Teaching Sensitive History Through Primary Sources

One of the recurring topics this semester has been surrounding the question, “How do we teach sensitive material to young students?” Topics like World Wars, Egyptian afterlife, slavery, the Holocaust and controversial historical figures are just a few examples of topics that are touchy for both students and teachers.  I found a great article that discusses how primary sources and artifacts can help teach sensitive topics in a variety of ways. The article talks about how images, artifacts and objects can provide a soft transition into a hard, sensitive or possibly controversial conversation. These kinds of visual aids can also make the material easier for students to understand and digest if shown rather than simply explained. The article follows this up with some great suggestions to consider before teaching sensitive subjects:

  1. Consider your audience and take your students backgrounds and experiences into account
  2. Consider your role as a teacher in this conversation (to challenge preconceptions, remain neutral, etc.)
  3. Consider whether it is appropriate or necessary to share your own view or opinion. (This can help a conversation or hurt it)

As educators, I believe teaching sensitive subjects should go hand in hand with our efforts to teach about bias, diversity and social justice. History repeats itself, which means the hard conversations have to go hand in hand with the right response. Dr. Stohr has mentioned in class about bias free teaching and literature and how to recognize bias from a historical perspective. Another great article on Edutopia discusses this topic and explains the importance of teaching young students about bias and social justice. The article provides strategies elementary teachers can use, such as anti-bias lessons, news stories and children’s literature, to start the conversation. The article also points out how we can use a child’s viewpoint on fairness to our advantage when teaching history. These are all great suggestions on how to teach history and lead our kids with truth,  knowing that our students are worthy and capable of knowing and understanding it.

What are some sensitive topics that you are interested in finding resources to help you teach? What strategies from the articles stuck out to you that you think you may use in your classroom? What are some other ways you think we can approach sensitive subjects?




6 thoughts on “Teaching Sensitive History Through Primary Sources

  1. Emily, I enjoyed the articles you provided in your blog this week. I agree, it’s a very important and timely topic worth exploring for sure. I love the idea of using artifacts to help tell a story. I found the Valentine Museum’s focus on story-telling through objects to be fascinating. Being able to hold and touch an object from the past allows history to come alive in a way lectures just simply cannot. I think that’s why science is usually a favorite when the class incorporates a lab component with experiential learning.

    This article highlights some additional reasons why experiential learning is so beneficial.

    For me, the times in school where the teacher brought something in, allowed us to bring something in or provided an opportunity to explore something in nature were all the “exception and not the rule” so therefore, enjoyable and exciting. As educators, whenever we can put something tangible (replica or artifact) in the hands of our students, we are broadening their understanding and increasing their engagement. Who wouldn’t want to hold real arrowheads found in a Jamestown settlement? -Erika

  2. I love that article from teachwire, Emily — thanks so much for sharing it! The question of how we teach hard history to our students has come up again and again this semester, and I am really intrigued by the idea of broaching difficult topics through analysis of artifacts and primary source documents. I can see how the focus on a material artifact would help anchor a potentially controversial or upsetting classroom discussion. I especially enjoyed the Egyptian mummy case study in the teachwire article; that lesson plan really prompted the students to tackle some big questions they may not have gotten to otherwise (e.g., “should we display human remains?,” “is it right to unwrap a mummy?,” etc).

    As for difficult topics, I’m interested in finding strategies for teaching difficult history in an ELA context. One of the biggest challenges I’ve faced so far is balancing the teaching of literary analysis with the teaching of the difficult history so many texts in the curriculum bring up. Yes, I love to talk about metaphors and irony and genre, but so many of the novels we teach in an English classroom also require in-depth conversations about race, class, gender, religion, history, politics, and so on. How do ELA teachers do justice to history while also doing the required work of literary analysis?

  3. Thank you for your post, Emily!

    Since I am working on my Digital Toolbox for Grade 2, one sensitive topic that I am interested in finding more resources for teaching is on Cesar Chavez. Further, we will teach students about Cesar Chavez, a Mexican American leader, who worked to improve conditions for farm workers. As I looked more into the contributions of Chavez while browsing primary sources, it took me a moment to realize that some of my students could be living in similar conditions (there is also the potential a student may be homeless), as the farm workers did during the Farm Workers Movement.
    Overall, I really enjoyed reading both articles but I first article you posted very helpful. Moreover, the first article gave me more insight on ways to softly transition into sensitive topics using artifacts. I especially loved that the activities provide students with multiple perspectives as well as practicing and modeling an understanding that sometimes we do change our initial thoughts and opinions and that is OK. I feel that these are important understandings to teach and model for students as they progress through their development and education. In other words, I feel that students often struggle with accepting themselves and/or others when they change their minds, so practicing doing so can have a positive effect on the student’s view of multiple perspectives.

