3 Tips for Teaching Hot Topics in an Online Setting

Fuel Education
Wednesday, December 7, 2016 - 9:15am

As a civics educator in an online setting, I often have to navigate some tricky waters. In my case, I teach in the state of Florida, which has a hotly divided population. If you’ve watched the news at all, you’re aware there are things going on in our country and world that are viewed from very different perspectives—party politics, terrorism, immigration, gun violence, gun rights, women’s reproductive rights, rights of the unborn, police brutality, civil liberties, and on and on. As much as I’d love to bury my head in the sand and avoid all of these discussions, it’s my responsibility as a civics educator to discuss the issues that help individuals form and shape their political ideologies and affiliations. Students have to know political party platforms, and the types of issues that may lead a person to identify with one party over the other.

Since my classes are made up of students who live throughout the state of Florida, the diversity of our state is reflected in the classroom. While brick-and-mortar schools tend to be pretty homogeneous, online schools offer students an amazing opportunity to become much more globally aware, and to make friends with kids who are completely unlike them.

We log in to a platform called Blackboard Collaborate, which allows us to interact with one another via a live chat, the use of microphones, web cams, a “raise-your-hand” feature, and writing on our classroom whiteboard. I can turn these tools on and off as necessary, but I like to foster as much interaction and communication as possible. Hopefully, this will make my students better citizens in the long run.

With that said, I’d like to offer three tips for dealing with difficult topics in the online classroom.

1. Know thyself. There is some research that indicates civic educators and U.S. government teachers should not bother with the farce of neutrality. When you work with students day-in and day-out, they are going to pick up on your bias and know what you really think. This research indicates that it is better for teachers to just be honest about their opinions, but still be respectful and foster open debate in the classroom. However, this research is based on the brick-and-mortar classroom.

I would argue the opposite is true in an online classroom. I’d love to see (or conduct) some research on this issue to support my point of view but, instead, I’ll share my own observations.

When I log in to my online classroom with students throughout the state of Florida from a variety of ethnic, religious, and political backgrounds, I lack the ability to see all of their faces at once. I can’t gauge a quick response and know when to soften the blow of one of my own opinions. In fact, if I boldly share a viewpoint that some find controversial, they may walk away from the computer that very moment—and I’d never know. It would be easy to alienate a student and make them feel as though you are against them. As a teacher, this is the last thing I’d ever want to do! So, if you are going to teach civics online, know thyself. Know your strong opinions and be mindful about keeping them to yourself. In fact, in your personal life, if you’d describe yourself as a really strong conservative or a really strong liberal, teaching civics online is probably not for you. It can be really difficult to bite your tongue regarding issues about which you are passionate!

2. Know thy students. I have lots of students who are first- or second-generation immigrants. While my first responsibility is to educate, my second responsibility as a civics educator is to protect. I wouldn’t stand for those kids being bullied in a brick-and-mortar setting, so I cannot allow it in a virtual setting. It’s tough to talk about an issue that directly impacts some of your students, while other students are blissfully unaware. They may unintentionally say something really hurtful without realizing they are talking about a kid in their own class. I’m always careful to remind students at the beginning of any difficult discussion that we have students who are directly affected by this issue. We have students who are immigrants or children of immigrants. We have children of police officers, children of the incarcerated, and children from rural areas, children from urban areas, children of majority faiths, and children of minority faiths. We really have to know our students to have respectful discussions and to protect them well. 

3. Maintain balance. In line with the previous point, it’s important to maintain balance. As a civics educator, teaching my students the art of respectful debate is an imperative. In my class, when we are about to debate a topic, I will often let students select the point of view they’d like to support. For example, I may ask students to raise their hands if they would like to argue in favor of healthcare reform. I choose a volunteer. Then, I ask for someone to argue against healthcare reform and select a volunteer. At that point, I do something very tricky. I make them swap. Not only does this tend to prevent students from devolving into angry debate, but it really stretches their minds to make them think about a different point of view. This is such a great exercise for all of us! What does the opposing side really think? Do they have any valid points? How would I defend their ideology if I were forced to do so? Looking at issues from multiple perspectives is a reliable way of keeping your brain in shape! Also, the point is not to change your opinion. This exercise can actually strengthen your own point of view. Once you’ve immersed yourself in the thoughts and ideas of the opposition, you can defend your own perspective much more fully.

In addition to this swapping sides exercise, I always make sure to keep a mental tab in my mind of the point–counterpoint flow in the classroom. I don’t ever want to leave a discussion unbalanced. Again, if I were to allow that to happen, it could be very alienating to my students, and to their parents. One of the ways I know that I’m successfully achieving balanced neutrality is when I talk to parents. Parents are quick to vent to me about their own opinions on political happenings of the day. I can’t tell you the number of times a parent has said to me, “I’m just so glad you’re not some crazy (liberal/conservative) teaching my kid!” I just smile and nod.

What a wonderful world it will be when these well-informed, respectful kids are discussing things with people who are wholly different than them! They will put us to shame, I guarantee it.

Jennifer Richardson has worked as a virtual educator for the past three and a half years. She teaches civics for Fuel Education and is a graduate student at the University of Florida, working toward a master's degree in educational technology. She is passionate about cultivating and exploring authentic relationships with online students.


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