Magazine Feature

Teaching Hard History From the Beginning

Children should learn about American slavery starting in kindergarten—and starting with Indigenous enslavement.
Bookmarked 51 times
Illustration by Taylor Callery

In a conversation with Teaching Tolerance magazine last summer, teacher Jordan Lanfair shared the “great sense of betrayal” his eighth-grade students felt when they studied slavery in his class. The response he described—“They’re like, ‘Why didn’t I learn this before?’”—was almost identical to the one teacher and librarian Izzy Anderson heard from her sixth-grade students. “They’re angry,” she explained on the Teaching Hard History podcast, “wondering, ‘Why haven’t I learned this before?’”

This is why Teaching Tolerance developed Teaching Hard History in the first place—to support middle and high school educators who are committed to teaching this difficult truth. The project, which includes a suite of free resources designed in collaboration with an advisory board of educators and scholars, was launched in February 2018. Educators could download the framework, browse a library of primary texts, read instructional recommendations and examples of Inquiry Design Models, and listen to the popular Teaching Hard History podcast.

The response was overwhelming. Educators weighed in from across the United States. They sent emails detailing how they were using the framework or requesting a version for early grades. They commented on articles about how others taught slavery and tuned in for webinars. They downloaded the podcast by the tens of thousands. They sent in praise and gratitude and recommendations for improvement. In one memorable Twitter thread, teachers debated what might comprise the STEM equivalent of “hard history”—and who among them might have the courage to teach it.

As feedback rolled in, Teaching Tolerance continued collaborating with the Teaching Hard History Advisory Board, working together for a year and a half to develop more resources and recommendations for teaching about American slavery. And in August 2019, Teaching Tolerance released a new edition of Teaching Hard History.

Expanded to support learning for students of all grades, the new edition offers guidance and resources K–12 educators can use to lead students through the history of slavery in the Americas, from the enslavement of Indigenous people that shaped European colonies in the 16th century through the white supremacist legacy still at work in the 21st.


Starting Early

The problem is not that young children don’t know about slavery, says Teaching Hard History Advisory Board Chair Hasan Kwame Jeffries. “We do introduce our students to this material,” he explains. “We mention slavery in the early grades. ... And we mention and introduce slave folk. [But] we don’t talk about it—or them—in a way that would help our students understand the seriousness of the institution.”

Jeffries, a history professor at The Ohio State University, offers an example: a handout about George Washington that his third-grade daughter brought home from school. “It lists all these ‘fun facts’ about him having no teeth and owning pet rabbits. But it said nothing about him owning people.”

When slavery is taught in the early grades as an afterthought or a footnote, Jeffries explains, students are set up for misunderstanding. It’s not easy for a young person to reframe their ideal of Washington-the-hero to include the truth of Washington-the-enslaver. “If these contradictions aren’t explained, then what they do is just tune it out,” he says. “And then they’re never able to fundamentally grasp what the issues are to be able to make sense of the past—and then be able to make sense of the present.”

To better support educators in the crucial work of helping students understand this history, the new edition of Teaching Hard History includes resources designed especially for teachers of younger students. For those concerned about walking the fine line between overloading students and sugarcoating the truth, the new framework for the elementary grades identifies age-appropriate, essential knowledge about American slavery, organized by grade band.

For those unsure of 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.

The resource is organized thematically, so elementary educators who aren’t tasked with teaching American history can still incorporate elements of this history into their curricula. The idea, Jeffries says, is to give educators what they need to build a strong foundation for students. “With almost every other subject, we would scaffold education,” he explains. “With math and science, we don’t wait. ... And it’s the same thing with teaching about this early American experience that is so central to the development of America as a nation.”


Indigenous Enslavement

The new edition of Teaching Hard History doesn’t just reach back through grades; it also reaches back through time. August 2019 was a critical moment in this hard history: the 400th anniversary of the first trade in enslaved Africans on land that would be the United States. But the history of slavery here began well before that. As Jeffries points out, the “global phenomenon” of trade in enslaved people “begins not with the enslavement of African people. [It] begins with the enslavement of Indigenous people.”

It’s a beginning left out of curricula far too often.

