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30-60 minutes
  • Current Events
  • Politics
  • Religious Liberty
  • 6-12

The Newseum is committed to advocating for the First Amendment. The 45 words that protect freedom of religion, speech, press, assembly and petition are carved 74 feet high in stone on the front of the building. But since its ratification in 1791, this amendment has engendered vigorous debate – sometimes civil, sometimes not – about exactly what these freedoms should mean and how they should apply. With these debates touching on topics from politics and public protests to racial tensions and religion, teaching about the First Amendment inevitably invites controversy. But rather than back away from these potential flashpoints, we believe that the passion and interest these topics elicit can make them a powerful teaching tool.

The four guidelines and debate leader checklist below, based on NewseumED’s experiences and widely held best practices, provide a foundation for those seeking to steer productive conversations about controversial subjects. Yet the success of a conversation about a controversial topic depends on many factors, from the facilitator’s preparation to the mood of the students on the given day. Some of these you can control and some you cannot. These guidelines are designed to help you prepare and plan for as many of the controllable factors as possible and create a flexible environment and experience that can meet your students at their level. Think about these conversations as embarking on a sort of “choose your own adventure” lesson plan. Be prepared to twist and turn in response to your students’ questions and answers, and keep in mind that the measure of success will not be a single final product, but the overall exchange of ideas.

We want to hear your ideas, too! Share your tips for teaching about controversial topics with us at [email protected].

Before the debate 

  • Read up on the topic of the debate.
  • Establish and commit to an objective for engaging in this debate.
  • Think about your participants’ possible perspectives on and responses to this issue.
  • Find or prepare background/debate materials as needed to create an even playing field for all participants.
  • Write or think through possible questions you can ask to introduce the topic and guide the debate, ranging from straightforward to complex.

During the debate 

  • Share the objective for engaging in this debate.
  • Set ground rules for participation.
  • Ask questions to encourage participation and guide the debate, ranging from straightforward to complex.
  • Listen to participants’ ideas and ask for clarification as needed.
  • Allow time for small and large group discussions.
  • Do not take a side; instead play devil’s advocate and present opposing viewpoints to balance the debate.

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