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Teaching the Hard Histories of Racism

Five principles to guide educators as they broach difficult topics in their classrooms — with students of all ages

February 22, 2021
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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. 
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“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.” 

3.    Ensure content is developmentally appropriate, and recognize that space and support to process emotions is necessary.

Child development research reveals that violent imagery can be a source of trauma for children under 13. As a result, Stang recommends that for younger learners, teachers should not provide students with horrific narratives and images. Educators should explain what enslavement is, point out that it existed throughout world history, and talk about race-based enslavement in the Americas. Edited first-person narratives like excerpts from Frederick Douglass’ autobiography can be used with younger learners, while narratives that include rape, such as found in Harriet Jacobs’ autobiography, should be reserved for high school students.

Even the youngest learners need the opportunity to process feelings that come up as they learn about these histories. Tools like an anonymous Google survey can be used to check in on learners and ask them how they’re feeling about learning this part of history. “A teacher can then validate those emotions — some people might feel angry or sad — but giving students a chance to process the emotions that come up is essential for us to move forward as a country and acknowledge racism,” says Stang.

4.    Highlight the stories of resistance and resilience alongside hard histories.

Racism and discrimination are not the full story. Include historical narratives that showcase the resilience and resistance of communities throughout history — the diversity of the abolition movement or the NAACP are a few examples of these narratives. “One thing that often gets missed is this idea of resistance,” says Jeffries. “Teachers need to strike a balance. It’s important to teach hard histories but how do you also tell stories of resistance and instill hope in young people?”

5.    Remember this work takes a whole school.

Including curriculum and sources that deal with both hard histories and narratives of resilience and agency is the job of every teacher, not just those in the history department. For example, science and math teachers should consider whose achievements they are highlighting in class as well as the ways in which their discipline may include or exclude certain findings or achievements.

School leaders can provide faculty with opportunities for professional development and encourage educators to talk about these histories and historical blind spots with trusted colleagues to gain comfort with them.  

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Key Takeaways:
  • Educators should take time to reflect on their own identities, recognizing their own positionality in relationship to these histories.
  • Use resources that use the words of people you’re discussing in class as much as possible to restore agency to these groups and to the narrative. 
  • Remember there are always untold narratives. Seek out professional development that can highlight these stories and blind spots. For example, look into the ways that school segregation impacted Chinese American, Mexican American and Indigenous communities in California and how these communities worked to fight against discrimination.
  • Teacher preparation programs should also think about ways they can support teachers to be prepared to have these conversations and provide these curricula and resources.
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Civics and History Diversity and Inclusion K-12 Learning and Teaching