To Discuss or Not to Discuss: Controversial Topics in the AP Classroom

Submitted by January essay contest winner, 

Miranda Smith

One of the numerous benefits to teaching AP Language is the freedom I have to carefully choose texts that will engage my students on a level where they compose evidence-based arguments and analysis. The process of choosing these works centers on stylistic elements of the language, and controversial topics that arise within the text.

Controversy. One of the most coveted words for an AP Language and Composition teacher.

Or at least, for me it is. I can preface a unit, novel or any discussion with “We will be discussing an extremely disputed issue in class today, so I need you all to remember to be open minded as well as respectful,” and my kids will foam at the mouth to talk about something that they think as taboo.

The most productive discussions in my classroom have stemmed from debates on capital punishment while reading Capote’s In Cold Blood, materialism during Into the Wild, and even gun control after reading Cullen’s Columbine.

So as a teacher, how do you approach teaching a debatable issue? Here is a short list of suggestions I have come up with over the years to help make this decision one you won’t regret later.

  • Decide what rules you want to clarify for your students before discussing this topic. Are there any areas you want to deem “off limits”? For example, due to the demographics of my previous classes, I have avoided topics such as war, abortion, and sexuality if at all possible. These issues bombard our kids on a daily basis, and will eventually find their way into our discussions, however, I carefully redirect when it does occur to help prevent mayhem.
  • Be able to defend the reasoning behind why you are choosing to introduce this topic to your administration, parents and your students. With that being said, it is better to be proactive by including the texts and issues in your syllabus from the beginning. If you decide later on to touch on sensitive issues in class, type up a letter to parents and send to an administrator beforehand so they are aware of what you plan to do. I am lucky that my administration has always been extremely supportive each time I have wanted to go beyond the scope of traditional language arts instruction.
  • Don’t assume that all of your students are comfortable with this topic, and don’t assume their parents are too. I always offer alternative assignments for my students in this case, and a letter home to parents in advance gives them an opportunity to discuss their views on that controversial topic with their kids so they may make a decision on whether or not they want their child to participate.
  • Keep your opinions to yourself. Students tend to want to please their teachers, so if you tell them your view on the topic, they will more than likely just agree with you and not form their own argument.

I leave you with this: Teach your students that the purpose of engaging in debate is not to “win” an argument. As teachers, we strive for those moments when our kids make the connection between the productive discussion in our classrooms and everyday life. There is no controversy in that.


Miranda Smith is an AP Language and Composition teacher at Madison County High School, and a graduate of the University of Alabama.  Ms. Smith decided to become an educator becomes she loves working with teenaged students. She loves the fact that, “Every day is completely different than the one before.” Ms. Smith shares her advice for new teachers: “ It never gets easier, but you get better.” To connect with Ms. Smith, send her a tweet @thesmithmrs