5 Risky Social Studies Topics

There’s an old adage that warns “Do not discuss politics or religion in general company…” However, as a History teacher, hot topics are often at the heart of what I teach. So, how does one negotiate the potential minefield that is the Social Studies curriculum?

At the risk of being a total Captain Obvious, here are five areas to be careful with when developing your lesson plans:

Politics – Duh! Unless you live under a rock, you probably know too much about the animosity that exists between people with divergent political beliefs. But, beyond the ubiquitous my particular party vs. your particular party stuff, other topics can be magnets for political fury. In the United States, firearms are one such contentious issue. In fact, anything even remotely concerning firearms can get you unwanted attention from parents and administrators. For instance, my students and I were studying the 2nd Amendment to the US Constitution – which outlines the “right of the people to keep and bear Arms”. We had quite a discussion about this amendment:  the purpose of this right, why it was considered necessary at the time, the definition of “Arms”, limitations to the right, possible abuses, etc. We watched an FPS Russia YouTube video showing the host drive his tank to a local fast food restaurant. One parent felt that this kind of analysis was an example of me imposing my personal beliefs on my students – that I was  encouraging students to be critical of the 2nd Amendment. At the time, naive old me was surprised at the hostility of some parents. Afterall, it is okay to discuss the limitations on free speech (ie, not being able to joke about bombs while going through airport security), but discussing limitations on gun rights is not okay? To avoid any ire, be balanced in your approach – offer a variety of points of view. Allow students to do what we want them to do – think for themselves.

Religion – Once again, another rather obvious topic for teachers to be wary of. This can be tough for Social Studies folk, as the study of world religions falls within our wheelhouse. This is particularly touchy today. With all that is happening in the world, views are becoming more and more polarized. Some parents are so anxious about the topic of religion that they don’t even want their children learning the basic facts about other religions, labeling the practice indoctrination (here is a great article about some of the things currently going on: http://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2015/10/the-misplaced-fear-of-religion-in-classrooms/411094/).

Once, early in my career, I was teaching a unit on religions and I created an activity where students had to create their own religion – complete with a philosophy, rites, symbols, holidays, etc. Did parents complain? Let’s just say I will never do that one again!

But, at least I am not a Science teacher dealing with the whole creationism vs. evolution thing, or a PE teacher working with human sexuality! Do your best to stick to facts and avoid anything that resembles judgment/evaluation. And, be sure to give each religion equal time/coverage.

Developmental Appropriateness – As educators, we are supposed to be the experts in what is optimal for a particular age level. And yet, some parents will disagree with your expertise… and disagree firmly. Some parents feel their children are ready to watch the R-rated Deadpool in 6th Grade. Some parents think their 4th grade child needs more challenging reading options and should be reading the works of Hemingway or Faulkner. Other parents think that exploring career options is too stressful for middle school-aged children. Listen to parents and understand that their ideas are coming from a good place. Do your best to assure them that your plans are based on solid developmental practices. Talk to teachers in other grades to show parents how your program is vertically integrated from grade to grade. Include administrators or counselors take part in parent conversations – show a united front. Have lists of appropriate resources available, or – better yet – have the actual resources there in your room to show/lend to parents. But, in the end there isn’t much you can do about whatever a parent decides to do at home. Be prepared to pull an Elsa and just let it go.

Economics – On the surface, economics is a dry, mathy kind of topic. But, say something positive about welfare, FDR, socialism or mixed economies and you run the risk of being labeled a commie. Again, try not to inject personal beliefs into these discussions. Let the facts/numbers speak for themselves.

Biases and Stereotypes – Okay, this is like the atomic bomb of areas of concern for History teachers. Students have parents and sometimes these parents pass along not-too-nice ideas to their children about individuals from a particular ethnicity, nationality, socioeconomic group, gender, orientation, etc. Now, these ideas are usually invisible in the classroom, but they emerge under certain circumstances. For instance, I sometimes hear weird comments during explorations of slavery in the United States. And, just today a student made a very questionable comment about poor people during a discussion about communism. It’s not our place to fight a parent’s ideas – regardless of how abhorrent we feel they may be. The best strategy is for us to show the way by being good role models. Do as you always do – treat everyone with equal respect – students, other teachers, school employees, and even historical figures you explore.

To sum up: be careful, avoid making judgemental comments, be your best self. And, when in doubt, reach out to parents. See what they feel and perhaps invite some in to share other points of view. Live on the edge, but put up a net!

Hope this helps!

Hi 5!

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