hopefully they can express themselves more clearly and give strong support for their beliefs.
When handled correctly, controversial topics can be a gold mine of conversation in the ESL classroom.
Though it is sometimes necessary to create discussion over supplied curriculum topics, using controversial issues in the classroom allows a natural and emotional pathway to conversation. If you are sensitive to your students’ opinions and aware of their feelings, tough to tackle topics just might provide the best lessons all year.
Example controversial topics:
Using animals in medical research helps people
Gay marriages are wrong
Women will never be equal to men in the workplace
You can’t have a happy family life and a successful career at the same time
Marriage is outdated
The death penalty is acceptable in some cases
Foreigners shouldn’t be allowed to vote
Celebrities earn too much money
Military service should be obligatory
War is never an option for solving international disputes
Torture can be acceptable in some cases
Curfews keep teens out of trouble
We are becoming too dependent on computers
Smoking should be banned worldwide
Single-sex schools are evil
Homework is harmful
A woman’s place is in the home
Committing suicide should be made legal
A man should have a wife for the family and a mistress for pleasure
Soft drugs should be legalized.
Those who can - do, those who can’t – teach
You will be happier if you stay unmarried
Software piracy is not really a crime
We do not really need religion
Your race affects your intelligence
Euthanasia should be legal
Obesity is a disease
Video games contribute to youth violence
Drinking age should be lowered
Steroids should be accepted in sports
Cloning has a lot of benefits
Prenuptial agreements make families stronger
Corporal punishment should be allowed in schools.
Have you ever taught any controversial topics? What topic was it and how did it go? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!
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