Dissertations, Theses, and Capstone Projects

Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name



Urban Education


Terrie Epstein

Committee Members

Sherry Deckman

Debbie Sonu

Subject Categories



Education, Social Studies, Controversial topics, political polarization, suburbs


Scholarship on social studies education, agrees that there is inherent value in teaching students to deliberate, consider multiple perspectives, and work together. Teaching with deliberative pedagogies means teaching students to discuss and consider multiple perspectives. This kind of teaching can engage with controversial topics, or topics that spark disagreement in the classroom. At their best, deliberative pedagogies and engaging with controversial topics can prepare students to participate in deliberative, democratic life (Hess & McAvoy, 2013; Parker, 2003; Gibson, 2020). Deliberative pedagogies can work to prepare students to engage in an ideal democratic environment, where all perspectives are given fair weight, and equal footing. This research seeks to understand how deliberative pedagogies and controversial topics are understood within the context of the polarized modern political climate.

Scholarship finds that since 2016 the divisive political climate is impacting students and teachers. Students and teachers report increased stress and fear in schools. Teachers attribute this stress to changes in the national political environment, which continues to grow more divided (Rogers, 2017) (Abramowitz, McCoy, 2019). This political division is embodied in the experiences of suburban residents, who live in some of the most politically polarized communities in the country. Research on residential exposure to neighbors of another party reveals that the most extreme political isolation occurs among Democrats living in urban areas (Brown & Enos, 2021). Conversely, voting patterns on Long Island reveal a politically diverse population, and that diversity is often within the same community.

Within the context of the politically polarized Long Island suburbs, this research seeks to understand how high school social studies teachers understand and enact controversial topics. This qualitative research was conducted through interviews with six high school social studies teachers. Using interpretative phenomenological analysis, this research finds that the politically polarized suburban environment creates obstacles for teachers trying to use deliberative pedagogies and controversial topics.

This work finds that in the politically polarized suburban environment the definition of controversial has expanded. However, although the definition of controversial is expanded, and topics are more readily tipped to the controversial, many of these topics are explicitly closed for discussion. Controversial topics are in part defined by avoidance, specifically LGBTQ+ issues and topics around race. An environment of tipped, but closed topics, is limiting and harmful for student development.

This research also finds that teachers are able to successfully engage with some deliberative topics through strategic pedagogy. Specifically, teachers employ best practices of creating an honest and safe environment for deliberation and the introduction of new perspectives to students. However, external influences and the fear of negative feedback can act as a limiting factor for teachers. In considering how to make curricular decisions around controversial topics, teachers engage with three zones of consideration: students, community, and the internet and social media.

When teachers engage in making curricular choices about controversial topics the first zone they contend with are student needs. The second zone of consideration is the community, which is composed of parents and family, administration acting on behalf of parents and families, and the school board. This zone can result in teachers making decisions in response to fear of backlash and critique. Finally, teachers contend with the internet and the fear of going viral when making decisions about controversial topics. Teacher decision making can be shaded by concern for how their lessons would be received if taken out of context online. This creates a dynamic in which teachers are making choices based on the potential feedback from broad stakeholders, taking the curricular decisions away from the teacher and school leaders and the actual students that are served by the lessons.

Teacher response to the looming fear of critique and backlash is to engage in professional and curricular and self-protection. This self-protection can take the form of political opaqueness, and tenure. Political opaqueness, or the explicit refusal to engage in disclosure, is a strategy that has been argued against in scholarship on deliberative pedagogies. However, the teachers in these polarized communities cloak themselves in opaqueness in an attempt to avoid accusations of bias from parents and community members. Tenure acts as another type of shield from a potentially critical community, or a threat to the livelihood of these teachers.

Fear around approaching particular controversial topics results in the explicit avoidance of conversations around race and LGBTQ+ issues in these suburban polarized schools. Further, when considering the available self-protection strategies available to the teachers in this research, there is a chasm of access available for teachers of color and queer teachers.

The study’s overall findings reveal that while teachers in politically polarized communities are attempting to engage with controversial topics and deliberative pedagogies in their classrooms, the environment acts as a limiting factor, ultimately harming student opportunity to deliberate and teacher ability to act as curricular expert.

Included in

Education Commons