Faculty Viewpoint: Teaching Tough Topics

December 18, 2014

Thoughts on how to address potentially polarizing topics from six College of Education professors

For this edition of the New Educator, we have gathered six professors to discuss difficult topics, such as religious and ethnic tension, sexual orientation and race and racism. We know these matters come up in the world but also in the classroom. We hope these essays provide some useful reflection for educators as they face the delicate task of introducing sensitive topics in class, explaining why these subjects matter and handling how their students respond.

Teaching Without “Trigger Warnings”

By Elizabeth Heilman

Trigger warnings are verbal or written warnings that instructors provide about material that may elicit a negative reaction in students who have experienced traumatic events or are sensitive about topics such as race, gender, sexual orientation and colonialism and imperialism, to name a few.

While at face value this may seem harmless, requiring trigger warnings can lead teachers to deliberately or subconsciously discourage students from exploring controversial issues and expressing negative emotions. This tends to lead to the sanitizing of classroom topics in which debate and peer conflict is only viewed negatively and difficult subjects from death to divorce are avoided.

The ethics and pedagogy of exposing students to traumatic knowledge is difficult and complex, however. Some curriculum topics are inherently upsetting or angering if understood properly. For example, history entails difficult, tragic and sometimes frightening knowledge. This challenges teachers to deliberately encourage students to imagine realities like genocide, which are inherently traumatizing. And student reactions can be hard to predict. For some students, fear is processed as anger, for others the tragedy of the human condition is infuriating and for yet others it is traumatizing.

Should genocide instead be omitted from curriculum? Few would argue for this. Education is inherently personal and psychological and thus cannot be understood merely as the transmission of passive, trauma-free knowledge. Engaging difficult, tragic and frightening knowledge requires attention to both students’ psychological/emotional responses and to their ethical sensibilities.

Educators are not currently well prepared to handle traumatic reactions, nor can educators even predict what might be traumatic to any particular student. Further, most students have encountered some kind of trauma in their lives. Much of human experience and history is inherently disturbing and controversial, making emotional, ethical and political demands upon us, but the difficulties can’t be avoided.

Since it is much easier to repress than address trauma, “trigger warnings” can give educators an excuse not to confront important subjects and inevitable negative human reactions. Instead, skillful approaches to teaching about traumatic issues are needed, and there are many fine professional resources to help educators with this. Supplemental referrals and resources for traumatized students who need more than a teacher can offer are needed as well.

Social pathologies from war to bullying to child abuse are traumatic. Yet being able to understand and discuss trauma is the first step toward fostering personal growth and provoking positive social change.

Note: This article was previously published by the Lansing State Journal in July 2014.

Using Democracy in Teaching Social Studies

By Kyle Greenwalt

How do I teach our teacher candidates to address religious, ethnic and historical tensions in their future classrooms—and how important is it to discuss such things in the classroom, anyway?

In a democracy, it is very important.

Consider what the National Council for the Social Studies has to say on the teaching of religion:

Omitting study about religions gives students the impression that religions have not been, and are not now, part of the human experience … Since the purpose of the social studies is to provide students with a knowledge of the world that has been, the world that is, and the world of the future, studying about religions should be an essential part of the social studies curriculum.

Such a position is perfectly in line with our nation’s laws. Indeed, Justice Tom C. Clark, in the 1963 case of Abington Township v. Schempp, wrote that “it might well be said that one’s education is not complete without a study of comparative religions or the history of religion and its relationship to the advancement of civilization.” In short, it is neither wise nor legal for teachers to teach religion in the schools, but our nation depends upon its public schools to teach about religion and its role in both U.S. and world history.

Teacher candidates in the secondary social studies program at MSU are invited to think about these issues; they must also become acquainted with the various state and national standards that justify the inclusion of religions—and religious conflict—in the curriculum. The same can be said for any other issue that our society has found contentious.

We also demonstrate for our teacher candidates different instructional strategies that might be fruitfully employed in teaching controversial content. While lectures and textbook reading will be an important part of any lesson, perhaps even more important are the strategies that help our nation’s students learn to engage in the art of public deliberation.

Some strategies include mock trials, simulated town hall assemblies and Socratic dialogues. The point of all these strategies is not so much the teaching of debating skills, but rather those skills and attitudes of the democratic citizen: respect for the facts, empathetic listening and a genuine search for the common good.