As Teaching Hard History advisor and Carleton College history professor Meredith McCoy explains, the systems of slavery and colonialism were key elements of a foundation that shapes our nation today.

“[The early colonists] set up their government, the governing system, on top of territories that were still the territories of other people. And then they just never left,” she says. “They set up all their infrastructure on top of this territory. And in order for that to happen, they needed the enslaved labor of African and Indigenous peoples.”

Despite this foundation, the history of Indigenous slavery is rarely taught. McCoy notes that she never studied it in school, and Renée Gokey, another advisory board member, says the same.

The first step toward any understanding, Gokey says, is “to really know what happened ... [and] Teaching Hard History, the resources and the framework, will really help with that.”

The United States has built itself on this narrative of Manifest Destiny. For that national mythology to work, school curricula act like Indigenous people no longer exist.

Because the history of Indigenous enslavement is inextricable from broader histories of American slavery and the United States itself, it is woven throughout the K–12 resources. Elementary educators will find recommendations for pushing conversations about resistance beyond the Underground Railroad to include discussions of how enslaved Africans and Indigenous people—and their descendants—protected their cultures and traditions even in the most abject conditions. Secondary teachers will find primary source documents to help students trace the relationships between the expansion of cotton plantations, the domestic trade in enslaved people and the Indian Removal Act of 1830.

But the expanded framework and new texts aren’t the only new resources for teaching about Indigenous enslavement. Gokey, who also works as teacher services coordinator at the National Museum of the American Indian, explains the need for additional support when it comes to teaching Indigenous history. “One challenge we’ve found,” she says, “is that teachers often need to unlearn some of what they think they know about Native peoples as a starting point.”

For educators unsure of where or how to undertake some of that work, season two of the Teaching Hard History podcast is largely dedicated to the history of Indigenous enslavement. In addition to historians, guests will include preservationists, scholars and activists who can help listeners see how this history continues to affect us today.

“The study of the past is important for understanding what happened in the past,” Jeffries maintains, “but it’s equally important for understanding what is happening in the present. So in order to understand, for example, the rhetoric of racism, the use of the racist belief to explain disparities and ongoing discrimination is very much rooted in this history of slavery.”

To support that understanding, the new framework also offers recommendations for ways educators can help students connect the history they’re learning to the world in which they’re living. And, as Gokey points out, these connections aren’t merely academic. She lists a few questions that Teaching Hard History might raise: “How might our descendants look back on us from the past? And how can we make our ancestors proud of our decisions today?” Reflecting on her own heritage and the histories of privilege and oppression affecting her English, Ukrainian and Eastern Shawnee ancestors, she clarifies.

“It’s a call to action, for us, I think. And we can’t act if we don’t know our own history and ourselves first.”

Delacroix is the associate editor for Teaching Tolerance.

What’s in the Frameworks?

Key Concepts

• The foundation of the frameworks. Ten ideas critical to understanding American slavery.

• Example | KC5: Enslaved people resisted the efforts of their enslavers to reduce them to commodities in both revolutionary and everyday ways.


Essential Knowledge

• The basic units of the K–5 framework. Twenty learning goals that connect to the Key Concepts.

• Example | EK6: Students should know that enslaved people tried to maintain their cultures while building new traditions that continue to be important.


Summary Objectives

• The basic units of the 6–12 framework. Twenty-two learning goals that build on Essential Knowledge to support the Key Concepts.

• Example | SO12: Students will discuss the nature, persistence and impact of the spiritual beliefs and cultures of enslaved people.


“What Else Should My Students Know?”

• An explanatory list included with—and tailored to—each Essential Knowledge or Summary Objective.


“How Can I Teach This?”

• A list of resources and teaching strategies included with—and tailored to—each Essential Knowledge or Summary Objective.

A map of Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana and Mississippi with overlaid images of key state symbols and of people in community

Learning for Justice in the South

When it comes to investing in racial justice in education, we believe that the South is the best place to start. If you’re an educator, parent or caregiver, or community member living and working in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana or Mississippi, we’ll mail you a free introductory package of our resources when you join our community and subscribe to our magazine.

Learn More