10 Web Resources For Teaching About Controversy

November 13, 2013 was “Reclaim the Swastika Day,” where several tattoos parlors internationally offered free swastika tattoos to anyone interested in receiving one.

At first, I was horrified. As someone who worked with refugees in the community and immigrants at our local Jewish Community Center, the concept of accepting a free swastika was beyond my ability to comprehend. This didn’t turn out to be an issue of antisemitism–just the opposite. The intent of the movement was to eradicate it.

How could one possibly eradicated antisemitism by tattooing a swastika? The swastika is an ancient symbol, sacred to Hinduism and Buddhism. It can be seen in artwork all over India. It demarks Buddhist temples on historical maps of Japan. Historically, it was a symbol of peace and goodness. The sanskrit root word “sa” means “good,” in fact.  The Nazi movement defiled it. The “reclaim” movement wants it back.

I asked a handful of students about this. Most felt that the swastika had been co-opted and changed forever, that it could never be reclaimed. I asked a couple Christian students a question, “What if it had been the cross that Hitler used? Would you give it up, or would you try to take it back?” The conversation changed. These are important questions.

The best lessons are the ones that hit close to home, or that stir up feeling–even controversy–in the hearts of the students, especially high school students who have strong feelings and often to crusade for social justice on their own. Issues like racism, bullying, immigration, the death penalty, and rights and freedoms bring them to the table.

There was a Social Studies Chat (#sschat) on Twitter one night on this very subject, “Do you teach controversial issues?” and “If so, what?” Being able to address these things with respect in class is something I take very much for granted. I live in an area of the nation where I am able to discuss many political and social issues respectfully–everything from teen parenting to racial profiling to marriage equality. I never considered the fact that many schools can not. These controversial issues touch upon the wide range of religions, social beliefs, and personal experiences bound to be in the room.

In order to discuss such things, we, as a classroom community, must set up an atmosphere of respect, tolerance, and understanding. We encounter “non-negotiables,” for many students, whether it’s issues surrounding the definition of life, political rights and freedoms, or racial and social experience, it’s important to bring genuine feelings to the table and teach students to discuss these sensitive subjects with the intent of truly listening to the other side. Often there’s a great deal of attempting to convince while failing to listen. Other times, there’s emotion that rises to the surface. At these moments I take a break and moderate. Done well, this brings both sides together in a way that increases understanding as a whole.

People say “never discuss religion or politics” at dinner. At school, I disagree. We have the opportunity to promote understanding, kindness, and tolerance, and we should not pass up these teachable moments. Religion, politics, and social beliefs often cause the biggest misunderstanding in life and they strike deep. Having a good command of these things, and the skillset to bring them to the table helps students in their journeys, where they will be meeting and working with people with all sorts of experiences, background, and beliefs. This is important.

Today’s feature is about just that–about not shying away from controversy. About allowing it into the classroom in order to create a tone of tolerance and respect where each student understands that their beliefs are important, but that they can also learn to understand the beliefs of others, and in doing so, we create a closer community.

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Reclaim the Swastika Day

This is the board about the swastika issue. It’s a fascinating study to watch this group try and eradicate the hatred from an ancient symbol of peace. This would be an interesting lesson or debate for middle or high school students.


Modern Day Hero: Morris Dees and the Southern Poverty Law Center

Southern Poverty Law Center keeps tabs on injustice with their Teaching Tolerance and Hatewatch. They fund many cases of significance, and make sure that no group gets left undefended when it comes to civil rights, tolerance, and justice.


Debate: The Ethics of Force Feeding Inmates

The issue of breaking a hunger strike is one that was visited in 1981 in Ireland, and today in Guantanamo Bay. At issue is how to keep the nation safe and balance human rights in prison.


El Salvador Refuses to Allow Abortion That Would Save a Mother’s Life

This controversy is a political, religious, social, and gender-based issue that brings extreme opinions on all sides. This particular situation serves as a good one for discussing this topic because it forces people to examine their thoughts both on which person could be saved, and many sets of values behind this complex issue.


Teen Pregnancy: How Does Having a Child Change Your Life?

Shows like “Teen Mom” put the spotlight on teenage motherhood, and sometimes it seems that it makes being a young mom look desirable. This board would be great to use in a health class to help educate teens about the challenges they will face if they become parents sooner than they expect. This is an issue in many schools.


Really Awful Court Cases

I use these cases in class by asking students to predict what they think the outcome was. The decisions are so horrific, no one ever gets them right, which brings up some controversial topics about freedoms and American history.


LGBT Teens and Homelessness

The statistics for LGBT representation among homeless teens are staggering. This board brings those issues to light. Since LGBT issues are still at the forefront of civil rights, the basic human right of shelter and family is a good place to start.


Life on Death Row

Life on death row is not glamourous. The death penalty is an emotionally charged one, with many victims feeling the only way to establish justice is with the death of the offender.


Dating and Domestic Violence

Dating and domestic violence is an important issue, but is often highly charged and controversial, especially when it comes to the often overlooked issue of abuse of men.


Driving Men Crazy in Saudi Arabia: Women’s Rights

In one article, a woman says “I drove to the grocery store. I accepted the risk.” Can you imagine not being able to drive for groceries without a driver or permission? These Saudi women are heroes for crusading for rights many women take for granted.

1 Comment

  1. R. Smith

    December 5, 2013 at 8:14 am

    Great! I used great literature such as The Outsiders, to encourage my middle students in discussions. It was such a joy!