Teachers manage sensitive discussions in humanities classrooms

Andrew Lyon ’24 during an English III discussion in Dr. Del Rosario’s room – Pierce Laveran ’24

Throughout humanities classes, issues of race, gender, sexuality, religion, and other potentially “sensitive” issues frequently arise. Each of these topics—from discussions of slavery in Fifth Form United States History classes to those of religious extremism and nationalism in Fourth Form World Literature—turns up the metaphorical heat in classrooms, leading to intense and passionate dialogue. Humanities teachers find that these topics are crucial both to the basic understanding of their course content and to the overall goals of their classes and the school as a whole.

According to English teacher Ms. Emily Harnett, covering social and political issues within the humanities curriculum is a facet of Haverford’s mission. 

“In addition to teaching critical skills—reading, writing grammar, vocabulary—we want to teach you guys to be better global citizens and better American citizens, and in order to do that you need to know what Americans are talking about,” Ms. Harnett said. 

Exposure to the issues that are prevalent in society today—especially in the midst of the “culture war”—is a goal of some Haverford educators. 

“I have had teachers who don’t even mention these issues, and I feel like that is something that damages their class.”

Eli Leader ’25

Chair of the History Department and United States History* teacher Ms. Hannah Turlish said, “Students are so young. It’s important to bring in this context to understand the world we’re living in right now.” 

Ms. Turlish also connects the importance of political and social awareness to the function of democracy. 

“Our democracy is not perfect, but it is, in my opinion, the system of government that’s worth fighting for. I think that requires digging into sensitive topics because we are a diverse population of people that has to make it work, and if we’re not talking about the things that make us tense with each other,” Ms. Turlish said, “then I don’t really see us making it work.”

While the weight of these subjects—both because of their sensitivity and their relevance to modern society—might present a challenge, English teacher Dr. Micah Del Rosario believes that students enjoy these topics most. 

Dr. Micah Del Rosario stresses the importance of fact-based in-class discussions – Pierce Laveran ’24

“Those are the conversations that they find more interesting and fun,” Dr. Del Rosario said.

Students also perceive the importance of these discussions. 

Fourth Former Eli Leader said,  “I have had teachers who don’t even mention these issues, and I feel like that is something that damages their class. The reason why some of these issues are so sensitive is that they are not being addressed in the classroom, which creates a society that is uneducated about that issue.”

Dr. Del Rosario discussed the presence of misinformation in society that Leader touched on. 

“In a world of misinformation… to what extent is it the responsibility of teachers to correct misinformation and objectively wrong views about society and history?” Dr. Del Rosario said. “There is a balancing act and fine line between allowing all opinions to be valid and never telling a student ‘that’s wrong’ in subjective, humanities-based discussions… and letting misinformed, objectively bad ideas run rampant.”

Leader and Dr. Del Rosario see a need for these discussions to combat misinformation, and Ms. Harnett emphasized that teaching sensitive topics provides a complete education.

“It is impossible to teach a text about a Black woman in the South in the 1920s without teaching about these big topics of race and gender,” Ms. Harnett said. “How can I possibly teach my kids to be sophisticated readers of literature if I can’t teach them to be sophisticated readers of context, which are one and the same thing when you’re talking about these specific texts? Students deserve to have a great education. If you’re going to have a great education in American literature, you’re going to need to talk about the controversies in American life.”

The skills that students develop when discussing and debating social and political issues are transferable life skills. 

“Everyone has to be sure of what they think and be willing to defend what they think with evidence and sound reasoning,” Ms. Harnett said.

Furthermore, although such topics may dominate some classes’ syllabi, a balance of curricular content remains intact. 

“I don’t think it’s true in anyone’s English class that it’s an either/or where talking about social or political issues is at the cost of disciplinary and literary issues of reading subtext,” Dr. Del Rosario said. “The study of literature, even when you separate it from politics, is fundamentally about how you develop good—meaning nuanced, careful, informed, well-reasoned—arguments about a subjective thing, like a work of art.” 

“A really important life skill is to learn to not only challenge your own beliefs but to challenge an authority figure’s belief in a respectful way.”

Ms. Emily Harnett

As an aspect of global and American citizenship connected to Haverford’s mission, critical thinking is a vital skill that the school’s liberal arts education aims to foster. 

“A responsible citizen should be able to look at the information presented and be able to think about it critically,” Dr. Del Rosario said. “Part of what education has to be is asking students to interact with new ideas and to wrestle with things that they don’t already think.”

Ms. Harnett said, “It’s my job to teach you how to think, not what to think. One of the best ways we learn to think is by encountering world views that are different from our own. What actually makes a good conversation is when you disagree.”

Providing space for unique, differing viewpoints is essential to not only the development of a single idea but also the maturation of students’ ability to think. Haverford provides a unique environment that is home to a range of viewpoints.

While a different environment would create a different classroom dynamic surrounding these discussions, teachers’ methods don’t necessarily change. Would Dr. Del Rosario change his teaching technique when addressing these issues at a school with different demographics from Haverford?

