Two men sitting in chairs facing each others and talking in a deliberative fashion.

Teaching Controversial Issues with C-SPAN’s Classroom Deliberations

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If you want to teach a controversial issue, the hardest part is putting together balanced set of resources. That’s the great thing about C-SPAN’s Classroom Deliberations – they do the hard work for you.

C-SPAN’s Classroom Deliberations are in depth lesson plans centered around current, controversial issues in public policy. They bring together resources from the Internet and the C-SPAN video archive to give students a well rounded view of an issue. By the end of the lesson, students should be able to engage with that topic in a deliberative way.

The lessons are created by active classroom teachers, and they are updated at least a half dozen times a year with current topics.

What Kinds of Topics Are In C-SPAN’s Classroom Deliberations?

Classroom Deliberations cover current, controversial issues in public policy. They are typically built around issues that are being debated in Washington, D.C. Some are specific to individual court cases and pieces of legislation, while others are more general.

Each lesson is framed around a specific question which is intended to divide your class and spark discussion. Here are three examples.

Should Hate Speech Be Protected By the First Amendment?

The most recent issue is whether hate speech should be protected by the first amendment. This is a classic topic for civics and government classes, but it is extremely relevant today. This topic would work well in a U.S. History class as well. It provides an opportunity to explore the first amendment and civil liberties. Given recent events in Charlottesville, this should resonate more deeply than usual.

This starts with some background articles and videos. Then, there are three sets of videos on more specific sub-topics – hateful speech on college campuses, the recent court case Matal v. Tam, and a slightly older case Snyder v. Phelps.

Should the Electoral College be Reformed?

An example of a more evergreen topic is the lesson on the electoral college. This is another issue that is sure to come up in your civics and government class. You’re also pretty likely to cover it in Early U.S. History. This lesson contains background articles and videos, videos arguing in support of the electoral college, and videos arguing against the electoral college.

Should Congress Continue to Require Annual Standardized Tests for All Students?

A third example is of a more timely issue – whether Congress should continue federal testing requirements in K-12 education policy. This lesson was published when Congress was considering the Every Student Succeeds Act, and there was some debate about whether to maintain annual testing or roll back to grade-span testing. This is a more niche issue, and it would be more useful for a unit on policy formation. It might also fit into a contemporary history class. It does have the benefit of being about something that directly affects students, so that’s also a bonus.

How Do C-SPAN’s Classroom Deliberations Lessons Work?

So those are some of the topics, but how do the lesson plans work? Here’s a quick overview of the typical process. The actual lesson structure and pedagogy is up to you. The Deliberations lesson is intended to be a set of resources for you to adapt to your classroom. But there’s a general formula that you can use as a framework.

Background and Introductory Activity

The first step is to establish some foundational information about the topic in question. Each lesson includes two or three background articles which would be good to assign for homework reading. There’s also a vocabulary list, and you may want to define these for students or have them look them up for homework.

A take a stand activity with six silhouettes standing in a row with speech bubbles saying "Raise the Wage!" and "Don't Do It!"
You can use the “Take a Stand” activity to kick off a Deliberations lesson.

This is also a great place to do an introductory activity. One example would be Take a Stand. Click through for a full description, but this involves students physically lining up according to their opinions and then explaining those opinions. You could also do an A/B writing, in which students choose one of two statements and write why they agree with it. The goal here is to get the students thinking about the issue and prime them for learning.

Watch Pro and Con Videos

Next is the meat and potatoes of any Deliberations lesson – the pro and cons videos. This is typically three to four videos expressing each side of the argument.

These videos come from the C-SPAN video library, and they could come in a few different flavors. Sometimes it’s video of the House or Senate floor, with legislators engaging in debate. Sometimes it’s press conferences. Other times, it’s experts talking on interview shows or at conferences.

There are note taking charts that you can use with the videos. You can go about watching the videos in a number of different ways. One option is to flip the classroom and have the student watch the videos at home. You could also do a jigsaw in class, where each student watches two videos and then shares out with their group. If you want, you could just watch all of the videos together as a class.

This last option is good if you want to he able to explain each video. The others are better if you think the students will be able to understand the issues on their own.

Culminating Deliberations Activity

After watching the videos, you wrap up with a culminating activity. This is where students apply what they’ve learned and engage in a debate, a discussion, or a deliberation of some kind.

Video still of a Congressional hearing on North Korean nuclear weapons, a good example of a culminating activity for a Classroom Deliberations
You can wrap up a Deliberations lesson with a mock Congressional hearing.

My favorite is a mock Congressional hearing. In this activity, students assume the roles of different people in a Congressional committee meeting. For example, someone is the Committee Chair, another is the Ranking Member, while others would be the witnesses testifying before the committee. You could also have a mock Congressional debate, where students take turns making 2-3 minute floor speeches in support or opposition of the question. Other options include Socratic seminars, silent discussions, and world cafes.

Extension Assignment of Assessment

A final option is to add an extension assignment on to the lesson. This could be for assessment purposes or to ensure that each student fully engages with the content.

In the example above of a mock Congressional hearing, each student plays his or part and there is value in this experiential learning. But some students might not be as engaged as others. An extension assignment allows you to worry less about assessing students through the experiential learning.

Some options for this include traditional persuasive essays, prepared speeches, letters to the editor, and political advertisement videos. Be creative, and consider giving students multiple options to demonstrate and apply what they’ve learned. Some may prefer writing while others prefer speaking.

Who Makes C-SPAN’s Classroom Deliberations Lessons?

C-SPAN Classroom is a website maintained by C-SPAN’s Education Department. It’s a small group of former educators working out of their Washington, D.C. office. Classroom Deliberations is one of their projects, but the lessons themselves aren’t written by the full-time staff.

The education department also employs three classroom educators as Teacher Fellows each summer, and their job is to develop content for the C-SPAN Classroom website. Some of these Teacher Fellows are kept on to work part time throughout the school year as Senior Fellows. It is these Senior Fellows who do the bulk of the work for Classroom Deliberations. They choose the topics, prepare the handouts, and curate the videos.

So all of these lessons are produced by practicing educators who are still in the classroom everyday.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I was a C-SPAN Teacher Fellow in July 2013. I worked for C-SPAN as a Senior Fellow throughout 2015. However, I am no longer employed or compensated by C-SPAN. I contributed to the publication of several of the Classroom Deliberations lessons currently live on the site.

Try Out a Deliberations Lesson Or Learn More About It

Are you ready to try out a Classroom Deliberations lesson this year? Let me know in the comments how it goes.

If you’re interested in learning more about them, I’m teaching a session at the NJEA Convention on November 10. More details will be forthcoming, but that session focuses specifically on Classroom Deliberations.

C-SPAN also offers two educator conferences in the summer. If you are selected to attend, you’ll receive free travel and accommodations for a two day conference in Washington, D.C. These cover a variety of different resources C-SPAN makes available for teachers.

Applications for each summer usually go live in January or February, so check the website after the holidays for more details. It’s an amazing experience, and I’d highly recommend it to any social studies teacher.

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