New York State School Boards Association

Website helps social studies classes tackle controversial subjects

by Merri Rosenberg

On Board Online • July 22, 2013

Abortion, gun control, gay marriage

By Merri Rosenberg
Special correspondent

After spending nearly a year teaching ninth graders about world history and geography, Jessica Sobers, a social studies teacher at Delaware Academy Middle School/High School in the Delhi Central School District, wanted her ninth-grade global studies students to find connections between historical controversies and public policy issues that are still being debated today.

Using Martin Luther and his struggles against the Catholic Church as a departure point, she asked them to identify a current controversy that involved a clash of ideas. After researching the topic, they had to form an opinion, acknowledge opposing arguments, and share their findings with their classmates  in a well-sourced, one-minute mini-documentary.

To answer the inevitable question about where to start their research, Sobers had a plan. She directed her students to a website, www.procon.org. “ProCon.org gives equal evidence to show both sides,” she said.

Sobers is among many teachers in New York State and elsewhere who have embraced the well-respected website.  Launched in 2004 by a California precious metals trader named Steven C. Markoff, the not-for-profit website tackles controversial issues including abortion, euthanasia, gun control, gay marriage, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, illegal immigration, health care and climate change, among others. It provides footnoted arguments on two sides of each issue.

The site includes video clips, cartoons and info-graphics, as well as statistics, maps and other information that students can use to develop their own arguments.

During the presidential election of 2012, ProCon.org asked the candidates to provide position statements on 75 issues.

“We like to have experts speak in their own words,” said Kamy Akhavan, president and managing editor of ProCon.org.

“What we’re trying to do is promote critical thinking, education and informed citizenship,” he said. ProCon.org outreach to teachers is part of the organization’s mission to help “create a free marketplace of ideas.” The site also offers a Teachers’ Corner link, with free lesson plans and suggestions for teachers.

The site’s comprehensiveness has drawn some complaints, Akhavan acknowledged. “Some teachers say that the site makes some students lazy about research,” he said. “That may be true, but ProCon is not about teaching research. It’s about teaching critical thinking.”

Primarily funded by founder Markoff and his wife, the site also receives funding from individuals and foundations. The material is gathered by a full-time staff of researchers from already published or broadcast content; the staff also asks subject matter experts to review material. A minimum of 1,500 hours of staff research goes into each topic, and the material is  updated regularly. Some topics have taken up to 5,000 hours of research.

According to the site, 3,755 public and private schools, as well as colleges and universities in 50 states and 56 countries use ProCon.org. Here in New York, some 229 public, private and religious schools, elementary through high school, have worked with the site. Not surprisingly, the most avid users tend to be school librarian or social studies teachers.

“A lot of kids don’t have an opinion on topics,” said John McCarthy, a social studies teacher in Batavia City School District in Genesee County. ProCon.org “gets the ball rolling to think about the issues. This is a website with facts. Hopefully they’ll remember it when they go to college.”

To stimulate discussion of societal issues, teachers need a strategy, McCarthy said. In addition to assignments involving ProCon.org, he often shows episodes of Morgan Spurlock’s reality TV series, “30 Days.” In the FX cable network show, Spurlock or others immerse themselves for a month in a particular lifestyle such as living on minimum wage.

Also, in a joint senior project with English teachers known as Operation Graduation, McCarthy asks students to develop and conduct a survey, and compare it to a national survey on the same topic.

“I am bothered that the students are not current with national or world news,” he told On Board in an email. “It would make their studies easier and make them more of a participant in society if they were aware of the events.” 

Teachers say having high-quality, unbiased sources is essential to teaching about controversial topics.

“You have to toe a careful line when you’re teaching public policy that our own personal biases don’t influence what [students] think,” said Shannon Brisson, a social studies teacher at Cicero-North Syracuse High School in Cicero. During the national debate about the health care act, Brisson asked students to pursue a project “decide on what to include, or not include, in their own health care folder.” Brisson provided a guided work sheet to help students evaluate policies and write a paper.

Her goal was to have students think through the issues to arrive at a better understanding of the function of government: “What is the purpose of public policy? Should there be a public option for health care?”

Such projects develop students’ critical thinking skills as well as their ability to write persuasive essays, Brisson said. They align well with Common Core goals, she added.

“I use ProCon.org as a benchmark, “ said Joseph M. Cortese, a social studies teacher in Homer Central School District in Cortland County, who also steers students to other sites such as Public Agenda.org. “I was getting tired of kids not knowing what news is. Every week they have to find a news story about some aspect of their issue. They’re gradually building up their knowledge and seeing how complex an issue is.”

Cortese asks students to work in teams of two or three to examine a current topic, research the subject and prepare an unbiased presentation of the issue in a PowerPoint. Students are expected to include graphs, tables and charts as well as political cartoons from both sides and a one-minute song clip. They also are expected to make a five-column table reflecting the radical, liberal, moderate, conservative and reactionary positions on any given issue.

“Students jumble the columns, which are randomized and not labeled, so students can see which side they agree with the most,” he said. “We don’t reveal the results until the end of the project. It’s an aggregate of what you believe. It’s a snapshot of their personal politics. Most kids are slightly left of center.”

During presentations, students are supposed to speak up and challenge their classmates if they see evidence of bias.

“It’s a gift,” said Cortese. “It gets them out of the spin cycle.”


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