Holding those difficult conversations

When the University of Chicago released a letter that they sent to all incoming freshmen stating that they were not going to back away from controversial topics and no longer provide “safe spaces” nor “trigger warnings” so that people could decide for themselves if they wished to attend or participate, people responded both positively and negatively. Letters to the editor of the N.Y. Times ran the gamut of viewpoints, each presenting a unique way to think about how discourse happens in today’s universities. It will play out over this school year to see if there is an impact to that public statement or how/if it changes discussion at that (and other) university campuses.

K-12 schools and their students and faculty are not immune to the fears, tension, and chaos that sometimes accompanies sweeping changes such as those we are facing today. The contentious political views, police relationships in communities, racism, bullying, and fear of the future create concern amongst teachers, librarians, administrators, and parents on how to work with students of all ages in creating safe places to hold constructive, informative, and purposeful discussions. We all learn best when we can ask questions knowing that those questions will be honored and respectfully answered.

In previous KQ blog posts I have discussed the idea that school libraries can and should be a safe center for these kinds of discussions. Content discussions in classrooms don’t always end in the classroom, just like classroom lessons spill over into students’ lives. Continuing discussions and ideas learned in the classroom p opportunities for students to explore those ideas beyond their single class and into a larger pool of views and opinions.

Offering library activities to create a forum for opening up new ways to share knowledge and ideas can include:

a. inviting speakers: choose local politicians, local organizations, and other highly visible speakers to come to the library to speak to classes. We’ve had – and have invited again – a panel of speakers with ties to the Holocaust, including Holocaust survivors, children of Holocaust survivors, and speakers who were part of the Kindertransport (1938-1940), to speak to classes. These rich conversations brought home the history lessons discussed in class.
b. author visits: local authors, poets, artists, and others who can show students that art is another way to express oneself. We’ve had spoken-word poets and storytellers who led students into unfamiliar territory highlighting cultures and views of history different from their own experiences, causing some interesting discussions back in class and spilling over into break times.
c. lunch-time visitors who come share their work such as beauticians, welders, farmers, doctors… anyone who might be willing to not just come to speak, but can bring activities to share highlighting expertise, diversity and innovation.

While it has been wonderful to research the many ways that librarians can bring discourse to the library, I have been grappling with HOW to hold the conversation. I’m uncomfortable with controversy and I wanted some guidelines. Social studies teachers have been holding these kinds of conversations in their classes, and each has ways to think about and work with students. I’ve learned many ways that individual teachers confront controversy or sensitive topics in the classroom. Collaborating to create these outside-of-class activities further extends those norms into the library setting…and hopefully, into their lives.

Using the resource list below, I was able to distill some of the ways that can help us get comfortable with holding these conversations ourselves. There is food for thought here that I’ve been mulling over and can definitely use some more conversational idea-bouncing with others. Feel free to jump in!

Here is that distillation:

They all say in one way or another:

1. choose your issues/topic (elections? An historical time frame? Climate Change?)
2. train students in how to discourse civilly; model, practice, frame with sentence starters and other strategies to begin.
3. provide reliable resources and send kids out to search for answers
4. let students collate questions collaboratively – this allows students to add questions they may feel uncomfortable with into a wider “pot” without being identified as the sole individual concerned with that kind of question.
5. require pre-discussion research or, if it is a spontaneous conversation: use the library resources to search for evidence or other information needs.
6. keep on topic/keep the focus
7. provide balance
8. teachers/librarians can provide their own viewpoint if…
a. they give it last – after students
b. you do your research first
c. are able to cite resources ad facts

Librarians, by working with teachers in the classroom, can work to create these norms and in inviting speakers, or holding debates, can refer to them to maintain civility throughout the discussion. Schoolwide acceptance of how to speak to issues and opinions civilly will go far in creating confident citizens.


1. A great book to use as a faculty “book club” or Professional Learning Community focus is Courageous Conversations about Race: A Field Guide for Achieving Equity in Schools. 2nd Edition by Glenn E. Singleton. This book can work as a toolkit and workbook for faculty discussion on how to create an environment conducive to open discussion.
2. Another “book club” book is Between the Word and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. This book has been chosen by my County Library as the “Sonoma Reads” book. What a great opportunity a “big read” offers to schools by holding countywide discussion groups. Teachers can join in the discussions as a part of professional development and personal growth and can encourage students to join in. The community wide activities can give a large group for discussion; and parents can sit side-by-side with their teens/children and participate together.
Associations that can help:
3. Teaching history: National History Education Clearinghouse: http://teachinghistory.org/issues-and-research/research-brief/25748
4. Teaching Tolerance: http://www.tolerance.org/article/controversial-subjects-classroom
5. Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility: http://www.morningsidecenter.org/teachable-moment/lessons/teaching-about-controversial-or-difficult-issues
6. Wisconsin Historical Society “American Journeys” Talking about sensitive subjects: http://www.americanjourneys.org/teachers/sensitive.html
7. From the PBS Teacher line; an ERIC document: http://www.pbs.org/teacherline/courses/tech190/eric_controversial_issues.htm?cc=tlredir

Author: Connie Williams

NBCTeacher Librarian and author of “Understanding Government Information: a Teaching Strategy Toolkit for grades 7-12”. Member of the CA State Library Services Board, and History Room Librarian at the Petaluma Regional Library [Sonoma County Library]. She welcomes all conversation.. give a holler!

Categories: Blog Topics, Student Engagement/ Teaching Models

1 reply

  1. Connie,
    Are you the same Connie, I knew in CA years ago, when we were colleagues in ESL/bilingual work? If so, I’d love to connect.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.