In these times of turbulent cultural and political clashes, it would be nice to be able to shut your classroom door to the noise and just focus on your students and your subject matter. However, as you’ve likely experienced, this is easier said than done.
The culture wars often come knocking at your classroom door whether you invite them or not. Arguments about how to teach American history, evolutionary science, and even social norms have very real consequences for what teaching materials you’re allowed to use and even the funding of public schools at large. And that’s to say nothing of your students asking you questions about sexuality, abortion, race-related killings, and the sometimes-sordid pasts of beloved American figures.
It’s well beyond the scope of this article to tackle how to handle every controversial cultural and scientific issue you might encounter. But what we hope to do is give you a framework for having open, productive conversations with your students and their parents as these issues arise in the classroom.
Teaching History Amid the Culture Wars
The culture wars often reach a crescendo in history class. Many of the giants of history were, unfortunately, as deeply flawed in some areas as they were virtuous in others. And depending on people’s viewpoints, teachers can feel pressured to emphasize one side of the story or the other.
American history is fraught with such dilemmas. Yes, Christopher Columbus was an accomplished explorer, being the first European since the Norse to sail to the American continents—but he was also a horrific governor, enslaving indigenous peoples and executing colonists without trial. And Benjamin Franklin was a prolific inventor, bringing the world bifocals and key principles in electricity—but like some other Founding Fathers, he also owned slaves for decades before becoming an abolitionist.
Strategies for Teaching Controversial History
So where should teachers spend their precious limited instructional time? On the accomplishments or on the abuses?
The simple but challenging answer is both. For example, it makes little sense to teach Western history without mentioning Thomas Jefferson and his world-changing words in the Declaration of Independence. But it makes perhaps just as little sense to gloss over the gross contradictions between what he wrote and how he lived. When approaching difficult issues in history and social studies, keep in mind the following principles:
- Avoid oversimplifying or falling into narratives. Particularly when people are passionate about a topic, it’s easy to emphasize the rosy aspects while underplaying the difficult parts (or vice versa). Oxford professor Jack Doyle shares the example of America’s wars: History books sometimes go into great detail about wars centered on freedom (i.e., the Revolution, the Civil War, World War II) while underemphasizing or not giving a nuanced view on more controversial wars like the Vietnam, Korean, and Spanish–American Wars. Thus, when approaching your curriculum, make sure not to accept a simple narrative in which one side or person is completely good or completely evil; instead, give your students a well-rounded picture of the topics you’re discussing.
- Consider the whole, not just the best or worst parts. It can be incredibly difficult to engage with parts of history we now consider problematic or downright barbaric. Different places and eras in human history have promoted slavery, genocide, violent conquests, brutal systems of justice, and sexual practices that range from perplexing to disturbing. Some groups or cultures had few positive contributions to human history, but others, like the Romans, did much to advance architecture, engineering, transportation, literature, and law—though they did so against the backdrop of military conquest and gladiatorial games. If we hope to teach students holistically and objectively, we must find a way to condemn morally bankrupt practices without discounting the contributions of those who failed to stand up adequately to the evils of their time.
- Understand the methodology of history scholarship. Just as in science and math, there’s a methodology to how historians review primary texts and construct an understanding of historical figures and events. Broad history books covering a large period of time often lack the space to go into great depth about these methodologies and their nuances. To help fill in the gaps, teachers should take advantage of the works of academic historians who have taken the time to study minority groups and viewpoints in history.
- Answer questions honestly and thoughtfully. Students often have a knack for asking questions we aren’t ready for, and at the top of the list in history class is, “Why would he/she/they do that?” Even with young students, it’s important not to give simple or dismissive answers to the tough questions. History teachers are in a unique position to help students understand the motives, virtues, and shortcomings of people throughout history. If you’re caught off-guard by a student’s question, don’t be afraid to tell him or her you have to do some research before giving the answer. In fact, such moments could be a great opportunity to show students how to do academically sound research on historical issues or current events.
