In the Classroom

Tool 1: Create a welcoming classroom.

Tool 2: Use primary sources.

Tool 3: Diversify the texts and perspectives in curricula.

Tool 4: Use an inquiry-based approach to teaching.

Tool 5: Teach students to read the world critically.

Tool 6: Consult policies, course mandates and professional organizations.

Tool 7: Continue to learn how to teach honest history.

Educators have an opportunity to be powerful advocates for inclusive education by teaching honest history in their classrooms. School, district and state education policies that guide curricula—and, in some states, attempt to censor what is taught—have caused confusion and concern. However, educators may have more power than they realize. Ideally, educators can implement a curriculum that encourages students to grapple with complex and often conflicting stories, employing pedagogy that has students draw their own conclusions. Educators can also create a classroom culture that provides diverse perspectives on challenging topics.

In this section, educators will find tools to teach honest history in their classrooms. In selecting tools, educators should balance their professional and personal safety with students’ needs and safety, ensuring that students’ identities are affirmed and fully embraced. Educators can support students in learning a more complete history, how the past influences the present, and how they can work together to build a better future.

Tool 1: Create a welcoming classroom.

A welcoming classroom is the foundation of a community that grapples with honest history. When all students feel accepted, educators can dive into challenging topics with students. Teachers should be thoughtful and intentional about how they build relationships with and among students. At the beginning of the year, co-create classroom agreements to help ensure students’ identities and values are respected in the classroom culture. Consider how you physically set up your classroom to honor and include the diverse identities and experiences of your students. Use restorative justice practices to ensure that responses to breaches in the classroom agreements are focused on healing, not punishment.

Learn more about creating a welcoming classroom with the following resources from Learning for Justice:

Tool 2: Use primary sources.

Primary sources are an important tool in teaching honest history because they offer students opportunities to learn the perspectives of people involved in and affected by historical events. Primary sources also importantly offer the opportunity to ask: “Whose perspectives are not represented? Who is controlling the narrative and who is not, and what implications does that have?”

Before selecting a primary source for students, educators should think critically about the primary source, considering the context, the author and the author’s purpose. Primary sources reflect views of particular writers at particular times and are not all factual. For example, many written primary sources do not include the perspectives of communities that have been historically marginalized. If your chosen primary sources reflect a dominant perspective, consider identifying other sources that could be introduced, such as oral traditions, archaeological records, art or music. You can also help students critically read primary sources by asking them to consider whose perspectives are represented and whose perspectives are missing.

The LFJ student texts library contains historical documents, essays, poems, short videos, artwork and more. The text library is free to use and offers a helpful starting point for educators seeking to diversify their texts.

Tool 3: Diversify the texts and perspectives in curricula.

One important role of an educator is to curate the texts and perspectives in curricula to challenge dominant narratives around historical events and provide students with critical viewpoints. It is essential for educators to approach text selection in ways that prioritize critical literacy and cultural responsiveness in addition to complexity. Students need to see themselves reflected in curricula as well as learn about diverse perspectives and experiences different from their own.

LFJ resources for diversifying curricula include the webinar Diversifying Classroom Texts and “Critical Engagement With Materials” from Critical Practices for Social Justice Education.

Vanessa Gutierrez, an elementary teacher in Maryland, shares that the goal of inquiry design models is to “transform [students] into ‘historical thinkers.’ … Every moment that we continue to teach a dominant version of history, another generation will carry an incomplete narrative with them. Our responsibility is to teach history in a way that includes various perspectives. That way, children grow up to become adults who think critically about how the past impacts the present, informing how they take action to create a more just future.”

Tool 4: Use an inquiry-based approach to teaching.

Inquiry-based teaching is an important pedagogical approach that helps students critically examine historical topics. Teachers can plan and facilitate, for example, inquiry design models requiring that students analyze divergent perspectives by using a variety of primary and secondary sources and then draw their own conclusions.

The LFJ resources “Using Inquiry To Teach Honest History” and “Teaching Hard History Inquiry Design Models” provide strategies
and examples.

Tool 5: Teach students to read the world critically.

If you have a fixed curriculum or a problematic text that centers a dominant narrative that you are required to teach, consider shifting your pedagogical approach to help students critically read and engage with the content.

Learning for Justice offers several critical reading teaching strategies. “Reading Against the Grain” can help secondary students to analyze the dominant reading of a text and engage in alternative or “resistant” readings. Even elementary students can participate in similar strategies; consider using “Challenge the Text” to help them recognize multiple perspectives and uncover assumptions and biases within a text.

Tool 6: Consult policies, course mandates and professional organizations.

Educators should explore state-level policies and mandates around teaching honest history to understand what protections they have for teaching more complete and accurate history. Some states have expanded teachers’ requirements to teach honest history that includes the perspectives of historically excluded groups. Similarly, educators can refer to state standards, many of which require the teaching of topics such as slavery, the Civil Rights Movement and current events. Educators can also learn about their rights to teach about racism, sexism and other topics. Check with local and state unions for additional support and guidance for teaching honest history.

