Magazine Feature

Toolkit for Tongue-Tied

This toolkit shows how Teaching Tolerance’s Critical Practices for Anti-bias Education can help foster safe and effective instruction about the sensitive and serious topic of slavery.  

Emotions aroused in students when discussing slavery will be no less intense than those experienced by educators, so it’s essential to create a safe classroom environment in which students feel comfortable and supported in expressing their reactions to the material. Creating safe spaces for tackling hard topics is the bedrock of anti-bias education.  


Essential Question

  1. How can teachers make sure all students are safe, comfortable and engaged when learning about serious and sensitive topics, such as slavery?

The following eight Critical Practices for Anti-bias Education (taken from Teaching Tolerance’s larger guide) are especially important in classrooms where slavery is being discussed. Click on each link to read more about the individual practices and strategies:


1. Encourage Critical Engagement with Material

Rather than assuming teachers hold all the knowledge, an anti-bias approach prioritizes critical student engagement, analysis and voice. This is especially important when talking about issues of identity, power, privilege and bias; deep understanding relies on multiple perspectives.

This practice empowers learners with the agency to interrogate material along with their teacher and peers, rather than feel isolated or helpless when dealing with the intense emotions associated with slavery. 


2. Make Real-World Connections

It’s important to help students connect what they learn to their lives and to the world around them. Research has shown that meaningful connections between learning and real life promote student engagement, positive identity development and achievement.

This practice establishes a framework for teaching slavery as it relates to contemporary issues of race and economics, rather than as a long-ago phenomenon that happened to other people in another place.


3. Foster Shared Inquiry and Dialogue

Differences shape who we are and what we know. Life, history, society and power cannot be understood from a single perspective; we need multiple viewpoints to truly see the world. Because of this, inclusive classrooms must function as learning communities built on shared inquiry and dialogue.

This practice protects diverse perspectives and equity of voice, ensuring that no single narrative is privileged when learning about a complicated topic like slavery—which often has different meaning for different people. 


4. Provide Social and Emotional Safety

Social emotional learning, respect and safety are as important as literacy and critical thinking skills when exploring an anti-bias curriculum. Research shows that students need to feel both physically and emotionally safe to learn. This includes safety from stereotype threat, harassment and exclusion.

Teaching about slavery opens students’ eyes to what is often very painful and frightening material. Make sure that students feel safe with their feelings and reactions to the material so that they remain engaged. 


5. Make Use of Local Resources

All local communities have valuable resources that can enhance teaching and learning on social justice topics, even if these resources are not always explicit or obvious. They include events, people, places and organizations.

The institution of slavery has had indelible and far-reaching effects on American society, effects that can perhaps be best appreciated through learning the lived experiences of real people. Making use of local resources is a great way to bring authenticity and detail when teaching about slavery.


6. Practice Culturally Sensitive Communication

Communication built on misinformation, assumptions or stereotypes can create distance between schools and families. If handled with respect and cultural sensitivity, however, school-family communication provides an opportunity to live out the values of inclusiveness and equity, which are at the heart of anti-bias education.

Families and caregivers need to know what their students are learning about in school, and this definitely includes slavery. Including families in your teaching plans can prevent misunderstandings that could undermine your efforts and cause alienation.


7. Develop Your Self-Awareness and Cultural Competence

Cultural competency is the ability to work effectively—and sensitively—across cultural contexts. It involves learning, communicating and connecting respectfully with others, regardless of differences. Culture can refer to an individual’s race, class, gender, sexual orientation, religion, immigration status and age, among other things. All these factors strongly influence people’s lives and experiences. Teachers—regardless of background or identity—must bring both cultural understanding and self-awareness to their work.

You can’t teach about slavery without talking about race and economics, so before you get started, reflect on how your own identities and experiences are influenced by the dynamics of power and privilege.


8. Consider Building Alliances

Building alliances is about working together, giving and receiving support and creating a sounding board for anti-bias curriculum planning. Alliance-building also gives teachers space to discuss the critical practices outlined in this guide. Allies can be colleagues within the school or from outside networks. Connecting with individuals “beyond the choir” and outside personal friendships diversifies the network of allies and deepens this work. 

Teaching and learning about slavery doesn’t take place in a single lesson or in an individual classroom, so don’t go it alone. Everyone benefits from shared wisdom, collaboration and support.