    One article I found provides strategies in preparing for these sensitive discussions such as “lead with your goals,” “establishing discussion guidelines,” and “talking candidly about the challenges ahead.” This article also provides strategies that can be applied during the class discussion as well as a “follow up.” I feel these strategies can be applicable for elementary and up.

    Thank you, again!
    – Morgan

  4. Emily,

    I think primary sources can be a great jumping off point for discussing sensitive/difficult history topics with students. Classroom context, the teacher’s role, and the teacher’s personal position are certainly important considerations. When students learn about ancient civilizations in third grade, they will absolutely encounter Egypt, so the first article you provided was super relevant. I agree that we as teachers should teach sensitive subjects while also engaging students in social justice. We as teachers have a responsibility to teach history accurately and honestly.

    Some sensitive topics I am interested in addressing are American Indian history (we have talked about this, but I want to do more research). Additionally, LGBTQ+ and race are difficult but important conversation topics for engagement, made even more difficult by legislation in our state and the nation. We have also talked about this in class, but I absolutely love the idea of incorporating as much children’s literature as I can, including for teaching about bias, diversity, and social justice.

    Another topic I think is important to directly address (especially with older kids) is slavery. When I worked with a fifth grader, his teachers had no issue talking in depth about the Holocaust but barely addressed slavery. I aim to take a different approach. Also, sometimes sensitive topics are not as sticky as they seem. If we can just answer kids’ questions honestly and age appropriately (learning as we go), this can go a long way.

    Thanks for the resources!

  5. Hi Emily,

    Thank you for sharing this article; I think it is essential that we continue to find resources and talk about how to teach sensitive material and avoid bias. I found the article particularly interesting and valuable as many of the “case studies” pertained to ancient Egypt, which falls under the grade I currently work in, am doing my digital toolbox, and hope to teach in the future. Prior to this discussion, I did not think much about the possible issues with learning about mummies; in my own 3rd-grade experience, I remember talking in-depth about harvesting specific organs (and how) in order to preserve them for proper burial. However, now teachers seem to glaze over the details; regardless, I think it is useful to have the tools to learn the details, especially in a way that is respectful of ancient Egyptian beliefs. Sometimes people lose sight of the cultural values and varying religious views of modern and ancient day civilizations that differ from their own.

    I want to teach my kids to respect and understand each other and others; while this is not an SOL topic, it can be seen as controversial and requires in-depth discussions. Within this broad idea, I want to talk about gender identity using pronouns and hone in on the idea that you don’t always see yourself the way you look or are anatomically created. We have some student teachers and some students who identify as they/them or non-binary; while we all work hard to make sure to correctly use their pronouns and make sure the kids understand, we all slip up on occasion. If we can help to explain this to our students at a young age, they will be well prepared to continue on and respect others. Further, this can include discussions about LGBTQ+, race, and religion if necessary (i.e., Jewish and Muslim people, including their rights and oppression).

    Overall, I think honesty is the best policy; it’s much easier to ask for forgiveness than permission. Teach your students honestly that is doing our due diligence; if you make a mistake and upset a parent/staff, a conversation can be started about why and how things could be accommodated.

  6. Hi, Emily!

    Primary source are the foundations of teaching unbiased history. Forget starting with textbooks and any secondary, tertiary, and so on sources. The raw history in its original form is what we want to incorporate into our teaching as much as possible. However, by keeping primary evidence true to its value means that there is the risk of coming across facts and stories that may be too sensitive for young students. It’s important that, wherever necessary, we adapt documents to make the gruesome and violent history more bearable for them to learn. However we must be careful not too sugar coat events too much to the point where we paint problematic leaders in ways better than they were or silence the presence of violence completely. Students are learning to become citizens in their world and it is vital that we give them an accurate developing image of their society and the world in which they live. Hiding is not protecting, it is avoidant and successful to child development and perseverance of innocence until it is not and they realize they have been deceived. The key is to improve and learn how to adequately teach the sensitive material and it will always be on our list of goals.

    Some sensitive topics that I am interested in finding resources to teach include homelessness, war and outcomes of war (instability and tension between communities, parties, nations), slavery and LGBTQ+/women inequality and overall disparities.

    One strategy that I want to use in my teaching is shifting students definite way of thinking in terms of having to stick with their initial beliefs. Over time, I found myself changing certain beliefs, emotions, and attitudes toward different matters and, when first exposed to this change, I was reluctant, but I was taught that, as cliché as it sounds, things, people, and most importantly, one’s self, change. Part of our mission in teaching is to provide students with all the evidence as accurately as possible so that they can control their learning and what they decided to do with it or how they decide to feel about it.

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