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  Workshop 3: Public Policy & the Federal Budget  
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Teacher Perspectives: Teaching controversial issues

Leslie Martin: Teaching controversial issues is one of the challenges as well as a lot of the fun in teaching civics. Every person in this country has an opinion on just about every issue. When I take on a controversial topic, I do a variety of things. First, I will ask a student to define the issue. Then I may repeat what he says or I will say, “Tell me again what you said and emphasize these words.” Then I will turn to another student and say, “Give me your take on what he said.” Or, I will ask another student to comment. Sometimes a third student can repeat what the first student has said in his or her own words. So we begin this dialogue. I very rarely give my opinion. I do sometimes define the same issue in two different ways.

My favorite is abortion. Here in the South we have a lot of strongly religious students. I will say, “Students, let me ask you a question. How many of you support the right of an individual person to maintain control over their own thoughts, their own ideas, and their own body?” Almost every student will raise [his or her] hand. Then I will say, “This is a different issue. How many of you believe that life is a precious gift that should be treasured and nurtured from the very beginning?” Every student will raise [his or her] hand. Then I say, “Why is there such a big deal about abortion?” and it immediately opens up. I did it in this class and a student raised her hand [and said], “Well the Bible says its wrong.” I will turn around and say, “Well, that’s true, but what’s the problem with using the Bible as your reference?” Most of the time a student will say, “Because we don’t all believe in the Bible.” I will ask a lot of “why” questions, [e.g.,] “Why do you think this was the law? What is the difference between law and morality and ethics?” I have spent time with this class laying the groundwork [about] the difference between morals and ethics. I use “morals” as an individual development of ideas and “ethics” as more of a consensus of what we agree about in society.


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