Five Tips to Teaching Difficult Parts of History

As November approaches, I am getting ready to teach my Native American unit to my second graders. This of course is always a favorite unit, but each year I teach the difficult part of Native American history as well.
 I thought it would be a good time to blog about ways to teach difficult subjects with integrity. The truth is, certain social studies topics make us squeamish as elementary teachers.

We want to teach African American history, but we don’t want to make our students feel guilty or bad about the history of slavery in our country. We want to teach about Native Americans, but it’s tricky to cover topics like the forced migration of Native Americans to reservations. We want to teach about World War II, but it’s tough to discuss the holocaust and the reasons behind it.

So what should we do?

The truth is as teachers we are charged with teaching history too. I feel that we also have a right to teach it with integrity. Here are some tips to help us do, just that.

1. Focus on those who were on the right side of history.
There are always people who recognize what is wrong while it is occurring. While teaching the history of slavery focus on the abolitionist movement. Without white and black abolitionists working together, slavery would not have come to an end when it did. By focusing on the strong people of all races and religions working together, it allows all children to learn the history without feelings of guilt or inferiority.

2. Teach children that we must learn from history. The truth is history is full of mistakes others have made. All countries and civilizations have made mistakes in the past. While we cannot change the past, we can stand up for what is right today to make sure that we never repeat the mistakes of those who came before us.

3. Teach the truth. Do not overlook parts of history, or be afraid to teach what occurred. When studying Native American history it is important to talk about forced migration. When discussing World War II, we must teach about the horrors of the holocaust. We also have to teach about the Japanese internment camps, and Hiroshima. To ignore it dishonors those who lived through it.

4. Incorporate Read Alouds. There are so many amazing read alouds that touch on tough issues with amazing compassion. Examples include: Willy and Max: A Holocaust Story by Amy Littlesugar for the holocaust, Up the Learning Tree by Marcia Vaughan for slavery. Pink and Say by Patrica Polacco for the civil war. Squanto’s Journey: The Story of the First Thanksgiving by Joseph Bruchac for Native American history. There are so many more, but these are just a few to help get you started.

5. Use your Community. As teachers it’s easy to forget that there are living resources all around us. Reach out to your parents, and grandparents. Ask them if they have anyone in their family who would like to come in and speak about certain subjects. In today’s diverse world, you would be surprised who is related to who. Some of my best social studies lessons, have involved a family member of a student presenting to my class.

Want more help teaching history? To view one of my Native American units click here. To view one of my African American history units click here.

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