Teaching Controversy

By Moira Wong and Josh Bloch

One alternative to banning controversial publications in schools is to provide students with the tools to think critically about difficult and divisive issues. In 2003, the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) introduced A Teaching Resource for Dealing with Controversial and Sensitive Issues in Toronto District School Board Classrooms. The central learning strategy in the resource is to prepare young people as sovereign, democratic citizens. This strategy requires exposing students to a wide spectrum of opinions and values so that they can make informed decisions about their own developing systems of beliefs.

The Teaching Resource encourages classrooms to embrace conflicting perspectives and provides teachers and learners with the skills and practices to recognize biases in their own emotional and intellectual responses and in those of other people. Thus the TDSB firmly invests within conflict as an extremely necessary and important way in which learners learn about their world and develop individual autonomy.

The TDSB resource includes eight excellent lesson plans for Grades K–12. Reprinted below is a useful introduction from the guide to a lesson plan on teaching To Kill a Mockingbird. The full guide can be downloaded from www.tdsb.on.ca.

Moira Wong is a course director at the Faculty of Education at York University and has worked in the equity department at the TDSB. She is one of the authors of the TDSB’s resource guide on teaching sensitive and controversial issues.


Excerpt from A Teaching Resource for Dealing with Controversial and Sensitive Issues: “Examination of the Role of Perspective in Novel Study”

Teachers may be aware of many examples of secondary school literature appropriate to this topic. The text chosen for this demonstration is To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) by Harper Lee. Immersion teachers can use Zahra by Evelyne Kuhn and Les Chemins secrets de la liberté [by Barbara Smucker]. To Kill a Mockingbird is often used to generate discussion and analysis of racial prejudice and discrimination. However, to achieve this goal, it needs to be handled carefully for a number of reasons.

First, Mockingbird is written by a white author, it features a white hero, and [it] is narrated from the viewpoint of a naïve, young white girl. Even though the author’s intent is to expose racism, the book provides a very limited perspective on African Americans (“Negroes” in the language of the book). Knowledge of the African-American man [whom] the hero defends is largely related by the narrator. Rarely too are the opinions and concerns of African Americans voiced in the novel. While their subservience is shown, the ways in which they exercised resistance to racism are underrepresented. It is unlikely that the author would have been privy to this information, given African Americans’ need to protect themselves in a white supremacist society.

Second, just as authors write from differing perspectives, individuals read and respond to texts from differing perspectives, based on their complex social locations (e.g., race, gender, economic status) and experiences. When people have similar reading experiences and interpretations, it is often because they are from the same “reading community” (Fish, 1980). A white middle-class reader can identify with Scout and Atticus and dissociate from the white racist (and underclass) characters in the novel. As a white reader, it is also possible to finish the novel with one’s racial identity relatively intact. At the novel’s conclusion, Atticus has fought injustice, Jem is saved, Bob Ewell dispatched, and the loose ends are all neatly tucked away for the novel’s “sympathetic” white characters. But for an African American, identification with the African-American characters in the novel might be more demoralizing. They are largely seen through white eyes, and at the novel’s end Tom is dead, and the voices of pain and rage in the African-American community are not heard.

For these reasons, it would be advisable to teach the novel in tandem with one in which African Americans tell their own story. Many such novels are currently available. Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry [by Mildred D. Taylor] is told from the perspective of a young African-American girl living in the southern United States during the Depression. It shows that African Americans did not rely solely on whites to fight their battles against discrimination for them. It examines the many ways in which they resisted racism. In terms of teaching strategy, half the class could read each novel, or the whole class could read both. Students could compare how similar events are related or experienced from the perspective of African-American and white characters in the two novels.

Before or after reading the novel, students might read and discuss excerpts from Peggy MacIntosh’s essay, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,”  to see the many ways in which whiteness grants social mobility. While reading the novel, the teacher might encourage students to consider whose interest is served in Lee’s portrayal of the racist Mrs. Dubose as a somewhat “sympathetic” character, and in Atticus’s advice to Scout and Jem that they (and the reader) should try to stand in her shoes. Students can also apply the concept of perspective in analyzing why the author allows some of the white characters to voice their racist attitudes: for example, students can examine the dialogue in which Mrs. Farrow characterizes “Negroes” as sulky, ungrateful and incapable of improvement. Does Lee use this character to give a more realistic understanding of the limited visions of a larger community? Would the story be more effective if the racist attitudes were never expressed? The teacher can also ask students to examine how derogatory language can shape and promote stereotypes and negative racial attitudes. In addition, this novel can help students examine historical, linguistic and economic factors that lead to negative biases and oppression.

Reproduced with permission. See A Teaching Resource for Dealing with Controversial and Sensitive Issues in Toronto District School Board Classrooms (2003), pp. 48–49.