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, politics and government, and police behavior be debated in a civil manner? How can critical thinking skills be incorporated in these discussions? Current events can be seen as teaching opportunities to engage students and to model civil debate and discussion. Helping students learn how to discuss current local, state, national and international issues using facts and reason to support their arguments is critical to their development as responsible and informed citizens.
Our civics education 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 to support teachers in the classroom. We will continue to add resources to this page, so check back and see what’s new!
Dealing With Controversial Issues
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.
From Provocative to Productive: Teaching Controversial Topics
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.
Choose the News
This unit guides students as they explore how the news is chosen, becoming more informed and critical news consumers as they deepen their understanding of the process by which the free press operates.
Believe It or Not
This unit introduces students to the purpose and practice of media literacy. It includes pre- and post-visit activities designed to bracket the Believe It or Not? ED Class (The activities also can be done independently of a visit to the Newseum.) Students will come to understand why not all information is trustworthy and how to differentiate the good from the bad. They practice using a set of tools – the consumer’s questions – to deconstruct and evaluate information sources.
CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHTS FOUNDATION CHICAGO
A Civil Conversation
Our pluralistic democracy is based on a set of common principles such as justice, equality, liberty. These principles are often interpreted quite differently in specific situations by individuals. 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.
Civil Conversation on the 14th Amendment
The Fourteenth Amendment fundamentally redefined the central institutions of American civic and political life after the Civil War and remains the bulwark of our Constitutional rights today. Use the Civil Conversation strategy to take a closer reading of Section 1 of the Amendment.
Civil Conversation on the Gettysburg Address
On November 19, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln dedicated the cemetery at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. His brief remarks there became known as the Gettysburg Address, one of the greatest statements about self-government in American history. In this structured discussion, 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.
I Have a Dream: A Civil Conversation
Understanding the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution is important because it sets out the purposes or functions of government as envisioned by the framers. This lesson opens with a group activity in which students look at the words in the Preamble and translate them into everyday language. Then students take part in a civil conversation on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Through discussion of the speech, students will delve more deeply into the meaning of the Preamble.
A Matter of Life and Death: Should Illinois Allow Physician-Assisted Suicide?
Death is an unavoidable part of life—people have no choice about whether they will die. But debate rages about how much control people—especially terminally ill patients suffering considerable pain—should have over the time and manner in which they die. In this unit, students explore arguments on both sides of the assisted suicide debate.
CRFC’s Primary VOICE program is a collection of lessons and tools that help second- and third-grade teachers connect civic learning with the essential skills of reading, writing, and speaking and is funded by the Polk Bros.Foundation. This activity on Conflict Resolution engages students in analyzing a conflict and the means by which it can be re-mediated.
Should Our State Require Photo ID for In-Person Voting?
The right to vote is a fundamental right, protected by the U.S. Constitution. But there are limits to this right, and states can establish reasonable restrictions on time, place, and manner of voting. This deliberation lesson sets up the question of whether states should require a photo ID to vote at the polls.
Position Papers: Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt
Two position papers address the question in the 2016 Supreme Court case Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt: Is a Texas law imposing certain requirements on abortion clinics unconstitutional?
Texas v. Johnson: Should American be allowed to burn the flag?
This case summary provides teachers with everything they need to teach about Texas v. Johnson (1989). It contains background information in the form of summaries and important vocabulary at three different reading levels, as well a review of relevant legal concepts, diagram of how the case moved through the court system, and summary of the decision. This resource also includes six classroom-ready activities that teach about the case using interactive methods.
Gonzales v. Raich
Do federal drug laws exceed the Commerce Clause when applied to intrastate possession of medical marijuana, authorized by state law?
CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHTS FOUNDATION
Civil Conversation: Immigration Enforcement Raids
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.
The Challenge of School Violence
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.
Understanding ‘Fake News’
In this lesson, students learn about the phenomenon of “fake news,” how it spreads quickly on the Internet, and how to recognize it and distinguish it from other types of information. First, students discuss what makes news reliable. Next, they read a balanced article on fake news and examples of fake news on the Internet. Then, they learn about using the SMART (Source, Motive, Authority, Review and Two-Source test) Information-Age Checklist to help them use critical thinking in evaluating online information. Finally, students work in small groups to apply SMART to hypothetical examples of news and online information.
HISTORICAL SOCIETY OF PENNSYLVANIA
Teaching LGBT Rights
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.
BILL OF RIGHTS INSTITUTE
Discussing Controversial Topics: The Second Amendment
The debate regarding the interpretation of the Second Amendment inevitably arises after tragic shootings in the United States. Adapt this activity to discuss this controversial topic.
Free Speech or “Safe” Speech?
College campuses have experienced major protests by students who say that colleges promote hostile environments that harm minority students and hinder their ability to learn. To solve these problems, students have demanded that college administrators and faculty create “safe spaces” in which offensive or disagreeable speech is prohibited and punished. These demands have sparked debate about the nature of free speech, individual rights and higher education. In this lesson, explore both sides of the free speech debate and learn about Supreme Court cases that have ruled on the right to free speech.
An Anthem, a Flag, and Individual Liberties
When professional football player Colin Kaepernick began sitting (and later kneeling) during the national anthem to protest racial injustices in the country, he intended to draw attention to race relations in the United States. However, his actions have also sparked a discussion regarding the individual liberties of U.S. citizens. This conversation has since extended to other symbols of patriotism. The lesson asks students to consider what constitutes protected speech and how far patriotic symbols and actions can be legally protected from acts of protest.
The Electoral College and Popular Vote for the President
This lesson will help you think through the critical issues surrounding the structure and foundational philosophy of the Electoral College with your students. In a close election in 2016, Donald Trump was declared the winner of the Electoral College; Hillary Clinton won the popular vote. In this lesson, students will explore the Electoral College system and the impact it has had on presidential campaigning and elections. They then will engage in a civil debate on the Electoral College.
Contentious Elections and the Peaceful Transition of Power
As Election Day in 2016 neared, the rhetoric heated up, and negative ads and comments from both sides increased. Both sides worried that should their candidate lose, the worst will befall the nation. But peaceful transition of government is a hallmark of American democracy. In this lesson, students will examine the various ways this peaceful transition is maintained and has been tested through American history. Students will examine the constitutional mechanisms in place for deciding who wins a presidential election