When Teaching Slavery Goes Wrong
This morning I came across a wonderful series of tweets from historian Kidada Williams, who was responding to recent controversies involving k-12 teachers and lesson plans about slavery that go very wrong. We’ve all seen these reports. Teachers with the best of intentions set up mock slave auctions or place their African-American students in other compromising positions. Examples can be found here, here, and here.
Williams rightly calls for increased focus on the history of slavery on the college level and points to the need to help teachers think through appropriate lesson plans on the subject.
Again, I completely agree with Williams. Regardless of the grade level history teachers need to be as well versed in recent scholarship on slavery as possible. The public’s understanding of slavery is still defined by numerous myths and distortion. Lesson plans rooted in sound scholarship can go far in avoiding many of these unfortunate outcomes in the classroom, but there is another reason that needs to be acknowledged.
Educators need to appreciate that they cannot expect to be able to teach the history of slavery as a passive subject disconnected from the messiness and confusion of historical memory. How a student (and by extension his/her parents) and the broader communities in which they live respond to even the best prepared lesson plan will likely be shaped by a host of factors related to the long and complicated legacy of slavery.
History teachers who come into contact with parents, school administrators and even the general public over their curriculum ought to be prepared to defend their area of expertise. They need to be able to demonstrate how their lesson plans engage their students to better understand this difficult subject matter, but they also need to be able to assuage and/or respond to those concerns that move the conversation beyond history entirely.
History educators need professional development opportunities that focus specifically on the teaching of slavery. These workshops ought to both deepen the content knowledge of the teacher and assist them in the development of lesson plans that maximize opportunities for student engagement and understanding. Finally, workshops ought to prepare teachers for those uncomfortable moments in the classroom when the past meets the present.