Teaching Science Amid the Culture Wars
Science, unfortunately, can also get dragged into the culture wars. Evolution and climate change have been the sources of heated and ongoing debates, as these issues stir up religious and economic concerns as well as scientific ones. When people use the term climate change, for example, they might be referring to a host of discrete but related issues, including:
- The rate at which the climate is changing
- To what extent humankind is responsible for that change
- The degree of danger climate change represents to humans, animals, and the environment
- What legal, economic, and societal changes we should make to curb humankind’s impact on climate change
As you can see, some of these issues are easily observable, measurable, and testable, putting them firmly in the realm of scientific study. However, other issues arguably stray into the realm of predictions and political policy, and those are the ones that are more likely to cause controversy in the classroom.
We see this play out in opinion polls about climate change instruction. In a poll from NPR, an overwhelming 84% of parents believe schools should teach climate change—but not all of them agree on the level of detail. Of those who think climate change belongs in the curriculum, about 20% believe teachers should stick to talking about the existence of climate change, not its potential impacts.
Strategies for Teaching Controversial Science
So what does all this mean for teaching culture-war issues in science class? With some topics, teachers might face complaints no matter what they do, but regardless of the potential for controversy, the best thing you can do is stick to facts and figures. That way, any arguments will stay centered on the science, not parents’ opinions or your teaching strategies.
To get you started, check out these hands-on activities that teach your students about the realities of climate change.
- Greenhouse Effect Experiment: Sometimes people are resistant to an idea because they don’t understand it or can’t imagine it. This experiment gives students a visual demonstration of what happens when CO2 builds up in the atmosphere.
- Ocean Ecosystem: How do rising temperatures in the ocean affect fish and underwater plants? This craft activity challenges students to create an edible ocean ecosystem, opening the door for you to talk about global temperature changes.
- Electrical Consumption and CO2 Activity: CO2 emissions are the biggest culprit behind humans’ contribution to climate change. This activity shows students how much energy different devices use and prompts discussions on how we can reduce our individual carbon footprints.
The Importance of Parent–Teacher Communication
When culture wars come to the classroom, most of the pushback you’ll receive will likely be from parents. They, rightfully, have an interest in what their children are learning and may have strong opinions on what’s appropriate to discuss in school. That’s why it’s crucial to establish a clear line of communication to help you explain the purpose behind your pedagogical choices.
Scholastic offers the following tips for communicating consistently and openly with parents:
- Set standards for ongoing communication. As the adage goes, it’s better to be proactive than reactive. Before culture-war issues ever come up in class, make sure to establish communication practices with parents so they know how to contact you if concerns arise. You might share your preferred method of contact and give “office hours” for when you’re available to return e-mails, take phone calls, or have face-to-face meetings. Setting these expectations in advance will help minimize parents springing conversations on you when you’re not prepared (e.g., in the carpool line) and keep parents from getting upset if you don’t respond to e-mails or voicemails immediately.
- Don’t come to decisions during a conference. When you’re sitting across from a parent or responding to a phone call or e-mail, it can be tempting to agree with the parent in the moment. However, you might regret that decision later, especially when you’re discussing sensitive issues like the culture wars. Thus, it’s important not to feel pressured to commit to a decision on the spot. Instead, you can tell the parent that he or she has brought up a good point and you’d like to give it some thought before you respond. That way, you have time to think and consult with your principal or fellow teachers on the best way forward.
- Quash the gossip. One of the quickest ways to lose trust with parents is for them to find out you’ve talked about them or their child to other parents or teachers, especially in a negative light. Assure parents that you will keep their confidences, and do everything in your power to ensure you and any teaching assistants or classroom volunteers keep to this rule.
- Contact parents about issues immediately. Parents do not like finding out about issues way after the fact or from other people. If you encounter any conflict or confusion with students about culture-war issues, it’s better to inform parents right away rather than letting the trouble build. That way, you have time to address the issue and have a better chance at allying with the parent rather than arguing with him or her.
- Explain your methods and come with a backup plan. Sometimes early and honest communication isn’t enough; parents may not be happy about you discussing the culture wars at all. That’s why it’s essential to give the reasoning behind your methods, and ideally get support from your school leaders as well. If parental concerns persist, you may consider making a backup plan or alternative assignment for some students.