Controversy...I love controversy just as much as any Real Housewife from Bravo TV; wait that's drama not controversy. Anyway, controversy in a classroom can be an eye-opening experience for students, but it takes an abundance of scaffolding before students can have meaningful, civil discourse. So where do you start?

Before one can dip her pedicured toes in discussion strategies like Structured Academic Controversies, one must first teach her students how to listen and talk to one another (click here). I think some people have this idea that we don't have to teach children how to listen, but have you been around any children lately? Why do you think we are now teaching SEL strategies? Moving along, students need guidance when it comes to what active listening is. Before even getting into the discussion part, introduce your students to active listening: "pay attention, show that you're listening, provide feedback, defer judgement, and then appropriately respond" (  Your students can't have a worthwhile discussion or conversation if they don't know how to actively listen. Heck, I know adults who don't know how to actively listen. Now we move on to the discussion part. As silly as some people may find it, accountable talk is a great way to start students off with having meaningful discussions. Accountable talk shows students what it means to "carefully listen to each other, build on each other's ideas, paraphrase and seek clarification; and respectfully disagree" ( We can't expect students to know how to talk to one another when most often the only way they communicate is through a screen, not face-to-face, so in the age of millennials we must teach this skill set. BTW, no offense to millenials, I'm actually one! Don't stop reading... Once you have done a few practice discussions with your students using active listening and accountable talk, you must teach norms and expectations of small group and class discussions. You can come up with these norms and expectations as a class, such as "Allow your peer to finish his/her thought before you speak; remember to use accountable talk, especially the discussion stems, etc." Having these norms and expectations in place will help the discussion go smoothly. Now let's talk about more rigorous discussions like structured academic controversies.

SACs, yes most kids laugh at that acronym; come on they're teenagers. Where was I? Yes, SACs are a great way to have students use all of the aforementioned skills sets like active listening and accountable talk, and it also teaches students to find common ground on controversial topics. Most often we see SACs in history like this one (click here), but SACs can be used in ANY classroom. A SAC is a method that helps students move from a mindset of debate by shifting the goals from winning a classroom discussion to understanding alternative positions and coming up with a consensus. There are five basic steps to a well-organized SAC:
1. Organize student into four-person teams made up of two pairs.
2. Each pair reviews materials that represent different positions on a charged issues. For Frankenstein I use "Is genetic engineering a good or bad thing?" For Fahrenheit I use "Technology has more pros than cons." The teacher assigns the positions in order for the students to prepare for the SAC. Students may not agree with the side you assign them, but that is part of teaching them to see all sides. I provide the materials for them but also ask them to do their own research outside of class.
2. After reviewing, annotating, and filling out a pre-SAC handout, each pair comes together as a four-person team; one pair acts as presenters, the other as listeners and vice-versa.
4.  Rather than refuting the other position, the listening pair repeats back to the presenters what they understood. Listeners don't become presenters until the original presenters are fully satisfied that they have been heard and understood.
5. After the sides switch, the pairs abandon their original assignments (or sides) and work toward reaching a consensus. If consensus proves unattainable, the team clarifies where their differences lie.
(adapted from

As an extension to the lesson, I use the SAC as a basis  of evidence for an argumentative essay. After completing a SAC, I usually have students turn all of their research and discussion notes into an argumentative essay, where they get to decide what side they choose to write about throughout their essay. They already did the hard part, now they have to write about it!

Keep on stressin' on,

Michon Otuafi

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