Harnessing the Power of Dialogue: Current and Controversial Issues Discussions

by Mary Ellen Daneels, Lead Teacher Mentor


In my first year of teaching, one of my students was killed in a tragic car accident. I turned to my mentor for advice. Should I go on with the lesson plan, avoid the situation and provide the students an escape from the tragedy? Should I address this difficult event in class, and if I so, how do I support my students?

He counseled me to address the circumstances and create a safe environment for the kids to express their own thoughts and emotions. It was a heartbreaking class- painful but cathartic. We knew that we were not alone in our feelings of grief, confusion and uncertainty about the future. I learned an important lesson about the power of dialogue and how discussion can bring people together and promote respect and understanding.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs teaches us that people do not learn (self-actualize) until their need for safety is met. As a teacher, it is my responsibility to provide a safe environment for students to deliberate issues facing our communities. My students have questions and I do NOT have all the answers, but I can provide the structure and opportunity for inquiry, investigation and deliberation of such issues as justice, equality, freedom, liberty, tolerance and the like.

The new Illinois Social Studies Standards and civics course requirement elevates the discussion of current and controversial issues. Civil discourse is an authentic platform to practice literacy skills as students use disciplinary content to inquire into compelling questions facing our democratic republic- using evidence to communicate conclusions and take informed action.

There are a number of resources devoted to supporting teachers seeking to integrate the proven practice of current and controversial issue discussions.
  • Facing History and Ourselves has a number of teaching strategies that promote literacy and create a safe classroom climate for controversial topics. Their instruction on how to run a Socratic Seminar is very thorough.
  • The Tony Blair Face to Faith Foundation has a free Essentials of Dialogue unit that can be curated for your classroom to promote civil discourse.
  • The Constitutional Rights Foundation of Chicago has several lesson plans that promote deliberation of current issues.
  • Diana Hess and Paula McAvoy’s The Political Classroom is a website named after their award winning book. There are links to additional resources to support teachers in the classroom.
  • Teaching with Primary Sources has a quick tutorial on how to create and use a Structured Academic Controversy. While this is geared towards historical questions, it can be used for civic inquiries as well.
  • Deliberating in a Democracy has inquires framed around questions with resources reflecting diverse opinions. There are also some bilingual materials.
Do you have any resources to share to help facilitate current and controversial issue discussions in the civics classroom? Please send your suggestions to MDaneels@illinoiscivics.org. Together, we can prepare Illinois students for college, career and civic life.

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