Teaching about slavery is hard. It’s especially hard in elementary school classrooms, where talking about the worst parts of our history seems at odds with the need to motivate young learners and nurture their self-confidence.
Teaching about slavery, especially to children, challenges educators. Those we’ve spoken with—especially white teachers—shrink from telling about oppression, emphasizing tales of escape and resistance instead. They worry about making black students feel ashamed, Latinx and Asian students feel excluded and white students feel guilty.
Slavery is hard to teach about for all these reasons—and because its legacy of racism and white supremacy is still with us. That legacy influences the lives of even very young students, permeating our classrooms whether or not we acknowledge it.
Children encounter slavery in one form or another—some through children’s literature, some through family lore—as soon as they begin school. Kindergartners learn about Harriet Tubman during Black History Month, and they will meet her again and again, along with other escapees on the Underground Railroad, by fourth or fifth grade, when they’re actually “supposed to” learn about slavery.
The same thing happens for the civil rights movement: We teach children about Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks long before we pull back the curtain on the reality of what they struggled against.
This is understandable: We want to provide young children with heroes and with hope. It’s easy to cement slavery firmly in the past and tell a story of triumph over evil.
The problem lies in both what we teach and what we don’t teach. Field trips to colonial sites rarely include the stories of those who were enslaved there, yet enslaved people labored in every European colony in the Americas. Each state’s history of agriculture and industry stands alone, with little mention of how connected it was to slavery through trade. And Indigenous people? How many of us were taught that they tragically succumbed to disease, but not that they, too, were enslaved?
Whether we mean to or not, we’re teaching elementary students about slavery. Our omissions speak as loudly as what we choose to include. And what children learn in the early grades has broad consequences for the rest of their education.
History teachers spend too much time unteaching what their students previously learned. Professor Hasan Jeffries, chair of the Teaching Hard History Advisory Board, talks about having to unteach what his college students learned in high school. High school teachers tell us that they have to unteach what their students learn in earlier grades. This doesn’t happen in any other subject: Math, science and reading all begin with fundamentals and build on them.
[Scholars and experts in history, child development, educational psychology and children’s literature] have built a remarkable path where none existed, and it’s one we hope many teachers and curriculum specialists will follow.
That’s what we’re aiming to do in this guide: provide fundamentals that lay a foundation for future learning about slavery in the past and in the present. These fundamentals balance oppression with stories of resilience and agency. They show that slavery wasn’t a “peculiar” institution at all, but a national institution motivated by a desire for profit. And they invite young people to see that enslaved people were human beings—with names, families, music, food, hopes and dreams.
For teachers concerned about walking the fine line between overloading students and sugarcoating the truth, this framework for the elementary grades identifies age-appropriate, essential knowledge about American slavery, organized thematically within grade bands. For those unsure where to start, the resource is complemented by new additions to the Teaching Hard History Text Library, written especially for K–5 readers. The framework itself also includes concrete recommendations for introducing these ideas to students.
Teaching young people about our hard history should engage them in important questions that have relevance to their lives. We hope that teachers will choose to engage children with the big questions: what it means to be free and how humans make choices even in the most adverse circumstances.
The framework reflects the work of scholars and experts in history, child development, educational psychology and children’s literature. They have built a remarkable path where none existed, and it’s one we hope many teachers and curriculum specialists will follow.
About the Teaching Hard History Elementary Framework
In 2018, we published Teaching Hard History: A Framework for Teaching American Slavery. The framework identifies key concepts and summary objectives supported by instructional strategies. It is designed to help secondary teachers cover this important and often-neglected history.
This elementary framework expands our focus to include teachers and students in the elementary grades. It identifies essential knowledge and suggests developmentally appropriate strategies and texts for teaching about slavery. We believe that schools must tell the story of this country’s origins and trajectory early and often. This will help students to understand our past, comprehend current events and envision a better future.
Students deserve to learn the full and true history of the United States. As early as three years old, young people evaluate source credibility to decide if information is reliable.1 Telling the truth, even when it’s difficult, builds trust―an essential quality for strong relationships between teachers and students. Elementary students also have a strong and personal understanding of the differences between justice and injustice. They often talk and think about freedom, equality and power. They are aware of differences in national origin, culture, ethnicity, race and gender.
Young students want to create a more just and fair society. Teaching about slavery in elementary school, done properly, can build on children’s instincts and help students apply them to their classrooms, communities and study of the United States.
Slavery is a fundamental part of United States history. Just as history instruction begins in elementary school, so too should learning about slavery.
Unfortunately, neither state departments of education nor the publishing industry provide effective guidance for teaching about slavery to young people. This is particularly true in elementary school. Teachers are asked to celebrate Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass as early as kindergarten, even though their state’s curriculum may not include slavery until fourth grade. In Ohio, for example, the state elementary social studies standards mention slavery only once, in the fourth grade: “Sectional issues divided the United States after the War of 1812. Ohio played a key role in these issues, particularly with the anti-slavery movement and the Underground Railroad.” In other words, the standards seem to expect that teachers will cover abolition before they cover slavery.
Elementary educators face many obstacles when it comes to social studies instruction. They are accountable for teaching math, reading and science. Usually, teachers specialize in one of those areas rather than in social studies―a subject generally left out of statewide testing regimes. There is little support for teachers in this area. School libraries and English Language Arts (ELA) classrooms may contain many books about the Underground Railroad, but none about the day-to-day lives of enslaved families and children.
