Taking a Stand: Engaging Students through Controversy

Push your students’ buttons from time to time! Provoke them and rile them up!

But do so within a set of established procedures so students can air their thoughtful, informed opinions in a civil and intelligent manner. Honoring your students’ ideas and insights is a great way to get them “into” a new lesson or to reinvigorate them when their interest wanes.

As I write in my book Reaching the Whole Child by Teaching Whole-Class Novels, offer up a polemic related to what your students are currently studying and require them to take and defend a stand. Students spontaneously respond to pointed, provocative comments and ideas. They love to add their two cents, particularly where issues of justice, equity, and freedom are concerned.

Elevate your students’ intense reactions, especially when those responses are knee-jerk and uninformed, into eloquent expressions of perspective and passion. Teach respectful debate skills and awaken in your students the fire of self-expression.

The controversial issue’s connection to your current instructional topic doesn’t even have to be explicated beforehand. When you stir up controversy, your students won’t care how it’s related to what they’ve been or will study; they just want to chime in! Students are always thrilled when someone welcomes and values their points of view. If the underlying purpose doesn’t become apparent until later, its revelation will only be more impactful when you prove how all learning in your class is interconnected and personally relevant.


Pros and Cons

Ethical dilemmas, controversy, and topics for debate are always available to the teacher who’s perceptive and interested in the profound. Keenly look for opportunities for your students to air their opinions about thorny issues and questionable predicaments related to your curriculum.

Since controversy is a natural motivator, use children’s innate quests for fairness and self-determination as you open their eyes to abuse, oppression, and bias—throughout history, across the globe, and in their own communities. Awareness and empathy are only a beginning, however. Teaching the benefit mindset entails students getting involved and actually working for progress.

According to Jennifer Rich, “Inclusive classrooms… allow for uncomfortable conversations where close examinations of… crises of social justice can be debated in thoughtful ways. Even young children can—and should—learn to ‘raise their collective voices.’ It is reasonable to expect disagreement, but it is essential to provide opportunities for students to learn how to have difficult conversations respectfully.”


Taking a Stand

A wonderful way to infuse debate into your lessons is with my Taking a Stand activity. This engaging strategy works for many reasons:

  • It’s a quick process,
  • it teaches students to commit to a decision,
  • it gets students out of their seats,
  • it gives students a respectful forum to present their opinions,
  • it allows students to change their opinions later, and
  • it lays a foundation for more formal argumentative/persuasive essays or debates.

Simply have your students make a sort of T-Chart in their class notebooks. On the left-hand page, they write the following heading: Agree, Pro, For, True, Believe, Correct/Right, Support, and they draw both a plus/positive symbol and a thumbs-up.

On the right-hand page, the heading is: Disagree, Con, Against, False, Disbelieve, Incorrect/Wrong, Oppose, and they draw a minus/negative symbol and a thumbs-down. Students now have a template onto which they can routinely write their opinions concerning the various issues you present to them through the year.

Using as many synonyms as possible, both when they’re taking notes or when you’re talking to them, constantly suffuses students with academic language that’s readily understandable in the moment. This is one organic way you can meet the requirements of English Language Development (ELD) standards.

Tough Decisions Ahead Road Sign

Getting Kids to Commit

During the Taking a Stand activity, always emphasize that students must take a stand either way. There is no middle ground here, and no equivocation is allowed. Life is full of grey areas, but wishy-washiness is never a hallmark of good writing or speaking. Besides, you’ll teach students how to address and counter opposing opinions at other junctures throughout the year. For this activity, however, students must only write on one page on one side of their notebook (pro or con) and take a clear stand for each issue you present to them.

For an example with a narrative text, such as The Outsiders, you could propose the following dilemma: “Randy the Soc is thinking about not fighting in tonight’s rumble. In your opinion, explain the wisest choice for Randy to make regarding the big fight. You may use evidence from the book and your own ideas to support your opinion.”

Then give your students a choice between two sentence starters to guide their opinions. They either are “for” or “against” this character fighting in the rumble, so they only write on the left or right hand page in the Taking a Stand section of their notebooks.

Students either begin with “Randy should fight in the rumble because…” or “Randy should not fight in the rumble because…” Notice that each sentence starter has a “because” built into it so students are forced to explain their opinions using a complete sentence. This part is crucial as you tell students they can believe whatever they choose but must always explain why they believe so. Requiring kids to write down their opinions forces them to be more thoughtful and articulate and also ensures they actually commit to a response.


Literally Taking a Stand

After giving your students few minutes to write down their responses and explanations, direct their attention to the aisles on each side of the classroom. The left aisle is for those who are “for” the issue at hand, and the right aisle is for those who are “against” it.

Proactively manage this passage with firm, clear instructions: Students are to take their class notebooks with them as they silently move to the aisle that corresponds with the response they just wrote. They are to stand shoulder to shoulder with whichever classmates are on the same side of the room as they are. You want to see all their faces, so no one is to be behind anyone else.

Also emphasize that we’re treating each other’s opinions with respect. Even if there are only a few people, or even a single student, standing on one side, that shouldn’t engender any giggles or ridicule. After doing this activity a few times, this procedure will flow smoothly; but don’t rush into out-of-seat activities like this until your classroom management has been well established!

The reason why this activity works so well, especially with middle schoolers, is because it forces them to commit. Giving kids the opportunity to simply raise their hand while you take a quick poll often is a waste of time because adolescents can be extremely self-conscious about standing out and so consumed with fitting in that even the most innocuous question gets kids raising their hands only if their friends are also already doing so. It’s impossible to gauge where students stand on anything when half of them are too timid or lazy to even raise their hand at all.

So during Taking a Stand, if you see a student begin to walk to one side of the room and suddenly shift to other side where her friends happen to be or where most of the class is, rush over and check her notebook to see exactly on which side she had actually written her response. That’s where you’ll ask her be true to her convictions and take her stand, even if she’s standing alone.


Reading their Responses Aloud

Next, ask for volunteers or call on students to read their responses aloud. Of course, all students respectfully and attentively listen to each other read their responses. Be sure to hear from a sampling of responses from both sides.

When responding, require all students to read their sentences aloud from their notebooks. They’re not allowed to extemporize unless you ask them follow-up questions. This is important because you want to train students to write cogent thoughts and explanations the first time without merely relying on ad-libbing their responses. Students often have plenty of intelligent thoughts but sometimes are too lazy to actually write them down in a coherent manner. This activity will fix that.

The teacher always stands in the middle of the room during this process so the students don’t know where you personally stand on the issue at hand. With experience with the same issues, you’ll already know where most students will initially stand, and it’s often on the wrong side. Yet you will lead them down the garden path anyway because this is probably just where you or the author expects students’ initial, uninformed opinions to be at this point. Don’t worry if students have misconceptions and prejudices at the beginning because once you fully explore each issue, it’ll become quite clear where evidence and reason will prevail.


The Option to Reconsider

The beauty of Taking a Stand is that you always allow your students to reconsider once they’ve heard a variety of their peers’ opposing responses. Once both sides have aired their perspectives, allow a moment for students to change their minds and to show this shift in opinion by physically changing sides.

This is a powerful moment when students learn how a wealth of facts and explanations allows us to make an informed decision and to possibly reconsider our initial responses. This option to reconsider and to physically change sides is one that can be revisited later as many times as necessary as more evidence is added to each side’s case.



If you liked this article, you’ll love my new book, Reaching the Whole Child by Teaching Whole-Class Novels. It’s my love letter to ELA teachers who want to teach with equal parts practicality and passion!



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