Outside of state policies, educators can identify course mandates or refer to best practices from national organizations to help advocate for teaching a more inclusive history. For example, the College Board has taken clear stances on censorship in Advanced Placement (AP) courses, stating that courses could lose AP designation if schools remove required topics from them and affirming its support for “an open-minded approach to the histories and cultures of different peoples.”

Other nationally recognized professional organizations such as the National Council for the Social Studies and the National Council of Teachers of English have shared position statements on the importance of inclusion of LGBTQ+ history in instruction, accurate portrayals of Indigenous peoples’ histories, and educator engagement in anti-racist teaching and learning.

Tool 7: Continue to learn how to teach honest history.

Educators should prioritize developing content background and skills to ensure they are responsibly teaching honest history. Teachers must understand developmentally appropriate curriculum and instruction practices, intentionally select pedagogies that bring students safely into and out of challenging conversations, and uncover primary sources that highlight historically excluded narratives.

Several organizations provide educators with free or low-cost support in teaching honest history, including Learning for Justice, Facing History & Ourselves, the Zinn Education Project, Teaching for Change, and Rethinking Schools.

Beyond ensuring that students have an accurate understanding of our past, teaching honest history is an ethical responsibility of educators.

Supplemental Resources

The LFJ Teaching Hard History podcast episode “Using the WPA Slave Narratives” (Season 2, Episode 11) provides an excellent discussion about the use of one rich primary source that exemplifies the importance of critical analysis.

The Federal Writers’ Project interviewed over 3,000 formerly enslaved individuals. On its surface, this would seem like an invaluable resource for educators who want to teach about American slavery using primary sources from the perspective of the people enslaved. Upon reading many of these interviews, however, educators and students might be shocked to find people who were formerly enslaved recorded as speaking positively about their experience. A better understanding of the context of these primary sources reveals that the conditions of the interview likely influenced those responses. The interviewers, who were mostly white women, wrote a rendition, rather than a transcript, of the formerly enslaved peoples’ testimonies. Some of the interviewers were related to enslavers who had held interviewees in bondage. The interviews also took place in the Jim Crow South, and so most of the people being interviewed were very elderly people who were children during slavery. Finally, the interviewers asked leading questions, like asking about the good times during enslavement. Despite this, you still find people who criticized slavery, sometimes in coded ways. As historian Cynthia Lynn Lyerly says, “If you read carefully enough, you can often see the formerly enslaved people finding spaces to tell the truth about slavery despite the fact that the interviewer wants them to tell a rosy story.”

I’m an elementary teacher. How can I ensure that my classroom discussions on race, gender and honest history are age appropriate?

Many elementary students, including our youngest children, experience racism, sexism or other forms of oppression. They need educators to create spaces for safe, restorative dialogues about students’ experiences.

Affirming and embracing students’ identities helps students develop positive personal and social identities and gives them the opportunity to respectfully learn about and honor others’ identities. As scholar and educator Beverly Daniel Tatum said to Chalkbeat, “Children are not colorblind, but they do learn to be color-silent. They learn early that they’re not supposed to talk about some topics, but they’re also absorbing attitudes at a very young age. The best antidote to prejudice is the conversation.”

What can I do about regulations or restrictions on what I teach?

States and districts have different requirements and constraints on what can and cannot be taught. While this guide is certainly not exhaustive, here are some strategies and materials you may be able to use when teaching honest history:

Use nonfiction texts. The push for rigor and citation of text-based evidence opens the door to using nonfiction texts like those in the online Teaching Hard History Text Library. You can also use the National Archives’ educator resource DocsTeach and the Library of Congress’ online archive. These primary source resources directly address Common Core and many state standards around informational texts and citing textual evidence (see Common Core standards RI.1-10).

Use shorter texts. If there are restrictions about particular novels or books, try using excerpts, short stories, poetry or news articles. Search the Teaching Hard History Text Library and explore Newsela, both of which contain articles that cater to a range of reading levels. Also, use fiction and nonfiction—poetry, biographies, graphic novels, visual and multimedia texts, scholarly journals and articles—from a variety of sources.

Use a variety of authors. Incorporate texts from a diverse set of authors to provide multiple perspectives on a particular topic. For example, you can find texts about American enslavement written by Black and Indigenous authors on sites such as the Center for Native American and Indigenous Research. We Need Diverse Books is another great resource for finding a variety of texts.

Let students take the lead. Have students do the research. Give your students the tools to find texts, use critical thinking skills and break down concepts around honest history. Try using LFJ’s digital literacy lessons to help prepare students for finding and reading primary and other sources that will help them learn honest history.

Encourage students to start and lead book clubs. Check out LFJ’s Reading for Social Justice guide for tips and strategies on having students create reading groups around texts, especially books.