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Beginning and sustaining an engaged class discussion is a notoriously difficult enterprise for new teachers and if you are teaching a contentious topic, passionate outbursts and heated debates can create even more challenges. Like many other aspects of teaching, preparation is critical for establishing a welcoming but ordered environment for students to participate in debate and deliberation.

Over time, experience will help you recognize the difference between a possibility for fruitful debate and a situation that should be defused quickly so you can guide the class back to the topic at hand. But as you begin your teaching career, here are some ideas to consider in order best to cultivate that much needed experience.

  • At the beginning of the semester, give your class guidelines for polite discussion, so they know what to expect. It can also be helpful for the students themselves to participate in constructing a list of rules for debate; this can help to underscore the importance of those rules and develop a sense of shared responsibility in the class.

 

  • As the instructor, you are the one who paces the discussion, including who has the floor at a given time and when to move from one topic to another. Students expect you to set boundaries and to enforce the rules, so have confidence in your position. Lead by example, listening to students’ contributions and affirming or qualifying them respectfully.

 

  • Cultivate friendship and camaraderie within the classroom through group activities that allow the students to get to know one another and better sympathize with each other’s assumptions and backgrounds. You can’t control what happens outside the classroom, but to some extent you can help relationships to develop during class time. This can be achieved through various paired or small group activities that fit your current materials.

 

  • You might plan your classes carefully, but be flexible with your time. If a particular topic is raising more discussion than you expected, consider accommodating the students’ interests instead of moving on to stay on schedule. If you feel unprepared to deal with a topic at the moment, make a note to come back to it at the next class period. Be transparent with your students; you can admit, “I’m not sure about this, let me do some research and we’ll return to it next time.”

 

 

  • If you are about to cover a contentious topic, give your students time to gather their thoughts with an in class writing assignment or short reflection before class. This individual approach will help the quiet students who are reluctant to speak up in tense situations to work through their opinions. Ask them to consider why this topic is so divisive or difficult to discuss. You might ask them to submit their responses to you anonymously or reassure them that their answers will stay with you and won’t be shared with the group. Making time for them to formulate their reactions and ideas will also give you a sense of the diversity of opinion present in your class.

 

  • Even when a debate isn’t particularly heated, you can help to reformulate unintentionally offensive comments both for the sake of the offended and the offender. Because it can be difficult to understand the repercussions of one’s own views if they have never been challenged before, some students will not understand why their comments come across as inflammatory to others. You can depersonalize such a comment by acknowledging that such a view is widely held but also quickly explain why others might disagree or respond differently.

 

  • Always connect student comments to course materials and goals for the class. You don’t just want to keep a heated exchange from spiraling out of control; you want these arguments to be an opportunity for the students to learn. Re-framing different assertions and responses within the context of the course helps to accomplish both those goals.

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