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 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 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?