When class discussions get controversial (and unfair)

Photo by Sam Balye on Unsplash

I need this plan for better discussions in my classroom

Because I am a writer first, and a speaker second, teaching via whole-class discussions does not come easily to me. When those class discussions involve racially-charged, controversial topics, it’s even more difficult. This difficulty can be blamed on two things:

  • I teach at a nearly all-white high school. It’s not uncommon for one student to be the sole African-American in a class of fifteen to twenty. That ratio means I have to make sure that every student feels that they have a voice.
  • Even though I’ve been teaching for nine years, I just don’t have enough experience in facilitating whole-class discussions.

I know this and struggle with it.

So when I stumbled across the article, “Dangerous Discussions: Voice and Power in My Classroom” in the National Writing Projects’s Write Now publication on Medium.com, I knew I had to share the link with you.

It’s written by Oregon high school teacher, Ursula Wolfe-Rocca and, despite being written long before this week’s protests over the killing of George Floyd by a white police officer, it has some excellent, practical steps for better, more inclusive class discussions.

It’s comforting to know I’m not the only teacher who has felt frustrated with my lackluster skills at leading a discussion. Wolfe-Rocca echoes my concerns in this excerpt from her essay:

Affirmative Action for Class Discussions

“I’d bet all teachers have experienced a totally unsatisfying class discussion on a topic about which we care deeply. In my early years as a teacher, I made the mistake of interpreting these unsuccessful discussions as the students’ fault, a sign of their apathy or disengagement. Over time, I started to notice that different discussions failed in different ways. In some cases, a few students might make tentative, short stabs at contributing, but nothing gets rolling, and long silences dominate. At other times, one or two students are so confident and emphatic as to suck all the collaborative oxygen out of the room.”

Ursula Wolfe-Rocca in “Dangerous Discussions: Voice and Power in My Classroom” in NWP Write Now:Reflections on Writing from the National Writing Project (used with permission)

Wolfe-Rocca then continues the article to offer a plan where students write first in response to a discussion starter. She then reads student responses, collects a balanced selection of anonymous comments, and makes a handout for the next day’s discussion. You can learn the rest of her process by reading the article here.

Here’s the link again. You may have to open a free Medium account to read it as part of a trial membership.)

In closing, I really want to figure out how to lead better discussions in my English classroom. I’m tired of the blank stares that happen when kids feel too vulnerable to voice their opinions. I’m tired of some kids feeling shut out by the confident, in-the-majority talkers. I’m tired of not knowing how to include everyone.


Thanks for reading. I’m still taking your lit suggestions for fall. I’ve ordered class sets of Frederick Douglass’ narrative, but I’m wondering about newer literature to address racial issues in my class. Feel free to share your ideas in the comments. For more background, here’s that post, White Teacher Question: Are these race and social justice books enough?

Published by marilynyung

Writes | Teaches | Not sure where one ends and the other begins.

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