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5 Tips on How to Address Sensitive Topics in an English Class

Discussions in an English class can become heated if the conversation touches upon sensitive topics or if students have strong, but different opinions on certain subject matters. As a teacher, it is part of your role to facilitate classroom discussions no matter which direction it heads. Sometimes, you’ll have to shut down the discussion completely, other times you can tread carefully and encourage students to share their opposing views. 

Here are five tips on how to address sensitive topics in an English class: 

1) Set the stage for a respectful discussion environment. 

Students need to feel safe in your classroom so it’s important to mention at the start of class that everyone needs to be respectful. Establish a safe environment by reminding your students that they’re there to learn, not to judge. Recognize the diversity in your classroom and help students see the same. Let your students know that it’s okay to disagree, but it’s not okay to interrupt or be disrespectful.

Here are some examples of what you can say:

  • Please listen respectfully to what your classmates say, without interrupting.
  • Some of your classmates may have opinions different from yours, please respect that and wait until your turn to share. 
  • We are all here to learn, not to judge one another or to debate about who’s right or wrong. 

2) Ask students to stay as objective as possible. 

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Sticking to the facts can help a discussion stay objective and you can lead the conversation towards objectivity by framing your questions in certain ways. Encourage thinking among your students rather than ask them to choose a side. 

Instead of asking your students directly about their opinions on a subject matter, you can reframe your questions in different ways. Try the following prompts:

  • Tell us about your experience with…
  • What do you know about…
  • How do you know that? 
  • Why do people have differing opinions? 
  • What factors contributed to the development of your current ideas?

Make sure to correct misinformation if something is obviously incorrect, or have students do further research on the subject. You can use this as an opportunity to promote 21st century skills of collaboration, critical thinking, creativity and communication.

3) Be an active facilitator of the discussion. 

In any language class, you want the students to do as much of the talking as possible, but you also don’t want to be a passive observer. Your role as the teacher is to be a facilitator and step in when needed to guide the conversation and make corrections. Be ready to speak up if students cross a line or if you need to shut down a topic and move on to the next one. 

Here are some ways you can facilitate the discussion:

  • How do you think your ideas or opinions will change if you were born in a different part of the world? 
  • What valid points can you see in your classmate’s point of view?
  • So tell us more about that.
  • Can you see any flaws in your own ideas?  

4) Be prepared to deal with tense or emotional moments. 

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Certain topics may trigger a strong emotional response from your students. It’s most important that you stay calm as a teacher and be empathetic towards your students’ feelings. If students get angry or upset, validate their feelings and try to turn this into a learning experience. 

Here are some examples of what you can say when students become uncomfortable or you sense tension:

  • I understand that some of you may feel upset about this topic. Your feelings are valid and we would love to hear what you have to say about this if you’d like to share. 
  • When a classmate disagrees with you, it doesn’t mean that either of you are right or wrong. It’s just a difference of opinion and we are all here to learn from each other.
  • If you feel uncomfortable discussing this topic, you may sit out and listen. However, if you decide you have something to say, you are more than welcome to participate. 

5) Avoid certain topics if you can.

At times, students may want to discuss a topic which is not appropriate for the classroom and does not benefit the other students. In these cases, you can shut down the conversation completely and steer it in another direction.  

Here are some ways to stop a discussion topic:

  • This is not an appropriate topic for our English class. If you want to discuss this further, you can come speak to me after class. 
  • Sorry, I’m afraid this isn’t a good time or place to have this conversation. Some of our classmates may feel uncomfortable discussing this, so let’s talk about a different topic. 

The next time sensitive topics come up in your English class, try these tactics to give your students a safe, learning experience! 

If you have other ideas on addressing sensitive topics in class, please share them below! If there are any other topics you’d like to see on LatinHire’s weekly newsletter, let us know! 

Ellier Leng
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