A small number of NoRedInk’s text-based assignments ask students to express their thoughts on sensitive topics—topics that are complex, that touch the core of students’ identities and values, and that may lead to intense feelings and opinions.
These topics often provide rich and highly relevant opportunities for students to develop their critical thinking, writing, and discussion skills. But because students bring a variety of backgrounds/identities and viewpoints to the classroom, teaching sensitive topics requires extra care.
Below are some best practices for sensitive issues in a way that leads to productive discussion and deeper understanding.
When a text touches on a sensitive issue, it will be marked with a note like this one.
Best Practices for Teaching Sensitive Topics
Be clear on your goals for using the text.
How does this text fit into your larger curriculum?
What are your learning objectives? What do you hope students learn from the text—in terms of knowledge, awareness, and critical thinking skills?
Be aware of your own background, biases, and blind spots, and have a plan to preview or address these.
Consider personal factors such as race, gender, religion, and values. How is your background in these areas similar to and/or different from your students’? And how might students from different backgrounds than yours experience this text?
Reflect on your own opinions and political leanings and how these might manifest in the classroom. What viewpoints come naturally to you? What viewpoints are different than your own but are nonetheless valid? What arguments, if raised in the context of this assignment, will be triggering for you or students, and how will you respond to these?
Reflect on your classroom community and norms.
Think back to times when you’ve introduced sensitive topics with your students in the past. How have those conversations gone? What worked well, and what should be avoided?
What norms/systems exist in your class that increase safety when discussing sensitive topics?
What norms/systems need to be put in place or revisited before introducing a sensitive topic?
Remember that conversations might be challenging, and this is normal.
While it’s important to set norms and plan carefully to ensure that no student feels singled out or alienated, accept that discussions around certain issues raise strong emotions. Students may have trouble composing their thoughts, they may stay silent for fear of offending or having a spotlight on them, or they may convey their ideas especially forcefully.
Explain to students that these challenges are natural when discussing complex issues, and use the norms you’ve established to ensure that students feel supported to participate in discussions even when things get tense.
Decide whether you want students to only write about the text, or whether you want them to discuss it before and/or after writing.
Submitting a Quick Write can be a safe way for students to express their initial ideas privately without fear of judgment from peers. What’s more, by reading students’ Quick Write responses, you can get a pulse on students’ thoughts before having a public discussion.
Discussing first can help students polish their raw ideas before writing. If using this approach, ensure that you’ve established strong classroom norms because you won’t have taken the class’s temperature on the issue before having a public discussion. You can use the“Prepare to Discuss” questions under any text in our Quick Writes collection to prime a class conversation.
Identify any parts of the text that may be especially sensitive or alarming for students and make a plan to preview these difficult parts. Ask yourself: do any sections or specific language in this text stand out as expressing discrimination or biased political opinions?
Set norms for reading and discussion. For example, if reading the text aloud, agree on how students should approach any offensive or mature language. Students can participate in this norm-setting process.
Frontload important concepts. Help students gain the knowledge and vocabulary they need to grasp the ideas in the text—especially if key concepts will be unfamiliar to them.
Provide students with relevant context on the text and the author. Ask them to think about what they already know about the topic and historical context, and to consider the values and limitations of the author’s perspective. We provide some background information at the top of each text.
3. Help students develop their thoughts through written responses
We’ve created a variety of differentQuick Write assignmentsto help you support students with critically examining tough issues.
Use ourReflectprompts to ask students to make connections between their lives and the text, have them critique the texts, and give them an outlet to express how they’re feeling while reading.
Use our standards-alignedAnalyzeprompts to ask students to use textual evidence to articulate the main ideas of a text and examine the author’s style and craft.
Use ourArgueprompts to ask students to make evidence-based arguments about key points in the text—a great option if students want to agree with or push back on any of the writer’s ideas.
Use ourCreateprompts to ask students to use the text as a launching pad for their own original ideas.
To learn more about text-based writing on NoRedInk, check outthis article.
4. Make space for discussion
To help students form their thoughts before a discussion, consider assigning one of our Prepare to Discuss Quick Write assignments.
After students have written, consider ways to have them read and respond to each other’s responses. For example, you could (with students’ permission) print out responses and have the class do a gallery walk responding to different viewpoints.
Try using a discussion protocol to increase safety, generate a range of perspectives, and deepen students’ understanding. For example, have students take part in small-group discussions with roles. You can find more discussion protocols here.
Provide students with sentence stems for productive discussion. For example:
I agree that _________, but I disagree that _____.
Could you say more about ______?
What evidence would you give to support the idea that ______?
In my experience, it’s not true that _________.
As a follow-up to a tough discussion, consider assigning a Quick Write to ask students for their thoughts on the reading and resulting discussion, and use their responses to plan for the next time you introduce a sensitive topic. Some questions you can ask:
Did students enjoy the reading?
Did students feel the assignments connected to it were worthwhile?
Did students find the resulting discussions to be safe and productive?
Are there any norms or questions students would like to see the next time the class tackles a sensitive issue?