Teaching Contentious Topics & Civil Discourse

**This post was originally written on May 16, 2019.**

As I scroll through social media, it’s hard to miss that Georgia and Alabama have recently passed the nation’s strictest abortion laws. So, naturally, they want to know what I think when students walk in.

I think certain factions are trying to overturn Roe v. Wade (my standard response, which my students understand.

I’m not about to discuss my views because it’s not relevant.) I will not discuss this right at the beginning of my class because I need time to know my students. I do my Civil Liberties and Civil Rights unit at the end of my course. When discussing the 2nd amendment or abortion case law as civil liberties, I need my students to know the procedures and be comfortable in the classroom. In my classroom, opinion is not relevant. You can have your idea, but we aren’t about to debate gun rights or abortion. My job is to give you information about the Constitution, find relevant and trustworthy sources, and teach you how to develop an educated argument.

I will assume that this issue will continue and have already started to consider how I will address it with my students next year. I have collected some to help with #1 and #2 on the 5 ways to improve your practice. If you are curious about #4, I discuss it in The New York Times Op-Ed in AP Government.

  • This USA Today article gives information on the states’ abortion laws. The quantitative analysis could be a great warm-up to discuss federalism (Unit 1)
    • How can states pass laws that differ based on Supreme Court cases?
  • Discussing the sides of abortion about factions and Federalist 10. Abortion will likely be a constant source of division because there are so many factions within the argument.
  • An excellent source for teachers to learn is Body Politic from Oyez. It features Roe v. Wade, Casey v. Planned Parenthood (and Justice O’Connor’s famous undue burden standard), Gonzales v. Carhart, and Whole Women’s Health v. Hellerstedt.
  • The Future of Abortion Laws: “Two leading voices from organizations on different sides of today’s biggest debates over reproductive rights and abortion laws—Catherine Glenn Foster of Americans United for Life and Dr. Kelli Garcia of National Women’s Law Center—join host Jeffrey Rosen to explore the key cases making their way up to the Supreme Court. Garcia and Foster also share their views on landmark abortion precedents like Roe v. Wade, Planned Parenthood v. Casey, and the more recent case Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt and predict how precedent might affect the outcomes of challenges to pending abortion laws at the federal level and in states like Louisiana, Tennessee, and Mississippi.” The Constitution Center.
    • I love the Constitution Center so much. The podcasts show both sides and have a very educated discussion based on law.
  • FiveThirtyEight Politics
    • This podcast goes through political ideology, polling, how cases go through the Court system, and the 2020 election. I would assign this to listen to at home or listen to it in class so that I am available to answer questions since I am the content expert.
  • The Words We Live By by Linda Monk
    • First of all, I love this book. Secondly, pages 222-224 have a great explanation of abortion under the 14th amendment.

Knowing your kids and having your kids know procedures in your class is super important with all controversial topics.

I plan for the comments that get us off track or maybe inflammatory. My standard response is, “I appreciate your opinion, but we need to stick to the facts and get back on track.” I may not appreciate their opinion, but I want to keep my classroom where students can make mistakes and learn.

Update, April 11, 2022

Although this was written three years ago, I stand by it. After an excellent podcast interview with Joe Schmidt, I updated the language. After all, I learned that controversial isn’t the preferred terminology because people’s lives are not controversial. The topics are contentious. For example, transgender rights, which is something I discussed in class, and we had a moot court.

The way you approach the contentious topic matters. My friend Joe, and his amazing writing partner Nichelle have a book coming out soon~ Civil Discourse, Classroom Conversations For Stronger Communities.

How do you navigate contentious topics in your AP Government class?

3 thoughts on “Teaching Contentious Topics & Civil Discourse

  1. Which episode of the 538 podcast do you assign? The link just took me to the complete podcast library

    Like

    1. Hi Laura- I use the podcast as a whole! You can search topics, and I pick and choose what I want to have them listen to. When abortion is in the docket for the Supreme Court, they have some great ones!

      Like

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