Teaching Tough History

Written by Jennifer Boren

I recently returned from the Monticello Teacher’s Institute as a Barringer Research Fellow. It was an amazing experience for too many reasons to list here and a highlight of my career as a school librarian. However, I was totally unprepared for the rollercoaster of emotions I would feel over the course of the seven days I was there. One of my biggest take-aways was that school librarians are in a unique position to teach difficult history, and if we aren’t, we should start. Our students and faculty need us to do so now more than ever and here are the reasons why.

Books are Gateways

Not only is the school library the heart of the school in the physical sense, but it should also be a gateway to social emotional learning. The library may be the only place in our students’ lives where they can safely experience a broad range of feelings such as grief, or anger, or sorrow. Books are a refuge for many students and can be a natural portal to conversations about difficult feelings and difficult history.

Thomas Jefferson is often lauded as an esteemed innovator of his time, and while he did design his estate Monticello, he did not build it. The enslaved children on his plantation worked as brick makers and you can still see their fingerprints in the red bricks today. This was one of the most heartbreaking and poignant moments of my fellowship. It touched me as a mother and an educator of small children. I immediately began to wonder how could I share this with my students? How can I talk with them about this painful history?

Picture books can offer an approach to difficult history when we aren’t sure where to start. Monticello is certainly not the only plantation built by slaves and the book Brick by Brick by Charles R. Smith Jr. tells the story of the enslaved servants who built the White House.  Even the youngest of learners can grasp the injustice of this through this picture book. When teaching history, it is imperative we tell the full story, and books can help us do that when we don’t have the words ourselves.

Collaboration is Key

Collaboration with faculty should be the cornerstone of what our library program stands on. Teachers may be uncomfortable with teaching difficult history and school librarians can help. Co-teaching a lesson on the Jim Crow Era or The Trail of Tears may be less intimidating if teachers know the information expert in the building is there to help them teach credible accounts of history. Teachers may worry students will have questions they cannot answer. Knowing the school librarian is in their corner and waiting to help students with the inquiry process can help put teacher’s mind at ease.

The new AASL National School Library Standards charge us to lead by sharing our work with teachers and colleagues and to cultivate collegial relationships with faculty and staff. Often it takes just one collaborative lesson to open the door to developing these relationships, and word spreads fast. Don’t wait for teachers to come to you; study your district pacing guides and seek out opportunities to support them in teaching these tough topics. Once teachers begin to hear about the resources you can offer and your willingness to collaborate, they will begin lining up to work together.

AASL National School Library Standards

Curation is our Expertise

Our new AASL School Library Standards call upon us to lead by engaging learners in an ongoing cycle of discovery and reflection on resources in many different formats. Our revised state Social Studies standards now include practices such as guided inquiry, gathering information from primary sources, comparing and contrasting viewpoints, and constructing arguments. The new AASL Standards Framework is a reflection of those Social Studies practices students should apply frequently throughout the school year.

A great way to begin teaching touch history is by examining and analyzing primary source documents. Classroom teachers have little time for planning and may not know where to find quality primary sources. School librarians can help teachers vet those sources and select the most appropriate sources for teaching their standards. We are the resident experts in reliability and credibility, and we should work with teachers to help them locate appropriate primary sources.

As we head back to school in the coming weeks, think about how you can support your colleagues in teaching difficult history and the kinds of resources you can offer. If you need more resources on teaching difficult history, check out Teaching Tolerance and The International Coalition of Sites of Conscience.


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