Browse all articles

Media Can Be a Powerful Tool to Address Contentious Conversations at School

Teachers and families can talk about tough topics with the right tools.

A Black educator having a conversation with students in a high school classroom.

News channels and social media have turned up the volume on debates about what kids see, hear, and read in school. Racism and equity, the rights of the transgender community, immigration policy, and vaccinations and masking are just some of the topics in the spotlight lately, and all come with strong opinions on many sides. Disagreement on these issues has led to tension, hostility, and even legal action as discussion of divisive topics in school clashes with the preferences and values of some parents and politicians.

Instead of silencing teachers and students, we should support educators with tools to lead safe and productive conversations on contentious topics. Movies, TV, and books can be powerful components of this toolkit.

While it might seem easier on the surface to ignore or hide sensitive issues from kids, that approach is shortsighted. With access to news through social media and their smart devices, it's unrealistic to think that kids aren't seeing any of it.

Our research into how kids consume and understand media shows that they're interacting with more media than ever. Our Common Sense 2022 Census research found that on average, 8- to 12-year-olds use about five and a half hours of screen media per day, while 13- to 18-year-olds use about eight and a half hours daily. Kids and teens are forming their worldview based on what they see, hear, and read -- and for many teens and tweens, YouTube is their most visited source.

Kids are individuals. They will make their own decisions, whether what they have access to is censured or not. Many kids consider school a safe place, so learning and talking about important issues there makes sense to them. Teachers are well positioned to act as guides for conversations, making sure they stay centered on students' questions and concerns. They can give kids constructive ways to consider the different sides of these issues and help them work through different opinions respectfully.

Three Ways Media Can Support School Conversations on Controversial Topics

Schools and teachers can create a safe space for kids to learn about and discuss sensitive topics. Here's how good programming can help.

Act as a conversation starter

It can be challenging to bring up touchy topics with kids. Talking about some issues may just be uncomfortable. Or kids may have zero experience or knowledge about an issue, so you're starting cold.

A program that highlights the topic creates a natural opening for a follow-on conversation. For example, teachers can lead a discussion about discrimination after showing the movie Hidden Figures. Or use our active viewing guides to discuss migration and cultural displacement in the film Minari, or identify how to manage their feelings through the difficulties of life via Inside Out. Movies can be much more than entertainment, especially when tools and discussion guides are provided along with programming.

We know that media plays a big role in the classroom, sometimes as a teaching tool, and other times as a reward. But every time students watch programming without a conversation -- or what teachers call "active viewing" -- is a missed opportunity to explore tricky issues or take the pulse of how students are feeling.

Present different perspectives

The films and shows that kids see, inside and outside of school, help shape their perceptions of the world. Good programming offers a window into different lives and points of view. There is value in helping kids imagine walking in the shoes of someone different than them. A discussion after a viewing experience can really broaden their thinking and increase empathy.

We've found that offering tools and resources for educators and families to use with students leads to more balanced and productive conversations. For example, in every movie or TV rating we provide at Common Sense, we include discussion questions. These questions open up opportunities for kids to talk through their reactions to the material and think about the issues in depth.

Connect with kids in a memorable way

The emotion and storytelling of good programming, whether through real-life or fictional stories, reaches kids in a deeper way than a straightforward factual lesson would.

Many of these issues are very personal and can bring up a wide range of feelings. Supporting students as they talk through their impressions and their connection with the material can be extremely helpful.

In a classroom setting, watching programming together also creates a shared experience for students. As kids share their own related experiences and talk about their feelings on these issues, it often helps them find points of connection and understanding with each other.

We have created several resources that cover using media effectively in the classroom. Teachers can get started with our Essential Guide to Showing Movies and Videos in the Classroom. By using powerful stories and examples in media to spark difficult conversations, and through active viewing, teachers can support kids in exploring issues from different perspectives and with empathy, as a way to help shape their own values and opinions.

Kids talk about and see coverage on tough issues every day. Schools can be a trusted place for them to learn about and discuss difficult topics. We are committed to giving teachers resources and support to help them facilitate productive and respectful conversations in the classroom.

To learn more about our tools for educators, explore Common Sense Education.

Kelly Mendoza

Kelly Mendoza, Ph.D., is vice president of education programs at Common Sense. She oversees the Digital Citizenship Curriculum and all edtech ratings and reviews at Common Sense Education.