Difficult Classroom Discussions

Topic: Is it appropriate for teachers to initiate classroom discussion regarding current attention grabbing news stories of local, regional, national or global significance?

On Thursday, February 26th, as part of a monthly CITL event open to all Emerson faculty entitled Let’s Talk Teaching, 13 teachers engaged in a thoughtful and lively discussion. The discussion centered on the question of the appropriateness of teachers to initiate classroom discussion regarding current attention-grabbing news stories of local, regional, national, or global significance.

The teachers present agreed that these types of topics should definitely be discussed in class, with the following caveats and guidelines. We are happy to share these caveats and guidelines with teachers who are also interested in initiating, supporting, and facilitating this type of discussion in the classroom.

Consensus = YES with caveats and guidelines:

  1. Structure the introduction and the questions to minimize opinion stating
  2. Teacher introduces and facilitates the discussion but refrains from giving their opinion
  3. Teacher introduces and facilitates the discussion and gives their opinion when they have a strong connection to the topic or when the teacher senses that students are seeking your adult teacher perspective
  4. Provide a balanced perspective to the issue or topic
  5. Be as neutral as possible
  6. Use as a vehicle to teach students to create well-reasoned arguments that are credible and justifiable
  7. Provide background information about the topic because not all students may be cognizant about the topic
  8. Foster students’ didactic and analytical capacities
  9. Be prepared that a prior class activity may have greater import and significance because of a news event that preceded or is subsequent to a news event
  10. Be prepared for a range of interest from “Lets move on.” to “We haven’t processed it enough.” and everything in between.
  11. Be aware that students from different countries, cultures, or life experiences will perceive these events through their particular lenses and not necessarily understand or agree with the “American” majority or minority viewpoint of the news events
  12. Provide a 10-minute window for such a conversation and be prepared to honor the boundary as some students will not want to devote 10 minutes to the topic and others will want to devote more time to it
  13. Acknowledge an event of serious nature with a moment of silence
  14. If you can, link the news event to a concept discussed in your course
  15. If your course is not related to the news event, you can ask the students how they think it might be or you can point out that whatever the course material, the college is not an island in the greater social and global context.


When news of events outside of college life, such as most recently, the Boston Marathon bombing, killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, and the death or Eric Garner in New Jersey, occur they are likely to be in the mind’s eye of faculty and students.  Awareness of such events is overwhelming and cause both emotional distress and cognitive dissonance. This is a time when a young person’s belief structures are likely to be turned upside down if not challenged in a fundamental way.

To proceed with teaching course material as if such a current event has not happened is difficult as teachers and students have their attention directed to the latest news about those events.  As adults with whom students have the most regular contact, it is our responsibility to be available to them, to help them make sense of what happened and reassure them that they will get their feet back under them again.  Without such conscious attention, such traumatic events can linger all semester long. 

An announcement about future workshop dates and topics along with Lets Talk Teaching dates will be made in this blog and by CITL.

  • Were you teaching courses when an event of local, regional, national or global significance occurred?
  • What did you do, if anything, to discuss it at that time in your course?
  • What did you learn from using this approach?

Please post your perspective on these questions here so all can benefit from your wisdom experience.

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