The history of the United States is full of truths that are difficult to reconcile with the messages of freedom and democracy. What does it mean to be living on land taken from Indigenous people? How can a nation recognize that many of its institutions were built and made possible by the labor of enslaved people? Teaching students how to be historians in the 21st century means inviting complexity and hidden narratives into the conversation.
“Students become historians and understand history when educators give students the tools and opportunities to make their own determinations about the world and figure out how they want to make change in the world and what they want their roles to be,” says Ph.D. student Julia Jeffries, who is studying the classroom strategies that teachers can use to effectively address race and racism in the classroom. Jeffries worked as a teaching fellow for a new module offered this January called Teaching the Hard Histories of Racism in the United States. Adrienne Stang, Cambridge Public Schools K–12 history and social studies coordinator, co-taught this new module alongside Professor Danielle Allen.
Because conversations around these hard histories can be challenging, educators need to know how to approach the subject in considered, developmentally appropriate ways to avoid inflicting trauma on students. Stang and Jeffries recommend best practices around identity development, instructional pedagogy, and curriculum to support educators in teaching hard histories in their classes.
Here, they outline five principles to guide educators as they support students of all ages in this work:
1. Create a classroom culture that recognizes and values the students’ identities and provides windows into diverse histories and cultures.
Make sure the books and curriculum reflect the diversity of our world and the identities of all students. “The younger the kids are, the more you want to make sure you’re working with families and caregivers to ensure everyone’s identities are truly seen and acknowledged and embraced in the classroom,” Stang says. She recommends that in addition to providing reflections of student identities, teachers should provide students with an opportunity to learn about and explore identities that are different from their own.
2. Use primary sources when possible.
Textbooks commonly cover a large period without going into much depth or bringing the voices of those who lived through those times to the surface. As a result, teachers need to make sure to bring those voices forward. Primary source documents tell the story of an event using the words of the people who are described by the curriculum.
- To ensure primary sources are developmentally appropriate, educators can redact or edit them so students can understand and engage with the text.
- Make sure the learning and primary sources extend into present day, so students recognize that this history part of an ongoing conversation — especially when teaching about the histories of Indigenous peoples and the ongoing impact of enslavement and Jim Crow.
- Include documents that showcase a variety of perspectives. The practice of analyzing different narratives to construct an accurate understanding of the truth is an essential skill in a democratic society.