Tackling Tough Stuff? There Is Support. Resources, inspiration for teaching controversial topics | From the Editor

Whether educators broach controversial topics in a learning context or not, young people will encounter plenty of related content. Social media all too easily fills the void, fueling misinformation while suppressing critical reflection. NCSS, the National Council for the Social Studies, offers encouragement and materials to support important discussion.

News Photo from Khan Yunis, Gaza: (Nov 26, 2023) As Gaza Ceasefire Holds, Residents Seek Food, Fuel And Other Aid
Citizens stand to receive food aid on November 26, 2023 in Khan Yunis, Gaza. 

Current events, anyone? The Israel-Hamas war rages on—sparking conflict and uncertainty across the globe. Meanwhile, the flashpoint of deep cultural division, otherwise known as kids’ books, remains front and center of what has become a crisis of American democracy.

Children and teens are keen to what’s going on. Whether educators broach so-called controversial topics in a learning context or not, young people will encounter plenty of related content. Social media and memes can all too easily fill the void, encouraging misinformation while suppressing critical reflection.

It’s undoubtedly difficult to present fraught, complex subjects, which don’t lend themselves to 45-minute class or library periods. Add to that increased scrutiny by parents, among others, and laws in certain states, 17 thus far, banning “divisive concepts” from classrooms.

The largest member organization in social studies education, NCSS (National Council for the Social Studies), offers encouragement and materials to support important discussions with young people.

Take its resources list on the Gaza Israel conflict. From SEL (social-emotional learning) to media literacy, there’s a real range of approaches to teaching and learning in this area.

One educator who’s integrating the Middle East conflict into the classroom is Wesley Hedgepeth, who teaches AP courses in U.S. government and comparative politics in Richmond, VA. “In my class and in particular in [teaching] U.S. government, it’s fairly easy to do,” he says.

The impact is compelling. Open discussion of issues in classroom settings results in higher interest, tolerance, and knowledge, according to research by Judith Pace, a professor of teacher education at the University of San Francisco. “Exploration of issues from multiple perspectives is integral to promoting media literacy, civic reasoning and discourse, informed independent thought, and other capabilities of democratic citizens,” concludes the 2021 report.

“We try to be as in front of these events as much as possible,” says Hedgepeth, who is 2023–24 NCSS president. “When teachers really need support, we’ll put together a resource for every [grade] level,” he adds, citing the organization’s earlier teaching guide for Pride Month.

One document of interest: “Curriculum Integration Using Picturebooks: Combining Language Arts and Social Studies Standards to Address Controversial Issues.” The October 2023 NCSS publication proscribes a process for addressing controversial issues, with sample text sets to cover war/conflict, injustice, immigration, and more.



A Really Simple Guide series (BBC)
Posts include “What is Hamas, and what’s happening in Israel and Gaza?” Guide maps provide students visual support, says Hedgepeth. BBC resources are available to nonsubscribers.

Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People (NCSS)
Find “Notable” booklists for K-12 dating back to 2000.

The World From A to Z (Carl Azuz)
Launched in June 2023 by Azuz, former anchor of CNN Student News/CNN 10. Nine-minute video episodes release each weekday. A “helpful way to start class off, and then have the students ask questions and share their curiosities,” says Hedgepeth.

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Kathy Ishizuka

Kathy Ishizuka is editor in chief of School Library Journal.

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