How to Approach Controversial Essay Topics in an Academic Setting

Argumentative essay assignments can create controversy in the classroom as well as on paper. Nonetheless, writing about controversial topics engages students on a level that more traditional essay subjects cannot reach.

How do you get the most out of a controversial student writing assignment without creating an uproar in the classroom? Follow this three-step process that nurture’s students opinions in a supportive, open-minded way:

Step 1: Set Ground Rules

Before your students start writing, make sure they know the basics of a good essay. They should have an understanding of the three sections of an essay, as well as how to write a quality thesis statement.

In addition, students should be taught the importance of using reputable sources in their research, and addressing their topic from a third-person point of view. Each of these guidelines will keep the essay from devolving into a personal work, although control of the essay’s main argument still belongs to the student.

Step 2: Choose Topics

Have a structured discussion of what makes a good argumentative essay, paying particular attention to controversial topics. You want students to be impassioned about a certain topic, so they will want to write an argumentative essay and share their opinion with their peers.

Here are some typical, “controversial” essay topics:

  • Gun control
  • Abortion
  • Prison
  • Suicide
  • Gay rights
  • Politics
  • Capital punishment

Use the lesson to introduce these topics, while avoiding long discussions about the merits of each side. This is the most difficult part of controversial essay writing, but you want your students to channel their opinions into their writing, not into a speech!

At the end of the discussion, have a short lesson on writing effective essay titles. This should include many examples and also allow students a chance to practice.

For homework, ask each student to write down their choice of an essay, in title form.

Step 3: Turn the Tables on Controversy

Use the students’ essay titles to vet their topics. This way, you will have a quick insight into whether they are approaching their essay from an academic — rather than a personal — viewpoint.

Change one aspect of each student’s title so they must write about the opposite viewpoint. For example, instead of the title, “Abortion Should Be Made Illegal,” change the title to, “Abortion Should Be Made Legal.” This way, the students will be encouraged to research and write about an opposing opinion, without bias. If they can write the opposing viewpoint of a topic they’re passionate about, they have mastered controversial essay writing!

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