Talking About Tough Topics in the Elementary Classroom

As a teacher, you have probably experienced a moment of feeling uncomfortable with a question that was asked or a topic that was raised by a student, or maybe even a topic you had to teach. Uncomfortable topics can come up in the curriculum or due of things happening in the community or world. How should we as teachers respond? By confronting it head-on. Not having the conversation could be a matter of life or death.

A few years ago, I began to share what my students were learning and what resources I was using with my students on social media. I shared the conversations that we were able to have surrounding racism, hate, violence, intolerance, immigration, racial and social justice, and awareness of others. The more I shared the conversations that the students and I had, the more teachers began asking questions and requesting to know more about how I was facilitating conversations around what some would consider "tough topics".

Initially, I couldn't answer questions because I didn't know how we got to talking about specific conversations or what prompted my students to want to know something. What I was doing in my classroom just felt natural, there was no motive for me to begin a conversation on a tough topic, we were just learning. I didn't know really how to explain it to others so that they could replicate such discussions in their classroom. Out of curiosity, I began to record daily lessons. I wanted to gain insight on just how the "tough discussions" began in our classroom. What I discovered was that it came from my love of literacy and the kids' curiosity about historical events.

At the time, I was a 5th-grade teacher to students I had looped with. I had been their 3rd and 4th-grade teacher and now we had moved up to 5th grade together. The only thing we were missing was a social studies curriculum. We had loved learning about history in the previous two years and suddenly we were without it. We decided we were going to learn about social studies anyway. I thought the best way to go about this was to take advantage of the students' curiosity about people, ethnicities, and cultures. Here is what we came up with as our guide for the year:

September/October - Hispanic Heritage
November - Indigenous People
December - Persons with Disabilities
January - Understanding the Holocaust 
February - African and Black History
March - Women's History
April - Autism Awareness and Differing Abilities
May - Asian Pacific Heritage 

With each topic, we celebrated and recognized contributions to America's story. We also took time to research and learn about hardships each group had in America's history. I provided students with books and newspapers to learn at their leisure. I also took the time to share at least one picture book read aloud each day. Students completed research projects and participated in classroom discussions and debates that were safe.

Safe space must be provided for these types of discussions so that students feel comfortable sharing their thoughts and ideas and no one feels as if they have to speak for an entire group. Some of the rules we had (and lessons that I had to model and teach) were:
  • It is okay to not agree with everyone
  • Respectfully disagree with others
  • You do not have to hold the same opinions of adults/authority figures
  • Changing your thoughts and ideas is okay when you learn new information
  • Experiences and facts are needed to support an argument

I was always amazed and blown away by what the kids had to say when I sat back and listened. I never gave my opinion but I asked questions to help students consider different points of view. They questioned and challenged each other's ideas and beliefs and held one another accountable for their ideas and opinions. Many times, students asked me direct questions about things I did not feel comfortable answering but I responded by asking them to talk with their adults or to do some more research. 

Those students made me a better teacher. They helped me realize the importance of talking about social studies and topics that may not be part of the curriculum. They challenged me to find ways to incorporate what has and is happening in our world into our everyday learning. They taught me how to talk about tough topics in the classroom and for that I am grateful. 

Here are my most important take aways 
  • Students deserve the opportunity to learn through anti-bias and anti-racist practices. 
  • Students deserve to see themselves represented in their classrooms. 
  • Student MUST have access to cultures, ethnicities and races different from their own.
  • When you feel uncomfortable, let own voice children's books to lead the way.

I challenge you to offer students these opportunities!
This post is in honor of Margie Reckard, 63, whose life was tragically taken in the mass shooting in El Paso, Texas, August 3, 2019. 

Each time I see racist acts such as this, I think about the fact that the shooter sat in a classroom in this country. I wonder what opportunities he had to learn about others. I remember the importance of teaching anti-bias, anti-racist lessons and modeling acceptance, tolerance, and the importance of representation in every classroom.

We will continue the discussion for 22 days to honor each of the lives lost. 
Click here to learn more about what happened in El Paso.


  1. I love that you teach children they don’t have to agree with the adults. Such a powerful lesson.

  2. You’ve got some interesting points in this article. I would have never considered any of these if I didn’t come across this. Thanks!. learn Spanish quickly