I often encourage the teacher candidates with whom I work, when teaching any controversial topic, to imagine a representative of each viewpoint sitting in their classroom. Take, as a very difficult example, the teaching of the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001, and the legislative and military action that followed in their wake. Imagine, then, a young woman who had a loved one die in the attacks; imagine, too, a devout American Muslim upset at some of the anti-Islamic statements made in the media also being present in the classroom. Extending our moral imagination, let’s imagine an Iraqi politician in the classroom as well. And so on.

In truth, we can never predict with certainty how any of these people will feel about the issues we are discussing. So the point is really only this: In a democracy, citizens try to view issues from as many viewpoints as they can and try to give each viewpoint as fair a consideration as possible. This is a tall task for any teacher, but given the quality of our MSU teacher candidates, I am confident in the ability of our schools to increasingly rise to the challenge.

Creating College Classrooms that Support LGBTQ+ Students

By Kristen Renn

Sexual orientation and gender identity are at the center of noisy public debate. Politicians, religious leaders and media personalities saturate the airwaves and digital communications with opinions on both sides of the arguments about civil rights, such as protection from employment discrimination and marriage. Media campaigns feature celebrities, athletes and artists speaking out against bullying and violence toward lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and other (LGBTQ+) people who identify as sexual orientation and gender minorities.

Research evidence demonstrates clearly that the pervasive negative climate for LGBTQ+ youth contributes to negative academic, social and health outcomes in K-12 and higher education. Although as the social media campaign claims, “It Gets Better” for LGBTQ+ youth in that college campuses are less hostile to them than secondary schools, a disproportionately high number of LGBTQ+ youth—and especially LGBTQ+ youth of color—drop out of school as a result of harassment and bullying.

To understand the transition to college and factors that support success for these individuals who do enter postsecondary education, in 2013, I started the National Study of LGBTQ Student Success. With a colleague from Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario and a team of graduate and undergraduate researchers from MSU, University of Michigan and Miami University (Ohio), I am examining resilience, protective factors and environmental buffers (for example: faculty, peers and student affairs administrators) that promote positive outcomes for LGBTQ+ students.

I use this information when I teach courses in the Higher, Adult and Lifelong Education (HALE) program about college student learning, development and success. I take the position that regardless of one’s political, social or religious views about sexual orientation and gender identities, if one is to be an effective educator, institutional leader or policymaker, one must enact and advocate for learning environments that support all students.

Learning is diminished when students fear for their physical safety, as nearly one in five LGBTQ+ students do on their campuses, according to Rankin and associates in their 2010 national campus climate survey. Learning is also interrupted when students fear harassment or microaggressions from peers and faculty in college classrooms, as the majority of respondents to our national study reported. On the other hand, students reported that learning and development were enhanced by opportunities to explore LGBTQ+ issues in class discussions, course assignments and conducting research with faculty.

My goal as a researcher is to understand these phenomena more fully; my goal as a teacher is to create learning contexts in which all students explore their commitments to creating equitable educational environments free from discrimination and harassment. In HALE, we focus on educating graduate students for leadership roles in the future of postsecondary education. LGBTQ+ inclusion is unequivocally part of that future and therefore a necessary topic for scholarly and practical examination in our courses.

National Study of LGBTQ Student Success: lgbtqsuccess.net

Note: Kristen Renn is also Associate Dean of Undergraduate Studies and Director for Student Success Initiatives at MSU. 


Talking Taboo: Discussing Race and Racism in Classrooms

By Alyssa Hadley Dunn, Niral Shah and Chezare Warren

At a time when popular rhetoric contends that racism is over and that race is not “an issue” anymore, we feel strongly that race and racism should continue to be important topics to address in pre-kindergarten through grade 12 classrooms. Rather than ignoring injustice and inequity as it relates to race, we believe it is very important to talk about these issues with youth of all backgrounds and ages. What follows is a dialogue in which we engaged about why such conversations are important and how to have them.

Why is it important to talk about race and racism in the classroom?

Chezare: Race mediates the way that we see the world around us, whether we want to admit it or not. It shapes our points of view in significant ways, especially for how we enact our various identities.

