When Good Kids Say Bad Things in Classroom Discussions

When students embark on a project to influence a real-world issue in the school or community, strong feelings and differences of point of view can occasionally lead to insensitive or hurtful words. What to do? Rather than just avoiding controversy and thereby losing the opportunity for deep learning and social engagement, here are some ways that smart teachers handle such situations.

  • The teacher can ask the class to do some research on the issue involved. Example: a child asserts that a girl should never become president. Response: “This is a really important question. We should find out more about it.” Then schedule time promptly for students to do some web research. Or find and bring in a group of articles on the question for the class to read and discuss. (Thanks to Katherine Bomer, in For a Better World: Reading and Writing for Social Action.)
  • Prepare students at the beginning of a project or at the very start of the year: “We may sometimes have some hard discussions and disagreements. We’re all responsible for keeping this classroom a safe place where people can share their thoughts and opinions. If you say something controversial, you can expect that others will disagree with you — and that’s OK, as long as it’s respectful.” (Thanks to Elizabeth Robbins. From an interview quoted in my book, From Inquiry to Action.)
  • Provide lessons and practice on conducting thoughtful discussions, including active listening and giving explanations for particular points of view. (Excellent strategies for this in Nancy Steineke’s Teaching the Social Skills of Academic Interaction.) If you invite your students to create a set of guidelines for respectful discussion and disagreement, be sure that most of the items are positive “do’s” and not warning “don’t’s.”
  • Build a strong culture of respect and mutual support in the classroom before embarking on challenging projects. There are a wide variety of programs and strategies for this. One team of fifth grade teachers does this based on the book, Have You Filled a Bucket Today, through which students recognize each other for kind and supportive things they do in the classroom. On one occasion, the result showed when one student softly whispered to correct another next to her who had made an insensitive remark.

This kind of work is an essential part of helping students to become active and caring members of their community, both at school and throughout their lives. It’s one of the smart things that great teachers do.

— Steve Zemelman