A Framework for Teaching American Slavery – from Teaching Tolerance

After a quick six hour visit to the the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (opens in new tab) yesterday, it just made sense to stop in at the #NCHE2019 session by Maureen Costello, director of Teaching Tolerance (opens in new tab). Maureen shared Teaching Tolerance resources that can help you effectively teach issues surrounding the history of slavery in the United States.

“History is not the past. It is the present. We carry our history with us. We are our history.” 

James Baldwin
Black English: A Dishonest Argument

Maureen started by sharing that most of our students leave high school without an adequate understanding of the role slavery played (opens in new tab) in the development of the United States – or how its legacies still influence us today.

Slavery’s long reach continues into the present day. The persistent and wide socioeconomic and legal disparities that African Americans face today and the backlash that seems to follow every African-American advancement trace their roots to slavery and its aftermath. If we are to understand the United State and the world today, we must understand slavery’s history and continuing impact.

Unfortunately, research conducted by the Southern Poverty Law Center in 2017 shows that our schools are failing to teach the hard history of African enslavement. They surveyed U.S. high school seniors and social studies teachers, analyzed a selection of state content standards, and reviewed 10 popular U.S. history textbooks. The research indicates that:

  • High school seniors struggle on even the most basic questions about American enslavement of Africans.
  • Teachers are serious about teaching slavery but there’s a lack of deep coverage of the subject in the classroom.
  • Popular textbooks fail to provide comprehensive coverage of slavery and enslaved peoples.

Maureen highlighted seven problems that often happens when we teach about slavery in the British North America and the United States. As a former middle school teacher who had no idea what he was doing with very little foundational knowledge, I can definitely say that these trouble spots happen all the time:

To remedy this, the Teaching Tolerance (opens in new tab) division of the Southern Poverty Law Center (opens in new tab) has developed a comprehensive guide for teaching and learning this critical topic at the middle and high school levels.

The Framework is part of their Teaching Hard History program (opens in new tab). As part of the program, they have developed a list of Key Concepts:

  • Slavery, practiced by Europeans prior to their arrival in the Americas, was important to all of the colonial powers and existed in all of the European North American colonies.
  • Slavery and the slave trade were central to the development and growth of the economy across British North America and the United States.
  • Protections for slavery were embedded in the founding documents; enslavers dominated the federal government, Supreme Court and Senate from 1787 through 1860.
  • Slavery was an institution of power and designed to create profit for the enslavers and break the will of the enslaved and was a relentless quest for profit abetted by racism.
  • Enslaved people resisted the efforts of their enslavers to reduce them to commodities in both revolutionary and everyday ways.
  • The experience of slavery varied depending on time, location, crop, labor performed, size of slaveholding, and gender.
  • Slavery was the central cause of the Civil War.
  • Slavery shaped the fundamental beliefs of Americans about race and whiteness, and white supremacy was both a product and legacy of slavery.
  • Enslaved and free people of African descent had a profound impact on American culture, producing leaders and literary, artistic, and folk traditions that continue to influence the nation.
  • By knowing how to read and interpret the sources that tell the story of American slavery, students are able to gain insight into some of what enslaving and enslaved Americans aspired to, created, thought, and desired.

Get the full PDF Framework here (opens in new tab). The Framework is organized around the enslavement of Africans in North America and the United States – and focuses on a chronological progression providing specific ways to teach it. A quick look at the Table of Contents gives you an idea of what the Framework contains: 

  • Teaching Hard History
  • Key Concepts and Summary Objectives
  • Pre-Colonial and Colonial Era | to 1763
  • The Revolutionary Period and the Constitution | 1763–1787
  • Slavery in the Early Republic | 1787-1807
  • The Expansion of Slavery | 1807–1848
  • The Sectional Crisis and Civil War | 1848–1877
  • Framework

Teaching Tolerance has also developed key elements of the framework and accompanying resources:

  • Key Concepts and Summary Objectives
    Important big ideas and critical content students must know to understand the historical significance of slavery. (Select the Summary Objectives below to see teaching suggestions and additional resources.)
  • Primary Source Texts
    The Teaching Hard History Library features over 100 student-friendly sources, all with text-dependent questions.
  • Teaching Tools
    Browse six sample Inquiry Design Models, based on The College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies State Standards.
  • Podcast
    Hosted by Professor Hasan Jeffries, this series brings the lessons and context that I (and maybe you?) should have learned in school through the voices of leading scholars and educators.
  • Student Quiz
    Use this 12-question quiz as a formative assessment.
  • Webinar
    Join Professor Hasan Jeffries and former Teaching and Learning Specialist Lauryn Mascareñaz for this on-demand PD.
  • Printable Cards
    Download and display these cards to let people know you have the courage to teach #HardHistory. 

Teaching Tolerance has also published a few helpful articles. Some of the best are:

  • The Inquiry Design Model team of Kathy Swan, John Lee and S.G. Grant have created a slavery IDM and wrote this article (opens in new tab) on teaching slavery through inquiry.
  • As part of their series highlighting educator voices (opens in new tab), Teaching Tolerance  spoke to five black teachers who teach in predominately black or all-black settings to ask how they approach the topic of slavery.
  • Get the Toolkit (opens in new tab) that accompanies the educator article. 

Maureen ended her session by quoting a teacher that she works with who starts the conversation around slavery and racism by sharing this with her students:

It is 100 percent not your fault that there is racism in this country. It will be your fault if you haven’t done anything about it in the next 20 years.


cross posted at glennwiebe.org

Glenn Wiebe is an education and technology consultant with 15 years' experience teaching history and social studies. He is a curriculum consultant   forESSDACK, an educational service center in Hutchinson, Kansas, blogs frequently at History Tech and maintains Social Studies Central, a repository of resources targeted at K-12 educators. Visit glennwiebe.org to learn more about his speaking and presentation on education technology, innovative instruction and social studies.