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When teaching controversial issues, Howard County schools emphasize critical thinking, respect

On a Thursday morning in February, before schools were closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, Hammond High School teacher Alec Livieratos said to his AP Government students, “At the end of the day, we are talking about ending a life. Let’s not make any jokes about this in any way.”

Livieratos, Hammond’s social studies instructional team leader, said those words as he began his lesson on medical aid in dying. Over the course of two days, his class analyzed the topic at hand, first in small groups, then in a class-wide deliberation and finally in an essay. The students were tasked with answering the question: “Should the U.S. government legalize medical aid in dying?”

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Livieratos started off by having his students read an informational packet about medical aid in dying from Street Law Inc., a nonprofit that creates educational programs.

Several students immediately asked about the difference between medical aid in dying and euthanasia. Livieratos explained euthanasia is the intentional act of killing a patient to relieve pain and suffering when the doctor is present; medical aid in dying is voluntary as the patient takes the medication themselves.

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This lesson is one of the several Livieratos teaches throughout the year centering on a controversial issue. For all of the lessons, he ensures his students know his classroom is a safe environment and he is there for them if they need to talk.

“Building good relationships with students is the foundation of teaching controversial issues,” Livieratos said.

The Howard County Public School System’s Policy 8050, Teaching of Controversial Issues, was adopted in February 1972. This February, the Howard County Board of Education adopted an updated version of the nearly 50-year-old policy after eight months of review.

The policy establishes guidelines for teachers to follow when teaching controversial issues. A change to the 2020 version includes a new definition of controversial issues. The policy committee — made up of teachers, faculty, students and community members — updated the definition from “matters based on reputable academic disagreements or political policy or ideological issues” to “significant academic, social, political and ideological matters about which there exists opposing viewpoints and/or multiple perspectives.”

Other updates included specifying that these issues will be taught in an objective and impartial way, ensuring multiple perspectives are represented and there is model citizenship.

The policy “protects teachers [by specifying] what they can do and can’t do in a classroom,” said Renee Bos, the secondary social studies and Advanced Placement coordinator for the school system. “It’s a really hard time to be a teacher to teach controversial issues.”

A major change to the policy was differentiating sensitive issues from controversial issues.

Examples of sensitive issues, according to Bos, are ones “that can be triggering,” including the Holocaust, slavery, the Reconstruction Era after the Civil War and the U.S. internment of Japanese Americans and Japanese immigrants during World War II.

Controversial issues come “with strong opinions,” such as the right to bear arms, Bos said.

“You never know with kids the connections they will make in their head [to the issues],” Bos said. “You have to respect their feelings and thoughts.”

Talking issues in the classroom

Livieratos had several deliberations, not debates, in his classroom concerning controversial issues this school year, including assault weapons, hate speech, juveniles punished as adults and whether medical aid in dying should be legalized.

“In our class-wide discussion that is not a debate, we are looking for a consensus," Livieratos said. “Even if the consensus is, ‘This is a really hard issue. We don’t agree, but we think this should be more discussed,’ [it] allows for students to look at both sides from academic reasoning.”

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Ali Ahmed, a Hammond High sophomore, said the classroom talks were “good for everyone to get to see the other side of the story” and listen to other arguments.

“They can get pretty heated. Everyone can share their opinions [on] the best way to learn about a topic like [medical aid in dying],” said Ali, who argued in favor of medical aid in dying becoming legalized.

“The deliberation aspect is really important because you get to hear things you wouldn’t find in an article online or in general,” added classmate Noah Hoffman.

Noah, a sophomore who also favored legalizing medical aid in dying, said this means “everyone gets more informed in general.”

Livieratos said he will not be doing deliberations as part of remote learning due to online teaching guidance educators received from the county amid the coronavirus pandemic that has closed schools statewide through the end of the academic year.

“But every day we talk about current events during our virtual check-ins," he said. "We have covered everything from the latest coronavirus statistics and guidance, to rumors of Kim Jong-un’s death, to the president’s daily press briefings, to the NFL Draft,” he said. “So, we are not shying away from controversial issues just because we have moved to online learning.”

For the past 13 years, Wilde Lake High social studies teacher Katherine Volpe’s class has discussed various historical issues deemed controversial. This year, she taught ninth and 10th grade U.S. history, American government and women studies.

“In American government, the political nature of the class is controversial,” Volpe said as she rattled off a variety of classroom topics, including immigration, climate change, affirmative action, Title IX, education, equity, political parties and the impact of election interest groups.

“I think it’s really important we use the term ‘controversial topics,’” Volpe said. “I think some people have a very black-and-white view of what [controversial topics are]. U.S. history in itself is controversial. [For example], how are we portraying other countries’ viewpoints of other groups whose voices are left out of the conversation portraying America?”

When teaching her students about the World War II era, Volpe talks about the internment camps, the atomic bomb, the Holocaust, prisoners of war and more. Volpe makes sure to ask questions such as “What war tactics are OK?” and “What role did America play in the Holocaust?” When discussing the roles of Germany, the Soviet Union and Japan, she asks “Were those countries’ approaches OK?”

In Volpe’s women studies discussion-based class, students speak their minds about the women’s suffrage movement, the gender wage gap, women’s access to health care, women in leadership and dress codes.

The class, open to all students, had only female students enrolled this year. There’s been a teen mom in past classes, and students from all grade levels, different races, different family backgrounds and different perspectives.

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As an English teacher at Centennial High School, Melissa Jacobsen comes across controversial issues in the selected texts she teaches her students.

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Her students engage in debates, open-ended discussions and write argumentative essays. Jacobsen makes sure her students learn how to have civil discussions and support their opinions with evidence.

When teaching “Of Mice and Men,” a 1937 novella written by John Steinbeck, the topic of mercy killing arises. At the end of the story, one character kills another to protect him from a more painful death, and Jacobsen has her students write an argumentative essay about the ending.

Censorship comes up in Ray Bradbury’s 1953 classic novel “Fahrenheit 451,” and Jacobsen discusses a series of questions with her students about censorship: “When is it acceptable? Is it ever acceptable?”

Students write an essay, answering the question: “Could technology be beneficial or not be beneficial?”

Controversial language is a point of conversation for Jacobsen while reading “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain and “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee with her students.

Over the years, though not often, students have asked for alternative reading assignments, usually for a religious reason, Jacobsen said.

When discussing controversial topics, it is important the students are thinking critically and are exposed to opposing ideas and viewpoints, Volpe said. She wants students to move beyond an emotional response to use data, evidence and research to back up their claims and perspectives.

“I think that in social studies we have a job to create those platforms for kids to have those conversations so they know they can have those conversations elsewhere without attacking a person,” Volpe added.

Jacobsen echoed that, saying, "Part of what we do is teaching students how to be good citizens and how to have civil discourse and how to have different opinions from their peers.

“In the real world, you will encounter people with other opinions, and you need to learn how to argue your position and also value someone’s position.”

For Livieratos, his students “don’t have to love politics, but at the end of the day if they can be adults who participate in our democracy, I’ve done my job.”

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