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Lesson | 30-45 minutes

Encouraging Empathy and Curiosity in Class Discussions


Student Reporting Labs (SRL) has been encouraging students to delve into controversial topics as a part of their work with us since we began in 2009. This resource provides tools for addressing controversial issues while promoting a safe and respectful environment for all students and educators to freely express themselves during these discussions. The advice included in this resource reflects years of experience navigating these conversations, SRL’s values, as well as input from SRL-connected educators who have been doing the same.


Empathy and curiosity1_2

From national politics to school policy, Student Reporting Labs regularly asks students to engage with issues that can be quite controversial — even among classmates. As educators, you’re familiar with the class discussions that can arise from this. While necessary and vital to your students’ growth as journalists, these discussions have the potential to be exclusionary and hurtful to some in the room.

We welcome you to join SRL’s commitment to making sure all students and educators feel safe, respected, and free to express themselves during these discussions.

The following guidelines are especially important to keep in mind when discussing issues that relate to one’s identity such as race, gender, sexuality, religion, disability, immigration, mental health, socioeconomics and more. A topic that one student may have only just encountered could be a matter of survival for someone else in the room. Practicing empathy by acknowledging this up front can make a big difference.

Also keep in mind that, according to Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration(SAMHSA), 2 out of 3 children report having experienced a traumatic event by age 16, so discussion of topics like racism, violence, sexual assault, military conflict, access to healthcare and others - including those you may not anticipate - will mean very different things to different students. Always give all students the option to opt out of a discussion at any point with no questions asked.

These guidelines are in no way instructions for censoring yourself or your students. With the exception of statements made out of malice or intentional prejudice, classrooms should always welcome and respect a diverse range of perspectives.

Where Do I Begin? Establishing Community Standards

Begin by reminding students that your classroom is a community. You may want to go over your classroom’s or school’s community standards here and offer others like:

  • This community expects its members to respect one another, always
  • This community presumes the good intentions of its members and responds to them with that in mind; statements or actions made with malicious intent will not be tolerated
  • This community acknowledges everyone’s right to learn, grow, and change their opinions
  • This community expects its members to acknowledge the limitations of their own perspectives and the validity of others’ without making judgements about who is “right” or “wrong”
  • This community recognizes the importance of considering others’ life experiences when formulating and responding to opinions
  • This community abhors explicit prejudice of any kind; expressions of explicit prejudice within this community will be taken seriously
  • This community acknowledges that everyone holds unconscious beliefs; if a community member expresses prejudice unknowingly, the community will do its best to educate without shaming
  • This community expects members to be open-minded and willing to change their opinions
  • Members will never speak with the sole purpose of proving someone else wrong
  • This community acknowledges that words are not harmless and expects members to choose their words with careful consideration

Rules of Thumb to Implement During Class Discussions

All SRL stories aim to create empathy and/or curiosity in the viewer. Class discussions should follow the same trajectory.

  1. Encourage students to use empathy by considering how their statements may make others in the room feel.
  2. Encourage students to use curiosity by listening with interest to what others have to say and being open to changing their mind.
  3. Students should not censor themselves, but rather make sure to share their thoughts in a way that does not belittle, discount, or pass judgment on the experiences of others.
  4. Using a disclaimer like “no offense” or “sorry if that offends anyone” isn’t enough. Students need to think about how their statements may hurt others before saying them.
  5. If conflict arises or feelings get hurt, don’t just move on. Acknowledge what happened. You can pause and ask for time to think about what happened and how to respond, but always make sure students see you work to rectify the situation in a timely manner.


A set of moral principles based on standards of right and wrong, usually in terms of obligations, benefits to society, fairness, or specific virtues.

Source: Markkula Center for Applied Ethics


Prejudice in favor of or against one thing, person, or group compared with another, usually in a way considered to be unfair.

Source: Lexico, Powered by Oxford


​​A subject or problem that people are thinking and talking about

Source: Cambridge Dictionary


A group of people who live in the same area (such as a city, town, or neighborhood). It can also be a group of people who have the same interests, religion, race, etc.

Source: Merriam Webster


A simplified and standardized conception or image invested with special meaning and held in common by members of a group; a set form or convention



The condition of having or being composed of differing elements. Especially in the context of the inclusion of people of different races, cultures, etc. in a group or organization

Source: Merriam Webster


The act or practice of including and accommodating people who have historically been excluded (as because of their race, gender, sexuality, or ability)

Source: Merriam Webster


Awareness of the elements of environment through physical sensation or intuitive cognition. A capacity for comprehension and understanding.

Source: Merriam Webster

Human Interest

People are interested in other people. Everyone has something to celebrate and something to complain about. We like unusual stories of people who accomplish amazing feats or handle a life crisis because we can identify with them.


The term “empathy” is used to describe a wide range of experiences. A generally definition is the ability to sense other people’s emotions, coupled with the ability to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling. In media-making, creators can have empathy for their subjects and the audience can empathize with the characters.


A view or judgment formed about something, not necessarily based on fact or knowledge.


Something that is accepted as true or as certain to happen, without proof.

Participation and Deliberation

Civics teaches the principles—such as adherence to the social contract, consent of the governed, limited government, legitimate authority, federalism, and separation of powers—that are meant to guide official institutions such as legislatures, courts, and government agencies. (NCSS D2.Civ.7.9-12 - D2.Civ.10.9-12)


Historical understanding requires recognizing this multiplicity of points of view in the past, which makes it important to seek out a range of sources on any historical question rather than simply use those that are easiest to find. It also requires recognizing that perspectives change over time, so that historical understanding requires developing a sense of empathy with people in the past whose perspectives might be very different from those of today. (NCSS D2.His.4.9-12 - D2.His.8.9-12)

Speaking and Listening - Presentation of Knowledge and Ideas

Empowered Learner

Students leverage technology to take an active role in choosing, achieving, and demonstrating competency in their learning goals, informed by the learning sciences. (ISTE)

Knowledge Constructor

Students critically curate a variety of resources using digital tools to construct knowledge, produce creative artifacts and make meaningful learning experiences for themselves and others. (ISTE)

Change, Continuity, and Context

At its heart, chronological reasoning requires understanding processes of change and continuity over time, which means assessing similarities and differences between historical periods and between the past and present. (NCSS D2.His.1.9-12 - D2.His.3.9-12)

Speaking and Listening - Comprehension and Collaboration



Stereotypes and Misconceptions




Mental Health





Estimated Time

30-45 minutes