Strategies For Dealing With Controversy In Humanities Class

Bryn Bonino
4 min readJan 8, 2019

Teaching a curriculum that holds at its core culture, individual identity, and civic ideals, controversy is at the heart of what is studied. When a history curriculum does not seem controversial, it is because the (hi)stories have been mollified in order to appeal to a wider population.

For a detailed explanation of how U.S. history curricula has changed over the years, refer to the book Lies My Teacher Told Me by James W. Lowen. Or you can compare the content of A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn to The Americans by Holt McDougal.

The question is how should a humanities educator deal with controversial issues when they will most definitely arise in the curriculum and in students’ comments. I’ve researched a few credible resources, and discuss them below.

Resources From The University of Michigan

The Center for Research on Learning and Teaching at the University of Michigan offers several white papers, articles, and rubrics for Discussion-Based Teaching and Handling Controversial Topics In The Classroom. Let’s take a look at a couple of the linked resources.

A framework that can be applied rather quickly is this Guidelines for Class Discussion by A.T. Miller. If ground rules are established before a discussion starts, then students are more likely to stay civil despite differing opinions. This resource reminds students to listen to others even though their opinions differ, to not engage in side conversations while others are speaking, and to support statements with evidence.

The white paper Managing Hot Moments In The Classroom by Lee Warren at the Derek Bock Center at Harvard University gives guidelines for what to do when things are about to “explode in the classroom.” A suggested strategy is to have students write about the issue before the discussion and research facts that support and challenge their own beliefs. Warren also reminds us to not ignore heated remarks, because this would lead to a missed opportunity for students to reflect on their own behavior and its consequences.

Advice From Annenberg Learner

Bryn Bonino

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