Using controversial and emotionally charged topics as opportunities to access to student thinking.

by Jaraux Washington

Grades 6-8, Grades 9-12


Research shows that emotions are the “on and off switch” to access student learning. By using controversial or emotionally charged topics, teachers have the power to make learning easier for students.

I use emotion in my class as a kind of “priming” to motivate students to engage with the material. I set these situations up intentionally through a variety of techniques such as:

–Showing emotionally charged videos and following up with questioning.

–Assigning an activity that’s intentionally frustrating.

–Discussing a controversial current event or a loaded question that came up in class.

–Seating the class in a way that promotes conflict–students that don’t like each other or who have different opinions, deliberately seated together.

One example which was focused on accessing student empathy:

I showed the students a video about a child their age who had sickle cell disease. The video showed the child’s transfusions, weekly check-ups, and pain that prevented him from going to school. After the screening I asked the students–”Wouldn’t you want to know if you were going to give your child that?” Of course they said they would. This conversation sparked a strong interest in our lesson in Punnet Squares and how that is used to predict the disease.

Another example that was designed to tap into student anger:

This was a very simple question of “Is pink a color?” I posed this question and explained about energy, light and the fact that pink is not on the spectrum. By challenging the students in a provocative way I was able to spark arguments. The kids even formed “color gangs” (with names like RoyGBivvers and Pinktastic) to debate whether or not pink was a color. By engaging in this conflict I was able to get the kids to access the information.

Children don’t have emotional reactions to things they can’t connect with; you have to know your kids, what they care about and what’s too far–you don’t want to frustrate kids who are already frustrated.

Emotional connection with a topic gives students a why to learn certain things. It also helps them focus and engage with the content and be able to express that in a real way.


What I did well (in sharing this practice with other teachers)?

In the sharing of this video, I feel I was successful at sharing the “why” of this strategy, allowing teachers time to practice using the strategy with the support of their colleagues and stressing the importance of using it with caution.  The teachers brought up excellent point about the need to know your students prior to using this strategy. Without that knowledge the strategy will be either ineffective or could possibly cause harm to your class.

What I would do more of, better, differently (in sharing this practice again)?

If I were to do it again, I would be more cohesive in the personal interview. I liked how natural it was and felt it hit the major points but could have done better. Secondly, I would have talked slower. At some points I was talking so fast it was hard to hear what was being said. Lastly, I would have made the handouts easier to see or added them to the resource section.

In what ways do I still want to learn and grow in using this practice in my classroom?

I love using this strategy in my classroom and want to support others in doing so. To use this strategy takes some guts but when done correctly it can do amazing things for your students.

About Jaraux Washington

Jaraux has 11 years teaching experience in traditional and magnet schools. She is the co-creator of mentor/remediation program called The Dream Tea...

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