What’s missing is guidance about how and when to teach this important topic. This guide fills that gap. To inform our work, Learning for Justice sought advice from teachers, historians and experts in elementary education.
Done correctly, teaching about slavery covers all 10 of the major thematic strands for social studies education recommended by the National Council for the Social Studies.2 It opens possibilities for classroom conversations that address important and essential issues. And it fits into existing instructional plans. While each state’s curriculum differs, all―in ELA and social studies across all grade levels―offer opportunities to explore this topic even though they rarely offer formal geography or history until the fourth grade.
As students learn about the history of slavery using this framework, they engage in conversations about the meaning and value of freedom. They analyze how power organizes our past and present. When we prepare young students to understand the larger arc of American history, they learn about identity, diversity, culture, time, change, citizenship, conflict, imperialism and capitalism.
Slavery is a fundamental part of United States history. Just as history instruction begins in elementary school, so too should learning about slavery. By waiting until high school to study this hard history, we do students a disservice that hamstrings their ability to understand both American history and current events.
Sugarcoating or ignoring slavery until later grades makes students more upset by or even resistant to true stories about American history. To be clear: We are not saying that kindergarten teachers must enumerate the grim details of the Middle Passage or the minutia of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Instead, they should intentionally build instruction that prepares students to understand the long, multidimensional history of slavery and its continuing consequences. Long before we teach algebra, we teach its component parts. We should structure history instruction in the same way.
As educators read this guide, there are a few guiding principles to keep in mind.
Be ready to talk about race.
It is impossible to teach about slavery without talking about race, racism and white supremacy―something that makes many teachers, particularly white teachers, uncomfortable. But talking about race, especially encouraging students to understand it as a social construction rather than a biological fact, can be an opportunity to have productive and thoughtful conversations among students, if properly structured. First, teachers should take some time to consider their own identities and the way that those identities structure how they see the world. There are a number of resources at LearningforJustice.org to help with this process. Teachers should also consider the makeup of their classroom and develop fluency with culturally sustaining pedagogical strategies that recognize and draw upon students’ identities as assets for learning.
Teach about commonalities.
When teaching about other eras and cultures, it is important to focus on similarities with students’ lives first before moving to discuss differences. Learning about “cultural universals” such as art forms, group rules, social organization, basic needs, language and celebrations helps students to recognize that people are bound together by similarities regardless of group membership.3 When students appreciate commonalities, they are also less likely to express fear or stereotypes about members of other groups.4 This approach also helps students to build empathy, an essential skill for social and emotional development. Students might examine stories about children in other communities, children living in slavery or the cultural practices of enslaved people to find similarities with their own experiences.
Center the stories of enslaved people.
One mistake that teachers sometimes make is to begin by discussing the evils of slavery. This subtly communicates that enslaved people lacked agency and culture. Instead, start by learning about the diversity of African kingdoms and Native nations, including their intellectual and cultural traditions. Focusing on specific nations (for example, the Benin Empire or the Onondaga Nation) will give depth and specificity to these discussions. Students should learn that people were doctors, teachers, artists and community leaders before they were enslaved. This approach begins by focusing on the strengths and humanity of people who were enslaved. Once discussing slavery, students should center the humanity of enslaved people by exploring sources that speak to the diverse experiences of enslaved people from their own perspectives and in the words of their descendants.
Embed civics education.
When students learn about the history of American slavery, they have ample opportunities to explore the many dimensions of civics. First, students should consider the nature of power and authority. They should describe what it means to have power and identify ways that people use power to help, harm and influence situations. Beginning with examples from their classroom, families and communities, students can examine how power is gained, used and justified. Teachers should ask students what makes authority legitimate. As they learn more about the history of slavery, students should begin to understand the layers of U.S. government (local, state, tribal and national) and the idea that rules can change from place to place. Finally, the study of American slavery creates opportunities to learn about activism and action civics. Students should study examples and role models from the past and present, and ask themselves: “How can I make a difference?”
Teach about conflict and change.
The history of American slavery is a story of terrible oppression; at the same time, it is also a story of incredible resistance and resilience. Students should learn that enslaved people wanted to be free, and that while some did escape, it was extraordinarily difficult. Teachers should be careful to show students that enslaved people resisted in other ways, such as learning to read colonial languages or by developing ceremonies like “jumping the broom” when marriage was forbidden. Students should know that slavery was widespread and not, as commonly thought, restricted to people of African descent or contained in the South. They should also know that many people did not agree with slavery and wanted to end it. These conversations should lead into discussions about current injustices―particularly those that continue to disenfranchise and oppress the descendants of enslaved people―and possibilities for activism and reform.
Return to the Teaching Hard History K-5 Framework
- Jonathan D. Lane, Henry M. Wellman and Susan A. Gelman. “Informants’ Traits Weigh Heavily in Young Children’s Trust in Testimony and in Their Epistemic Inferences.” Child Development 84, no. 4 (December 13, 2012): 1253–1268.
- National Council for the Social Studies, National Curriculum Standards for Social Studies: Executive Summary. (October 22, 2018). https://www.socialstudies.org/standards/execsummary.
- Jere Brophy and Janet Alleman. “Learning and Teaching about Cultural Universals in Primary-Grade Social Studies.” The Elementary School Journal 103, no. 2 (November 2002): 99–114.
- Patricia. G. Ramsey, “Growing up with the contradictions of race and class.” Young Children 50, no. 6 (September 1995): 12–22.