For the past three years, my students have participated in a mock United Nations climate change simulation. We spend six weeks designing and preparing for this unit, an in-depth exploration of the impact climate change has environmentally, politically, and socially.

I assign each student a role — from Ambassador of Bangladesh to representative of British Petroleum — as they debate the best solution to address climate change globally. Students give speeches, ask critical questions, such as who is responsible for addressing the effects of climate change, and discuss the different perspectives they each represent. During the reflection portion during a recent class, my student Lisa said, “You know, we may only be ninth graders, but we’re having the same conversations adults are having — and we have things to say.”

Lisa’s words were a powerful reminder that every student deserves the opportunity to explore their stance on complex issues.

When I first started planning this unit, I struggled with how to approach it. I was concerned about navigating a politically charged conversation. I was also scared — scared about who I might offend and scared that I wouldn’t be able to direct the learning productively.

To prepare for the final forum that first year, I asked my students to practice debating climate change from their own perspectives. During the Socratic seminar, my student Felix said, “We shouldn’t focus on fixing climate change because it’s inevitable.” The rest of the conversation derailed as students strayed from discussing solutions to climate change to arguing whether climate change was real and worth talking about.

I froze.

It was my first time doing something like this and I wasn’t sure how to refocus the conversation without completely ignoring the real feelings and confusion behind what Felix said. I went home, cried, and considered whether I really wanted to introduce such complex topics in my classroom. The next day, I went back and tried again.

I continue to do these lessons with my students on topics ranging from urbanization to migration to human rights. House Bill 3979, recently passed by the Texas Legislature, has made discussing current events and complex issues even more difficult. Texas teachers are trying to navigate the new law while ensuring students are empowered to have discussions about our nation’s history and its lingering effects on modern-day societal issues. 

I have found again and again that my students are energized by the opportunity to discuss topics that matter to them. They pay more attention to the news, come in asking relevant questions, and use the information to make their arguments stronger. I am amazed at the 14-year-olds’ ability to understand complex issues, discuss them with people they might disagree with, and find common ground to have the conversation.

This challenging year, perhaps more than ever, educators must be able to facilitate conversations about difficult issues and empower our students to participate in, and lead, these conversations in their daily lives. Students are asking questions and looking to us for guidance. Teachers need the right tools to effectively navigate these discussions and support students as they grapple with defining their own perspectives.

For me, this work starts on day one of the school year. I dedicate the first two weeks of school to community building, where my students come up with class norms and build ownership of their classroom to ensure a baseline of respect in future discussions. In my classroom, the outside world shapes our curriculum. I use the complexity of the news to empower students to make informed analyses. Throughout the year, we have a daily news moment where students share global news from credible sources with the rest of the class. We also practice having respectful debates where I emphasize the importance of making claims that use well-researched evidence.

Next, we reflect on the debate process and examine why talking about certain issues may make us uncomfortable. I help my students understand the importance of defining their perspectives on certain issues. Students learn how to admit when they’re wrong, change their minds, and ask questions when they don’t know the answer. One of my students from that first year said it best: “I learned it’s more important to go into a debate with a goal to learn, not to win. When I do that, I’m forced to expand my knowledge and think outside the box to figure out why someone would support that position and why I support something else.”

Difficult conversations are constantly happening around us; it’s our responsibility to empower students to be active, positive, and powerful participants in them. I know that my ninth graders can handle controversial conversations, and I intentionally create a space where they feel comfortable in the uncomfortable. I structure my curriculum so my students can form their own opinions on complex topics and take action where it matters most to them.  Lisa and every one of my ninth graders deserve to know that we believe in their ability to participate in, and lead, conversations about global change.

Yvette Peña teaches 9th grade English at the International School of the Americas in San Antonio. She is a 2021-2022 Teach Plus Texas Policy Fellow.