Teaching American Slavery Through Inquiry

Kathy Swan, John Lee and S.G. Grant

The Learning for Justice publication A Framework for Teaching American Slavery represents an important starting place for defining the key themes and curricular content for teaching about American history and the fundamental roles that slavery and white supremacy have played in shaping the nation. The framework will help teachers construct a coherent narrative about how slavery and white supremacy are inescapably and intricately woven into the American story. By focusing on the key concepts that span our nation’s history, A Framework for Teaching American Slavery demonstrates that slavery should not just appear as a single topic in a unit on the Civil War. Instead, it should permeate our understanding of how the country was formed and how the original sin of American slavery echoes today.

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By design, even the best of standards documents—like this framework—are a necessary but insufficient step in affecting classroom practice. Standards represent the what and sometimes the why of teaching historical or social studies content, but standards rarely answer the question of how to teach a particular concept or idea. In order for content standards to come alive for social studies students, teachers need to animate content through dynamic and engaging instruction—and, in social studies, we focus that instruction around inquiry. If history students merely memorize a canonical list of names, dates and events, we have done little to prepare them for the more ambitious outcomes of a strong social studies education that include questioning interpretations of the past and using that analysis to shape our understanding of the present.

Published in 2013, The College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies State Standards (National Council for the Social Studies) outlines a structure for teaching social studies content through inquiry. Central to the C3 Framework is the Inquiry Arc, a set of interconnected and mutually supportive ideas that frames the ways teachers and their students engage with social studies content. The Inquiry Arc features four dimensions:

  • Developing questions and planning inquiries.
  • Applying disciplinary concepts and tools.
  • Evaluating sources and using evidence.
  • Communicating conclusions and taking action.

Through these dimensions, the C3 Framework articulates a clear process for supporting students to inquire about the past, analyze and argue about its meaning and ultimately apply that knowledge to the challenges that face our world today.

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