History teachers guide students through a past marked by triumph and tragedy. Each time we enter the classroom, we’re stepping into the critical but challenging role of walking side by side with our students, confronting the past with empathy, tact, and sensitivity.
Our foremost aim is to cultivate a comprehensive understanding of and genuine appreciation for the historian’s craft. To accomplish this, it’s crucial above all else that we instill in our students a firm confidence in their teacher. Drawing upon my 17 years of teaching American history, I humbly offer these tips to assist in fulfilling this crucial role.
Teach Historical Empathy
Before teaching about enslavement, I emphasize historical empathy, or as my former history professor Jacqueline Jones puts it, “developing a full understanding of why people acted or thought as they did.”
Historical empathy is not about justifying or excusing the actions and beliefs of historical figures. Its primary purpose is to cultivate a deep and nuanced understanding of the intricate complexities inherent in unraveling the past. By nurturing historical empathy, teachers encourage students to engage in meaningful learning experiences.
I guide my students in applying historical empathy when analyzing Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. This approach encourages them to transcend simplistic notions of good versus evil and to delve into the multifaceted factors that shaped the actions of historical figures. Moreover, it fosters a deep understanding of how individuals or groups exert control over their own lives, regardless of any prevailing circumstances.
To avoid possible misunderstandings and misconceptions, I find it beneficial to direct parents and guardians to my classroom page about historical empathy, which features a short video about the topic and insights from Antony Polonsky, professor emeritus of Holocaust studies at Brandeis University, whom I also studied under. His words carry weight when he emphasizes, “One has to be empathetic to everybody. You have to explain, but you don’t have to excuse.”
Celebrate Agency, Triumphs, and Successes
While introducing students to historical empathy, I also teach about the agency of enslaved individuals, emphasizing their strategies for maintaining dignity, preserving family ties, and navigating oppressive conditions. We dive into the stories of figures like Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass, who not only fought for freedom themselves but also worked to reunite and protect enslaved families.
We also learn about heroic women such as Abigail Adams and Jane Addams, highlighting their significant contributions. Abigail Adams advocated for women’s rights, and Jane Addams, as a social reformer and peace activist, worked to create positive change. Studying their lives inspires my students to challenge gender roles and become agents of change in their own communities. In my classroom, I display posters with quotations from pioneering women throughout history to inspire all of my students.
Students are also inspired by learning about the remarkable 1804 expedition of Lewis and Clark into the relative unknown, a journey that called for daring and skill, with the invaluable presence and contributions of Sacagawea.
Later, they marvel at the indomitable spirit of America’s “Greatest Generation,” who endured the Great Depression and World War II. Likewise, they celebrate America’s achievement in 1969 of landing a person on the moon.
Throughout the year, I emphasize that we explore both successes and shortcomings and that this course is not intended to denigrate American history. There are numerous moments of pride that deserve recognition and celebration, and I occasionally find myself needing to do a better job of highlighting them. Recently, I regrettably overlooked mentioning Memorial Day, a significant event that mourns and honors our nation’s fallen heroes.
Refrain from Singling Out
When teaching Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, I am mindful not to focus solely on students of color. It’s crucial for them not to feel as if everyone is eagerly waiting for their thoughts and reactions.
This pressure may stem from my actions or inactions, or it could simply be how the students interpret the situation. Earlier this year, a Black student approached me after class, expressing distress over her perception that I frequently focused my attention on her during discussions about race and history.
I apologized and sought guidance from my school’s diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging coordinator to proactively address the issue. Now, I clarify to students that my eye contact is not intended to pressure anyone to speak, and certainly not to those identifying with a specific group we are studying. I emphasize that in a small classroom, my gaze may naturally fall on them, but it should not be interpreted as expectation or pressure. I find that this approach helps to foster a more comfortable environment for students of color.
Instead of singling out anyone, I make inclusive announcements to show that I value everyone’s insights. During conversations, I am mindful of maintaining appropriate eye contact and try to avoid prolonged or intense staring at any particular individual. At times, I have even acknowledged feeling silly as I look down, but I hope my students appreciate the effort and intention behind it, which I also share with them.
Be Sensitive When Including Graphic Imagery
With sensitivity in mind, I am attentive to the impact of visual materials in depicting the past, which often appear more visceral than the written word. When teaching about the Japanese invasion of Manchuria, which preceded America’s intervention in World War II, I consider my international students from China, who may have family histories tied to this topic. As such, I keep in mind these guidelines:
- Provide warnings. I provide my students with the choice of averting their gaze or taking a brief break from the class. It’s impossible for teachers to anticipate how explicit imagery might affect each student individually.
- Enhance visual literacy. We discuss the purpose and impact of graphic images, exploring their emotional and perspective-altering qualities.
- Include diverse sources. Alongside photographs, I incorporate survivor testimonies and primary sources to offer a comprehensive view.
- Encourage critical thinking. Students consider the possible biases, intentions, and limitations of visual evidence.
- Foster empathy. Here as well, I encourage students to empathize with individuals depicted in the imagery.
No matter what you do, show students that you are mindful and purposeful. Carve out time to discuss with them how and why you plan to cover certain parts of the curriculum; ask for their input. I want to involve my students as much as possible in our journey of collective learning, leading me to reevaluate both the content and methods of my teaching approach.