Teaching Difficult Subjects Using Primary Sources: Our Readers Respond

We were thrilled to see the wonderful responses from the blog post on teaching difficult subjects. A huge thank you to all of those who commented, made teaching suggestions and linked to this post.

The comments underscored the importance of facilitating discussions on difficult issues with students. One commenter, a professor who teaches Introduction to Constitutional Principles to a primarily African-American student body, noted that some discussions can get difficult in a hurry. But he also stated that teachers must get aggressive with the material and challenge students to assess and analyze the changes between the time under study and the current day. Another reader noted that teachers need to promote critical thinking around primary sources, no matter how difficult the primary source.

We noticed that the large majority of readers’ comments focused on the need to make sure that students consider what

Dred Scott

events were taking place at the time when a primary source was created. The professor emphasized that when teaching cases such as Dred Scott v. Sanford, he asks students to analyze the historical context as well as the issues of the case. He also urges students to consider what such contextual information may tell them about the American experience.

Other comments noted the importance of being aware of the age and maturity level of your students. This is vitally important as some students may not yet be able to grasp the issues under study or make the connection between historic and current events.

Here are some teaching suggestions:

One way to explore difficult subjects is to use alternative resources such as music to provide commentary on the events of the day. In the November/December 2011 issue of Social Education, my colleague and fellow “Teaching with the Library of Congress” blogger Stacie Moats and former Music Division staff member Stephanie Poxon wrote an article on teaching about difficult subjects. Their article, “‘I Didn’t Raise My Boy to

I Didn't Raise My Boy to be a Soldier

Be a Soldier:’ Ideas and Strategies for Using Music from the National Jukebox to Teach Difficult Topics in History,” provides ideas and resources for incorporating sheet music and sound recordings to encourage student inquiry.

A reader-generated suggestion was to have students review newspapers from Chronicling America: Historical Newspapers to discover the language used at the time. This activity can help students understand attitudes toward specific groups at the time the newspaper was published.

One other commenter noted that the suggestions made in the previous blog post can be extended to current day issues and materials. These activities can help students learn how to analyze materials from any and all sources.

Finally, one blog reader noted that both students and society at large will benefit from being challenged to think critically about difficult topics.

How do you respond to colleagues or others who advise teachers to avoid using primary sources that address difficult topics in the classroom?


  1. Michelle Zupan
    January 13, 2012 at 8:30 am

    I advise to absolutely use primary sources to teach difficult topics. I work at a historic site that was the residence of a very controversial political figure at the turn of the century — the ONLY way to set him into context is to literally set him into context. I allow the Senator to “speak for himself” by using his writings and speeches as well as other materials of the time to address topics of racism, disenfranchisement, anti-Catholic sentiment, and so on. By the same token, we have a program on Joel Chandler Harris and absolutely tell the “Brer” stories — a decision that some teachers question. Children (students) are able to comprehend how times, views, and mores have changed if we give them the historic referents and discuss with them the how and the why of history.

  2. Amy W.
    January 13, 2012 at 1:24 pm

    I can see why some educators advise against the use of primary sources which address difficult topics. Teaching difficult topics can yield high emotions. However, I would encourage its use to help students build skills of empathy. Primary sources allow students to understand others’ points of view in a different time and place, separate from their own emotions about the topic in present time.
    Along with all of the other wonderful considerations from the this and past blog posts and comments, I would suggest the importance of dealing with emotions with sensitivity and encourage students’ skills in empathy to understand differing points of view, in the past and today. Also, most of us (teachers) have run out of time when teaching a lesson. When planning to teach with difficult primary sources, it is very important to plan enough time afterwards to allow for such important discussion.

  3. A Karyadi
    January 15, 2012 at 11:59 am

    I’d second the comment about allowing for plenty of time when you plan to introduce controversial material.
    My attitude about teaching controversial subjects was set during my first year of teaching, when the 1992 Los Angeles Riots/Unrest broke out. There was no question that my history classes would go back to studying World War II when school resumed on Monday. To colleagues who avoid controversial topics, I’d merely ask this: if students will leave your classroom agitated, arguing about history, and thinking the material over at home (with any emotion at all in their heads), congratulations. You’ve done a great job as a teacher of a subject too often described as boring.

  4. Brian O’Connell
    January 16, 2012 at 3:08 pm

    Having taught the Holocaust for nearly fifteen years, I can relate to the pitfalls in using primary materials that spark controversy. it is worth the anxiety and the fear of the discusion becoming a little difficult. Perhaps by doing this in the classroom, teaching difficult lessons to students who may not be comfortable with the material, we lay the ground work for future healthy debate on contentious issues later in life

  5. Willodean Sermons
    February 24, 2012 at 12:32 pm

    I am usually to blogging and i actually appreciate your content. The article has actually peaks my interest. I am going to bookmark your site and keep checking for new information.

  6. S chilunbu
    February 3, 2017 at 8:54 am

    I like the coments on teaching deficult topics,learners needs more time to imotionaly get envolved in a subject throuh th use of primary source.thanks for the points.

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