Niral: And particularly when it comes to young children; the research tells us that children as young as preschool age are actively making sense of race and racism. It’s also important to remember that the history of this country is very much a story about race. It’s something we can’t avoid.

Alyssa: And why would we want to avoid it? In this era of “colorblindness,” the popular rhetoric is that it’s better to not “see” race, especially if you’re White. Granted, it’s easier to not see race as a White person, because once you realize that race is significant, then you have to acknowledge that racism is also very much still a reality and you are implicated in it. Whether it’s data on racial inequities in schools or neighborhoods, on implicit bias and racism or on school access and outcomes, all of the research points to the lingering and ongoing effects of racism. Racism is not only about individual and direct acts of aggression and oppression. It’s also about passive racism, or refusing to act on behalf of people of color, making choices that capitalize on one’s privilege without acknowledging the impact on traditionally marginalized populations. Passive racism is still racism.

Niral: It’s noteworthy that we are making the case that we need to talk about these issues at a time when they are being resisted at the highest levels of government. Chief Justice John Roberts infamously said about the standards for identifying racial inequities: “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” Although Justice Sonia Sotomayor later made a compelling counterargument, the burden of proof for “proving” the existence of racial inequities in schools and beyond remains onerous. It has been hard—and it’s getting harder—to make empirical claims about race and racism because people want it all to go away.

Chezare: I think it’s important to help kids contextualize race within a paradigm of difference. We can help them see difference as an opportunity and an asset, rather than something to be avoided or scared about. By raising the issue, you don’t leave it to chance. You say it’s okay to be different. Race is one way to be different, and that’s a good thing.

How do we talk about and teach about race and racism in schools?

Alyssa: I get asked this question a lot, and my response always is, “How do we not talk and teach about racism?” If you’re not part of the solution, then you’re part of the problem; and the solution is not to ignore it, even as difficult as these conversations and lessons may be. For so many of our youth of color, this is their everyday experience. How do we not honor what they are living inside and outside of school by pretending that racism doesn’t exist? One way we can do this in classrooms is by discussing current events in the U.S. and the world. We can’t look at Trayvon Martin, Renisha McBride, Oscar Grant and Michael Brown—which are just the more recent instances of the systemic criminalization and killings of Black men and women—and not talk about that with our students. We have to give our youth a safe space to dialogue, to be vulnerable and to connect what they’re seeing and experiencing.

Niral: There are also other ways that we can normalize conversations about race. We can talk about how seemingly small, local choices coalesce to become part of a racialized system of oppression. For example, people’s choices to move to a neighborhood with better schools or to recommend a friend for a job may not seem to have anything to do with race, but those choices often reflect a legacy of racial privilege that has accumulated over time.

Chezare: We have to take back ownership to say that race—and thus conversations about race—are not negative. We can do this by helping students to recognize the humanity that we all share. We can find literature, short stories, poetry and other diverse reading selections as a way to intentionally break away from the canon. These are books written by and about people of color. They offer critical perspectives on race and racism in palatable formats. Narrative and experiential knowledge provides a platform to introduce these issues, keeping in mind that conversations about race can and should be scaffolded for sophistication as kids get older.

Niral: I think it’s important to remember a person’s views on race—or on anything else for that matter—don’t develop overnight. People’s racial ideologies are the product of years of experience and are deeply connected to the kinds of people they understand themselves to be. Topics like race and racism are long-term projects that begin with an effort to get our students to respect and understand the modern impact of historical events and policies.

Alyssa: What I always remind my students is that diversity issues—be they race, gender, sexuality, religion, language or ability—are not an “add-on” to the curriculum. Although we’re talking about racism here, it’s also important to recognize that our identities are intersectional. We are not just White, or just Asian or just Black. We are also men or women, transgender or cisgender, able-bodied or differently-abled, etc. This intersectionality is something we can and should discuss with our youth as well.

In closing, we’d like to offer you a list of our favorite resources for talking about issues of race and racism with youth. Thank you for continuing these important conversations, difficult as they may be.

Authors’ Note: While the MSU and Associated Press style guides commonly note racial categories in lowercase, we believe that the uppercasing of Black and White more appropriately represents the diverse persons across ethnic backgrounds for whom these broader social categories may apply. As many critical education scholars argue, lowercasing them minimizes the intention and significance of race and racial difference.