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  • Writer's picturelaurawippell

How to plan a class for discussing a sensitive topic

Updated: Aug 14, 2022

There's a global issue you'd like to discuss with your English students, which is topical and a fantastic way to develop receptive skills. But it's sensitive and you're not sure how to introduce it to the class. That's where this blog post comes in.

Our world is full of problems. Some are shocking, sensitive or downright depressing. But shying away from these sensitive topics in your classroom could mean you are missing valuable opportunities to connect with your students.

Here are five actionable steps to help plan a class around a sensitive topic.

Step #1 - What matters to you?

When covering the yearly curriculum, we all will have some topics that we enjoy more than others. But when it comes to highlighting a sensitive issue, think about what matters most to YOU. If you're passionate about the topic, that will clearly show through and your students will sit up a little more in their seats. There's nothing worse than listening to someone who clearly isn't interested in what they are talking about. So when it comes to sensitive topics, choose something you care about.

Step #2 - Define your Learning Outcome

You've decided which topic you want to explore, and now comes the hard work of planning it. If you're anything like me, you'll have a million ideas on how to incorporate it into your subject, and it can be overwhelming knowing where to begin.

Be realistic. Decide on one evaluation and one learning outcome. Will it be formative or summative? Keep it simple, and next time you can add more or turn this into a longer unit if you wish to.

"Engagement with these topics, whether intentional or incidental, can be opportunities for development of IB learner profile traits."Language B guide, First assessment 2020. International Baccalaureate Organization

Step #3 - Do your research

We want to create safe spaces for our students to express themselves in. Before diving in to that sensitive topic with your class, take the time to do your research, not only about the topic, but about your students as well. Think about:

Have any of your students had prior experiences which mean discussing topic X could be difficult for them?

Does topic X raise any opportunities to discuss cultural or religious beliefs?

If you have a new class and you feel you don't know enough about them, read the step below to find out how you can check in with students at the beginning.

Step #4 - Elicit information; build empathy

You're ready to bring this sensitive topic into the classroom. So, how do you introduce it? One of the ways I've learnt the most about my students is through writing prompts, as teenagers tend to share more personal information through writing than in an oral activities with their classmates. While reading The Catcher in the Rye, I gave my 11th Grade English B class a writing prompt about death. I was quite nervous about using it, but I had followed the previous steps and made sure the prompt was age appropriate. Their honest responses blew me away, and I learnt so much about their lives from that one little prompt.

For prompts I've used anything from pictures, to quotations, to songs.

Steven Wilson's poignant song is a multimodal text which serves as an effective prompt for grief.

The New York Times also has a great variety of writing prompts.

Step #5 - Interdisciplinary connections

You're discussing something important that matters to you - don't miss the opportunity to make connections. It doesn't have to be extensive. Whether it's a a link to the Learner Profile, or Theory of Knowledge, these sensitive topics provide multiple opportunities for further reflection. "Engagement with these topics, whether intentional or incidental, can be opportunities for development of IB learner profile traits." (Language B guide, First assessment 2020. International Baccalaureate Organization)

Do the prep work and trust yourself

It can be daunting planning a discussion on a sensitive topic, but if it's something you're passionate about and you've done the prep work, you can provide the students with a relevant and engaging class.

I'd love to hear your experiences discussing sensitive topics in the comments.

Click Here to see a unit I planned for English B students on the war in Ukraine.


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