Engaging in Civil Discourse about Contentious Topics

Below is a brief list of resources and presentations that are intended to support educators who want to support their students in engaging in civil discourse about contentious topics.

Webinars Hosted by the MDOE:

Teaching About Controversial Topics (Led by Dr. Diana Hess)

The Political Classroom & Structured Academic Controversies (Led by Dr. Paula McAvoy)

Fake News: What It Is, Why It Works, and What We Can Do About It (Led by Dr. Wayne Journell)

What It Means to Be News-Literate (Led by the News Literacy Project)

All the News That’s Fit to Teach: Current Events in the Classroom (Led by David Olson)

Teaching Presidential Elections During Contentious Times (Led by Abigail Swetz)


Resources for Finding Balanced Information:

All Sides News


Media Literacy Toolkit (Iowa DOE)

News Literacy Project

Common Sense Media


Research & Resources from Dr. Diana Hess:

Controversy in the Classroom: The Democratic Power of Discussion

The Political Classroom

Talking Across Political Differences

Using Controversy as a Teaching Tool

Teaching Controversy

Teaching About Controversial Topics (Webinar Led by Dr. Diana Hess)


Other State Resources & Webinars

Illinois Civic.org Curriculum Design Toolkit (Check out “Current and Societal Issue Discussions”)

Navigating Difficult Conversations: Creating an Environment for Social Issue Discussion (Webinar/Part 1)

Navigating Difficult Conversations: Creating an Environment for Social Issue Discussion (Webinar/Part 2)

Engaging in Civil Discourse in the Classroom (Washington state OSPI)


Structured Academic Controversy:

The Political Classroom & Structured Academic Controversies (Webinar led by Dr. Paula McAvoy)

Structured Academic Controversy (Video from the Teaching Channel)

Structured Academic Controversy (From PBS Newshour Extra)

Structured Academic Controversy (From NWABR)

The Benefits of Implementing a Structured Academic Controversy in the Classroom


Creating & Building Classroom Community:

Guide for Setting Ground Rules

Creating a Classroom Contract (Lesson from Facing History and Ourselves)

Speak Up for Civility (Classroom contract from Teaching Tolerance)


Supports for Having the Conversations:

Tough Conversations Webinar Tools List - This document from the After School Alliance is a great list of resources related to having conversations that are grouped into useful categories.

Fostering Civil Discourse: How Do We Talk About Issues That Matter (From Facing History and Ourselves) - Check out their website for more information about this new resource guide. Free registration required, otherwise the previous version of the guide is available here: Fostering Civil Discourse: A Guide for Classroom Conversations.

Teaching About Controversial or Difficult Issues (From the Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility)

Civil Discourse in the Classroom (From Teaching Tolerance)

Your Roadmap for Teaching Controversial Issues (From iCivics)

ASSERT Research Journal: Vol. 1 No. 1 (2020): Teaching Controversial Issues - In this issue, the Annals of Social Studies Education Research for Teachers (ASSERT) is proud to present six works representing the scholarship of seven scholars whose scholarship has focused on teaching controversial issues.

A new resource from Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy titled, “Election 2020: Engaging Students in Civic Discourse,” was recently published. The document offers guidance for school teachers and administrators on how to manage political discussion and promote civil dialogue.

Seven Ways to Teach Civil Discourse to Students

National Institute for Civil Discourse - In 2011, the University of Arizona created NICD after the Tucson shooting that killed six people and wounded thirteen others, including former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. Although many people know about this incident now, fewer people know that Congresswoman Giffords was already in discussion with the University of Arizona about creating a center to study how to improve the quality of civil conversation. The Tucson community came together to create NICD, a non-partisan organization based at the University of Arizona to promote healthy and civil political debate. NICD is devoted to the same principles that motivated Congresswoman Giffords: that people with different values and political preferences can discuss their differences in a civil and productive manner. The galvanizing power of that event brought together an impressive, bipartisan group of leaders to work on these issues.

The Better Arguments Project - The Better Arguments Project is a national civic initiative created to help bridge divides – not by papering over those divides but by helping Americans have better arguments.

Close Up - Close Up informs, inspires, and empowers young people to exercise the rights and accept the responsibilities of citizens in a democracy.

Discussion-Based Teaching and Handling Controversial Topics in the Classroom

Teaching About Controversial Issues: A Resource Guide - This resource guide from Choices aims to provide teachers with resources and pedagogical tools so they can feel more prepared to address controversial issues in the classroom. It begins with why it is important to teach about controversial issues and then provides tools and resources for creating guidelines for discussions, facilitating discussions, teaching about controversial issues, and garnering support from administrators and parents. Be sure to preview all resources to be sure they are appropriate for use in your classroom.

Guidelines for Discussing Difficult or High-Stakes Topics - The University of Michigan has put together guidelines that can help instructors facilitate classroom discussion around controversial issues. Whatever the context, it is helpful to structure such discussions in a way that defines boundaries for the process and provides some degree of closure within the classroom. Such discussions are an especially important time to explicitly discuss expectations for respecting a range of perspectives and experiences in the room.


Tools for Classroom Discussion:

Kialo.com - Kialo Edu is a custom version of Kialo (kialo.com), the world's largest argument mapping and debate site, specifically designed for classroom use. Its clear, visually compelling format makes it easy to follow the logical structure of a discussion and facilitates thoughtful collaboration. Kialo’s mission is to promote well-reasoned discussion online, and to that end, Kialo is free for educators to use.

ThinkerAnalytix - Their mission is to teach critical thinking skills so that students achieve academically and discuss social issues with precision and care.

Mismatch for Classrooms - Mismatch is an online conversation platform that is purpose-built to cultivate skills and offer practice in civil dialogue between middle school, high school, and college students in different parts of the United States. Like a modern-day “pen pal” program, Mismatch connects students across distance and divides and guides them through structured, meaningful conversations with one another.

Parley - Parlay is a discussion-based learning tool and global community of over 40,000 educators who are reimagining class discussions for the 21st Century.

Discussion Protocols (From the Harvard Graduate School of Education) - A collection of discussion protocols used by the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Big List of Class Discussion Strategies (From Jennifer Gonzalez/Cult of Pedagogy) - 15 formats for structuring a class discussion to make it more engaging, more organized, more equitable, and more academically challenging. If you’ve struggled to find effective ways to develop students’ speaking and listening skills, this is your lucky day.

Deliberations (From Street Law) - Deliberations are civil discussions among students about public policy. These are very similar to a strategy some teachers use called deliberative discussion.


Presentations From Joe Schmidt (Social Studies Specialist/MDOE):

Democracy is Noisy: Civil Discourse in Maine and America (Part 1)

Democracy is Noisy: Civil Discourse in Maine and America (Part 2)

Democracy is Noisy: Civil Discourse and Controversial Topics in the Classroom