As our nation confronts increasingly divisive times, teachers may find that tackling controversial topics in the classroom is more difficult than ever. How can sensitive issues such as immigration, racial discrimination and politics be debated in a civil manner? How can critical thinking skills be incorporated in these discussions? Our resources provide a foundational knowledge for students to use in engaging in discussions about controversial topics. The Civics Renewal Network offers a range of resources, from kindergarten through high school, to support teachers in the classroom. We will continue to add resources to this page, so check back and see what’s new!
Grades 8-12. Library of Congress
Teaching about difficult topics using primary sources can help students connect the past to the present. Analyzing primary sources can help students talk objectively. The observe, reflect and question technique found in the Library of Congress’s primary source analysis tool may make students comfortable and willing to ask questions that can bring difficult topics forward in a more relaxed way.
Grades K-12. Annenberg Learner
This program examines how social studies teachers at any grade level can encourage open and informed discussions with their students while dealing with controversial issues. Topics range from stereotypes and gender-based discrimination to the conflict in the Middle East. Through clearly identifying issues, listening to multiple perspectives, and formulating personal positions, teachers explore strategies that can be used to teach challenging issues such as these in their own classrooms.
Grades 9-12. Bill of Rights Institute
News articles related to topics including federalism, citizen juries, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, gun rights, separation of powers and student rights are posted and connected to Bill of Rights Institute resources to make it easier to discuss the news in the classroom based on foundational knowledge.
Grades 10-12. Constitutional Rights Foundation
Controversial legal and policy issues, as they are discussed in the public arena, often lead to polarization, not understanding. This Civil Conversation activity offers an alternative. In this structured discussion method, under the guidance of a facilitator, participants are encouraged to engage intellectually with challenging materials, gain insight about their own point of view, and strive for a shared understanding of issues. This lesson plan addresses the debate over the policies of the federal agency – Immigration and Customs Enforcement – that investigates and enforces the nation’s immigration laws.
Grades 9-12. Constitutional Rights Foundation
Regardless of fluctuations in its rates, incidence, and categories, violence continues to create an ongoing challenge to the nation’s educational environment. This lesson examines school violence and policy proposals related to it. In a class simulation activity, students acting as school board members, evaluate school safety proposals.
Grades 9-12. Historical Society of Pennsylvania
The history of equal rights for members of the LGBT community is something often overlooked in classroom curriculum. With the Supreme Court ruling that same-sex marriage is a constitutional right, it is important to look back at the men and women who fought for equality, especially right here in Philadelphia. Events, such as Reminder Day, are examples of how we can remember the contribution of men and women in the community who fought for their rights as citizens.
Grades 9-12. National Constitution Center
The Civil Dialogue Toolkit is one component of the module Constitutional Conversations: How to Have a Civil Dialogue. Use this toolkit to help facilitate civil, constructive conversations about the Constitution in the classroom. The two other components: a video analysis lesson plan about Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer’s explanation of how the Court decides cases and an activity sheet to understand the six interpretations judges use to evaluate a law.
Grades 8-12. NewseumED
Get first steps for creating a respectful yet vibrant environment for students to explore diverse ideas on controversial topics, from politics to profanity, religion to racism. Four guidelines and a debate leader checklist provide a foundation for those seeking to steer productive conversations about controversial subjects. Free registration required to access this lesson.
Grades 9-12. Constituting America
Filmed on a Constituting America Winner Mentor Trip, five young ladies share their thoughts on how to agree to disagree and how to have a discussion and still remain friends. Through personal experience these students have learned a lifelong lesson. Enjoy learning their lessons while you discuss yours.
Grades 10-12. U.S. Courts
Civil Discourse and Difficult Decisions is a national initiative of the federal courts that brings high school and college students into federal courthouses for legal proceedings that stem from situations in which law-abiding young people can find themselves. These court hearings (not mock trials) are realistic simulations that showcase jury deliberations in which all students and learning styles participate, using civil discourse skills. This activity includes: Reality Check Quiz and Discussion Starter; Civil Discourse Skill Building; Courtroom Simulation; and Reality Check Discussion.
Grades 9-12. Street Law
Deliberations allow teachers to help students cooperatively discuss contested political issues by carefully considering multiple perspectives and search for consensus. Deliberations help students develop a deeper understanding of issues, engage in critical thinking, make decisions based on evidence and logic, respect others’ points of view, and identify multiple perspectives.
Grades 9-12. Street Law
Should the U.S. government make it easier for unauthorized immigrants who came to this country as children to pay for college? This activity includes a deliberation reading and glossary as well as handouts to guide students through the deliberation process.