A large classroom full of students watching an actor portraying Detective McDevitt on a projector screen. Many students are raising their hands to participate.
East Brunswick, NJ. Photo by Kristen Ferrara & Craig Segall.

Classroom Tips: How to Discuss Controversial Topics

5 min read

Editor note: July 7 marked the 150th anniversary of the execution of Lincoln assassination conspirators George Atzerodt, David Herold, Lewis Powell and Mary Surratt. All were ordered to death following a military tribunal held in Washington. The question of the guilt or innocence of Mary Surratt, in particular, and generally the legality of a military tribunal for this case has been controversial since. In this post, 2014 Teacher-in-Residence Kathryn Notarpole discusses how she teaches controversial subjects like the conspirators trial and executions.

Is it ok to violate the liberties of some in order to protect the liberties of the majority? Did the United States violate the spirit of democracy when it built an overseas empire during the late 19th century? Did 11 southern states have the right to secede from the Union in 1860-61? Were the conspirators in Lincoln’s assassination given a fair trial?

As a middle school history teacher, I love to pose these sort of questions to my students during the school year. Colleagues, family and friends often ask me how it is possible to have these discussions in class without offending someone. Is it worth the risk? My answer to that question is a resounding YES!

What better way to illicit critical thinking from our students than by asking them to delve into topics of which they only have cursory knowledge? Shouldn’t we be asking students to look for legal and moral arguments, to present both sides of an issue, and to have authentic conversations with teachers as the facilitator instead of “imparter of all wisdom?”

Besides the improvement in critical thinking, studies show* that student-led deliberations lead to an increase in:

Political tolerance Interest on political issues Understanding of complexities in tough issues Comfort with disagreement The intention to vote and pay attention to current events.

(*From The Political Classroom, by Diane Hess and Paula McAvoy)

Students are often shocked by my posing the question about the conspirators. They can’t believe I, an admitted Lincoln fan, would even doubt the conspirators’ guilt. This in itself is a lesson to students that one can’t let one’s emotions get in the way of legal questions. And though our emotions can get the best of us in difficult situations, we want to always be open to asking hard questions. By posing this question to the students, they are being asked to recognize not the guilt of the conspirators, but their treatment according to the law.

So, what are the methods that have allowed me to find success in creating these conversations? Simply, I only have two: Respect and Meaningful Activities.


From the first day of school, my class is a model of respect. I refer to my students as “sir” and “ma’am” when I call on them. I teach them acceptable ways to interact with one another when listening and speaking, and do not allow them to interrupt me or their fellow students. Modeling and teaching the behaviors, from the very beginning, with every activity, creates an environment wherein students feel safe sharing their ideas.

Meaningful Activities

My favorite method of tackling controversial issues is by using Deliberation.

Students are given a question (i.e.: Were the Lincoln conspirators given a fair trial?) Students are put in pairs an assigned the role of “A” or “B”. “A”s will argue yes, “B”s will argue no. Students read their background information and create an outline of their arguments, then pair with an opposing pair and each present their case for five minutes. Students switch sides —“A”s become “B”s and “B”s become “A”s— and repeat the process. Students drop their assigned roles and meet in groups of four to reflect on their experience.

I often like to have students write an argumentative paragraph, after discussions, where they have to chose a side and offer supporting evidence as well as a counterclaim to their decision.

Why this works: Though students are always begging for debates, in a typical scenario, they only want to win for their side. This activity asks students to consider all arguments since they aren’t trying to win. Their discussions are deeper and they seem to look for reasons to chose a side, after they hear the facts.

Moot Court: 

Students are placed in three groups. I like to assign them a position I don’t think they would choose. A. The Judges B. Yes C. No Students are allowed time within their groups to study their background information, and are then divided into courts consisting of one from each group (A, B, C). They are given a set amount of time to discuss the merits of the case, with the judge asking questions of each party. Judges are then asked to deliberate, decide the case and explain on what merits they decided.

Why this works: Though this activity can be loud, and students are trying to “win,” by asking them to look at the opposing side they would have chosen, they are required to look at arguments they wouldn’t have otherwise considered.

There are many other activities that get students to look at issues, but these are the two with which I have found the most success. On so many occasions I have had students thank me for not just “telling them the answer,” but for letting them discover and discuss all the possibilities, in an environment that encourages civil discourse.

So, did the Lincoln Conspirators receive a fair trial? Why don’t you ask your students to decide?

To learn more, check out the following:

The Ford’s Theatre online exhibition about John Wilkes Booth’s Lincoln assassination conspirators

Library of Congress images of the conspirators and the trial

Famous American Trials: Trial of the Lincoln Assassination Conspirators

Katy Notarpole has been teaching 7th and 8th grade honors Social Studies in Mesa, Arizona, for 17 years, and been a Ford’s Theatre National Oratory Fellow since the 2013-14 school year. She loves traveling with her family and, of course, all things Abraham Lincoln.

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Katy Notarpole has been teaching 7th and 8th grade honors Social Studies in Mesa, Arizona, for 17 years.

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