Talking with students about slavery can be challenging and complex. As an educator, it can be intimidating to teach about such a complicated and emotional topic – especially when you want to be respectful and responsive to your students’ diverse backgrounds. To help you get started, I have compiled a list of 8 simple and meaningful tips for talking about slavery with middle school students.
1. Consider your own biases and life experiences.
Take the time to analyze your own identity, culture, biases, and life experiences. How have they shaped the way you view the world?
In Zaretta Hammond’s book Culturally Responsive Teaching & The Brain (affiliate link), she asks several questions to help us reflect upon our own cultural reference points.
Here are a few of them:
- How do you and your family identify ethnically or racially?
- Where did you live growing up?
- What’s your family’s story? Have they been where you are for decades or just a few years?
- Who are the heroes celebrated in your family or community?
According to Zaretta Hammond, understanding our own cultural identity, as well as that of our students, allows us to better teach to their knowledge and ultimately help them to reach their full potential.
Another great resource for analyzing your personal identity is this professional development course created by Learning for Justice.
2. Do your research.
When talking about slavery with middle school students, it is vital that you do your research. In order to better educate our students about slavery, we need to first strengthen our own understanding of slavery and its lasting effects.
Here are a few of my favorite online resources:
- Teaching Hard History Podcast – The first two seasons of this podcast are about slavery in America.
- Teaching Hard History: A Framework for Teaching American Slavery – From Learning for Justice, this resource is filled with lesson ideas, activities, texts, primary sources, videos, and much more. I recommend that you print these out, study them, and keep them somewhere you can reference them often.
3. Consider the language you use.
A simple, but meaningful way to make discussions about slavery more culturally responsive is to change the language you are using. For example, I am currently replacing the term “slave” with “enslaved person” whenever possible in my units. This is done in an effort to remind students that enslaved people were humans, not possessions. I have also replaced “slaveholder” and “slave master” with “enslaver.”
This document from the NAACP gives a detailed guide outlining what language is best to use when teaching or talking about slavery.
To learn more about why changing our language is important, read this article from the Chicago Tribune.
4. Teach the truth about slavery.
There are many misconceptions about slavery. Oftentimes, we find ourselves teaching slavery the way we were taught about it. Unfortunately, this is often from a narrow point of view. Here are a few things to consider when teaching about slavery:
- Emphasize how enslaved people resisted their treatment over only portraying them as victims.
- Teach about the diverse cultures of enslaved people. Emphasize that these people tried to maintain their cultures and continued many of their traditions while enslaved.
- Help students understand that European settlers enslaved Indigenous people in the Americas.
- Emphasize that in every place and time, enslaved people sought freedom.
These are taken from Teaching Hard History: A Framework for Teaching American Slavery. Again, I highly recommend printing out this framework. I reference it all the time!
5. Evaluate your activities.
While a simulation or game might seem like a fun way to engage students and get them to connect to a history lesson, recreating traumatic events in history can actually cause more harm than good.
This blog post, Think Twice Before Doing Another Historical Simulation, opened my eyes to the way different activities might be perceived by our students. In fact, because of the things I have learned, I have modified several activities and even taken out some simulations from my interactive history units.
If you need help coming up with activities, Facing History has excellent ideas that are engaging, culturally responsive, and help students with critical thinking skills.
6. Use literature to help teach about slavery.
There is something magical about children’s books – even for middle school students! These simple, but powerful stories can help students understand and connect to the content more deeply.
I have compiled a list of high-quality literature regarding slavery, African American history, and Native American history. You can find this list here.
7. Remember that African American history IS American History.
In his book A Different Mirror for Young People: A History of Multicultural America (affiliate link), Ronald Takaki said:
“The Master Narrative says that our country was settled by European immigrants, and that Americans are white… Its definition of who is an American is too narrow… From the beginning, this land was multiracial and multicultural… We must remember the histories of every group, for together they tell the story of a nation peopled by the world.”
Isn’t that so powerful?!
As you are talking about slavery with middle school students, spend some time discussing African American culture and incorporating different perspectives of these events in history. Check out my blog post 10 Resources for Teaching Kids About Juneteenth to see an example of this.
8. Commit to continual reflection and growth.
As knowledge and resources are constantly changing and progressing, it is important to regularly self-reflect on your own teaching practices. Taking the time to reflect creates a space for genuine growth and change.
There are many resources available online to help guide you in the self-reflection process. One that I really like is Culturally Responsive Teaching – A Reflection Guide by New America. It outlines important aspects of culturally responsive teaching and provides meaningful questions for you to consider as you reflect on your own practices.
Culturally Responsive US History Resources
I hope these tips for talking about slavery with middle school students help you to find confidence and success in your US History discussions.
With all that you have on your plate as an educator, it can seem impossible to find high-quality, engaging, and culturally responsive resources for teaching US History. That is why I have created these interactive units. With high-quality content and engaging lesson plans and activities, these all-inclusive units will help you bring history to life in your classroom!
- Age of Exploration
- 13 Colonies
- Declaration of Independence
- American Revolutionary War
- US Constitution
- Westward Expansion
- Civil War
Disclosure: The book links above are Amazon affiliate links. This means that I may earn commissions for purchases made by clicking the links.