PLC Explores Structured Academic Controversy to Support Classroom Deliberations

Current and societal issue discussions are a proven practice of civic education that occurs across the disciplines. Each discipline has its own essential questions around power, equity, and justice that inform key driving questions of education, “How shall we live together?”

Dr. Michelle M. Wantroba-Ferrer, Coordinator of Instructional Support in a K-8 school district in the southwest suburbs of Chicago and Adjunct Associate Professor in the School of Education and Health Sciences at North Central College, supports classrooms across the disciplines in having students engage in inquiry that leads to deliberations across differences. Great classroom deliberations rarely “just happen.” Much like a great lesson plan, classroom discussions take time, intention, and planning. To better support the educators she coaches and teaches, Michelle has participated in the Guardians of Democracy microcredential courses facilitated by the Illinois Civics Hub. This community of practice allows educators from around the country to collaborate as they hone their skills in the proven practices of civic education.

Michelle recently earned her Silver Badge in Using Current and Controversial Issue Discussions in the Classroom where she developed, implemented, and reflected on a lesson in which the educators she coaches explored and deliberated essential and supporting questions related to vaccine mandates. We asked Michelle to share her experience in facilitating this discussion to model for educators how to facilitate a discussion in their classroom. Here are her responses.

Briefly describe your topic for your current and controversial issue discussion. What prompt did you use? Why is this an open and relevant issue for the teachers you serve?

 I chose the topic of mask mandates in schools–should they or should they not be required once the mask mandate in Illinois is lifted.  This is an open and relevant issue for the teachers I serve because we, as teaching staff, are very divided on this issue.  I feel since so many of us have diverse lived experiences and polarized political views, it was important for teachers to see both sides of the issue and cite evidence from two perspectives.  It also gave them additional background for dealing with students’ families who are also very polarized on this topic.

What strategy did you use for this discussion? Why did you choose this strategy?

I chose the Structured Academic Controversy (SAC) for this discussion because it allowed teachers to work together and understand the steps of an entry-level Current and controversial issue discussion (CCID).  It also gave me the opportunity to provide PD on a new strategy since I had already explored Philosophical Chairs in the Bronze course.

How did participants gain the necessary background knowledge for this discussion? 

I provided the articles for teachers to read.  I also invited teachers to share their lived experiences (including my own) as background.

How did this activity deepen your teacher’s capacity to facilitate discussion in their own classroom? 

Prior to our PD session, the teachers did not even know what CCIDs were and had not heard of SAC.  This was an eye-opening experience for them.

How did this project deepen participants’ knowledge of themselves and their community? 

The participants all agreed that our entire school community (and our world) needs to be taught how to have CCIDs.  We have had a lot of controversial issues surface over the past two years with the pandemic.  We have also seen many people attacked and abused for articulating their perspective or for not getting their way.  I feel all the teachers in my session gained an understanding of how practices of civic education (CCID strategies) make themselves and their students more successful in civic life.

What comes next? What did educators identify as future opportunities to use this strategy with their students? 

 We need more time to practice SAC again.  I would like to co-teach this strategy with teachers once I am afforded the opportunity to work in their classrooms.  I also would like to hone in specifically on ELA, Social Studies, and Science content areas.  Teachers already expect students to use Restate-Answer-Cite Evidence-Explain-Restate (RACER) and Claim-Evidence-Reasoning (CER) strategies when they write.  Having a CCID prior to and/or in addition to writing would, I believe, enhance and enrich students’ writing experience with evidence-based informational text.

Teachers commented that they want to use this strategy with their students because it teaches them that to build consensus, not argue for a right side or a wrong side.  One teacher said that our community members need this kind of training so they learn to speak to each other with respect in a safe and structured environment.  One teacher, who teaches Communications (a course designed around giving speeches), said, “I’m definitely going to try this with my class!”

What advice would you give teachers thinking about opportunities for engaging their students in classroom discussions?  

Start small and take the time to walk students through each step of classroom discussions.  Setting up those norms is crucial!!!  Even if it takes a lot of time and multiple practices, it is worth it to engage students in CCIDs.  Doing so will take the fear, anxiety, and intense emotional response out of this type of classroom discourse.