Students in Dr. Bridget Gurtler’s history class – Pierce Laveran ’24

Dr. Del Rosario said, “I want to say no—if I were at a school that had a different political leaning than Haverford generally has (obviously there are lots of different people who think lots of different things), I would still make some of the same moves I make in the classroom, like asking the provocative, agitating questions that force the students to wrestle with a counterargument.”

Comparing Haverford to her previous place of employment—an all-girls private school in Manhattan—Ms. Turlish said, “Here, I feel it’s a bit more exciting in that kids tend to be more evenly split in a way that makes it very engaging in terms of dialogue. There’s more diversity of ideas in the room that are being exchanged freely which makes it more fun.” 

Ms. Harnett also raised the importance of standing up for one’s convictions. “A really important life skill is to learn to not only challenge your own beliefs but to challenge an authority figure’s belief in a respectful way,” Ms. Harnett said. “Given that my worldview is often so different from my students, that actually creates a great opportunity in the classroom to teach my students to challenge authority.”

Ms. Harnett’s reference to differing world views or opinions raises the challenging question surrounding sensitive discussions in the classroom. For an issue to be considered “sensitive,” it must affect someone on a personal level. And while teachers emphasize the importance of diversity of thought and perspective and openness to all viewpoints, certain ideas can be hurtful—intentionally or not.

Teachers stress ground rules for class discussion, which allow students to say what they think unless their comments directly target another student in a hateful manner. 

“I let people make their arguments, but if someone says something that I think is objectively wrong and crazy, I’m going to fight them on it…”

Dr. Micah Del rosario

“Disagreeing with somebody doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t speak in the first place,” Ms. Harnett said. “Something I’ve noticed is that I do think my students feel comfortable sharing their honest opinions with each other, and they’re not worried that someone’s going to cancel them, so they speak.”

Ms. Turlish acknowledges the role her students play in managing conversations. 

“I have been really impressed by how oftentimes, these kids, by the time they get to me as juniors, call each other out. I don’t have to say anything,” Ms Turlish said. “I’m certainly aware that you want kids to feel like they can say whatever’s on their minds, but also some things that come out can make other kids feel unsafe… We can’t assume that every kid can know what would be perceived as hurtful to others in the room.”

While teachers bring experience with holding serious dialogues about sensitive topics, the true experts in what may be hurtful are those to whom specific content is personal. Neither Dr. Del Rosario nor Ms. Harnett nor Ms. Turlish change their curricula based on the demographics of their classes.

While Dr. Del Rosario feels that lessons should, perhaps, be adapted based on classroom demographics, he is wary of the assumptions that would have to be made. “Should you edit the lesson based on who’s in the room? Yes. The trick of that is that I don’t want to make assumptions about people, just based on their physical appearance… I’d rather treat everyone the exact same,” he said.

Although none of the interviewed teachers tailor the curriculum based on classroom demographics, students have experienced instances of such adjustments at school. Fifth Former Arsh Aggarwal said, “I have had teachers do this with me before, where in front of the entire class they’ll ask if something is okay to say and it isn’t the biggest deal. It’s never a good feeling to be singled out in a class for something sensitive that is about to be discussed, which in most cases is race-related.”

Aggarwal also questioned whether a teacher should ever teach with a bias. He explained that when going over a massacre, a teacher suggested there could be justification for atrocities. 

“On one hand, I think it is fair to consider all sides of an event. In fact, I probably would vouch for that… the class is heavily selectively sympathetic, and it seems like in a subject where objectivity is so crucial… I feel like it’s failing us.”

With students’ concerns about bias in mind, the teachers interviewed acknowledged that leaving space for all opinions and voicing their own is appreciated. 

“Something I noticed very early in my career is that kids hate [when teachers keep points of view and political values to themselves],” Ms. Harnett said. “It makes them suspicious. To some degree, it felt like I was tricking them, that I had some agenda or bias that I wasn’t acknowledging.”

Ms. Turlish said, “I get the whole ‘teacher not betraying his or her point of view,’ but when it comes to the civil rights of the people in my classroom, I do think it is important for there to be a voice of authority that is… putting out the historical facts.”

Dr. Del Rosario allows students to express themselves but also finds that it is important to challenge certain lines of thought. 

“I let people make their arguments, but if someone says something that I think is objectively wrong and crazy, I’m going to fight them on it, because I think that that’s part of my responsibility as a teacher—to try to show students holes in their reasoning,” he said, demonstrating the relevance of these topics to general critical thinking skills and global citizenship. 

While students may react differently to certain classroom strategies, students feel and teachers recognize that it’s vital to discuss sensitive topics in their classrooms—places where they can challenge ideas and learn to think for themselves.

Author: Ian Rosenzweig '25

Ian Rosenzweig currently serves as Academics Editor and writer. He has also served as the editing director for The Foreign Policy Youth Collaborative, a youth nonprofit organization, for whom he has written content regarding international and domestic policy. His poem "Faithful Return" won the 2022 Berniece L. Fox Classics Writing Contest. In February 2023, three of his articles earned honorable mention recognition from the Philadelphia-area Scholastic Writing Awards.