Teaching Young Learners About Slavery, Part II

By Noreen Naseem Rodríguez and Katy Swalwell

This week, K-12Talk presents the second of a two-part excerpt from a forthcoming book by social studies educators Noreen Naseem Rodríguez and Katy Swalwell, Social Studies for a Better World: An Anti-Oppressive Approach for Elementary Educators, part of the Norton Series on Equity and Social Justice in Education. In this second excerpt, the authors provide creative solutions for teaching the painful history of slavery to young learners without reproducing trauma.


From Chapter 6:

Creative Solutions

It is possible to develop content knowledge and historical empathy without traumatizing students as they learn about slavery. Educator Adam Sanchez’ (2019) lesson asks students to create a collective poem after taking on roles through a mixer activity to learn about enslaved peoples’ various resistance strategies (e.g., work stoppages, armed revolt, running away, maintaining families, etc.). Role-plays can also be responsibly applied to current questions about how to reckon with the history of slavery, like designing a reparations bill (Wolfe-Rocca, 2020) or simulating a city council meeting to determine how to commemorate slavery-related history in the community.

Teaching the History of Slavery Responsibly

Teaching about slavery responsibly is difficult, but there are wonderful digital resources to support teachers who are committed to this work. The New York Times’ phenomenal The 1619 Project, conceived of by Nikole Hannah-Jones, includes curricular resources for teachers. Teaching Tolerance’s Teaching Hard History: American Slavery for K-5 has many helpful resources and additional ideas for responsible teaching of these histories. The Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture’s Talking About Race Web Portal has a wealth of information; the Historical Foundations of Race section has a collection of resources that trace the history of race and its role in the institution of slavery in the U.S. And the Library of Congress’ Voices Remembering Slavery: Freed People Tell Their Stories houses invaluable recordings of interviews with formerly enslaved people. One special note with regards to teaching about slavery responsibly: For many white teachers in particular, it’s tempting to teach about abolition or the Underground Railroad as a way to highlight “good” white people. Keep in mind that very few white people supported abolition, that lots of white abolitionists were also deeply racist (see Reynolds & Kendi, 2020), and that most Black people liberated themselves without help from white people.

Field trips are another experiential option. While many historical sites focused on slavery have exhibits and costumed employees who replicate dominant narratives that trivialize and reproduce trauma, some do not and have helpful anti-oppressive resources for educators. For example, the Whitney Plantation outside of New Orleans is the only plantation in Louisiana dedicated to the perspectives of enslaved people, the Middle Passage Ceremonies and Port Markers Project commemorates ancestors’ arrival along the East and Gulf Coast, and the Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Alabama features rare first-person accounts of the domestic slave trade. No matter where you live, there are local connections to be made to the history of slavery. Stops on the Underground Railroad extended throughout the Midwest and Northeast, for example, and many Confederate monuments have been erected across the United States years after the Civil War (e.g., Wickenkamp, 2020). These experiential learning opportunities can complicate dominant narratives around slavery, center acts of resistance, illustrate the interstate web of enslaved labor, and reckon with the ongoing white supremacy that survived abolition.  

One last time, we want to caution educators to be extremely careful here. Teaching the history of slavery is fraught enough—if your classroom community is not healthy, if your background knowledge is not strong, or if you do not have enough time for debriefing, then most definitely you should not apply dramatization or gamification tools. But don’t let your fear of messing up dissuade you from attending to the topic in other responsible ways; remember, becoming an anti-oppressive educator is a process. Do your best to learn all you can, then seek out feedback from trusted critical friends, colleagues, and families to help you avoid the problems and pitfalls we outline here. 

Noreen Naseem Rodríguez is an award-winning assistant professor at Iowa State University and a former bilingual elementary teacher.

Katy Swalwell is Associate Professor of Social & Cultural Studies in the School of Education at Iowa State University.

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