Difficult Truths: How To Teach Hard History

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

George Santayana

History Under Fire

In today’s educational culture, there is a huge emphasis on reading and math, but history often falls through the cracks.  Daily allotted time for teaching history has dwindled in recent years, and some districts are no longer evaluating student progress in the subjects of social studies and civics.  Yet these topics are more important than ever, especially in the volatile and chaotic times we live in.

Parents fighting over how history should be taught can make things difficult for educators.

History is a fascinating subject in the hands of a good teacher, but it can present some thorny issues.  In Virginia, where I teach, the current governor decrees that parents, not teachers, should choose what their children learn.  All over the country, extreme ideas about critical race theory have sparked furious debate.  People are more uncertain than ever about how to teach our youth about where they come from.

There’s only one way to do it neutrally: by letting kids analyze the primary sources.

What Are Primary Sources?

A primary source document is one that is original and, authentic to the times.  This might be a painting, letter, photograph, journal entry, or news article from the time period.  By examining the real sources and thoughtfully drawing conclusions about them, students can form a truer and more honest perspective about the historical events and figures from our past, both good and bad.

Edutopia provides free online resources to help kids understand the past.

Primary sources give students a chance to see what was really happening, unclouded by later judgments or narratives.  When students begin developing their abilities to ask thoughtful questions and make meaningful connections from these documents, then a real understanding of history can take place.

Most school districts supply teachers with access to digital primary source databases, but there are plenty of free options as well. The American Library Association provides links to several excellent places to start, while other sites like Flocabulary and Edutopia often allow free trials for those looking to explore what they offer.

Good Guy?  Bad Guy?  The Students Decide

Because, as I mentioned, I teach in Virginia, we spend a great deal of time learning about the founding fathers, since so many of them lived here.  Our annual field trip to Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson, is always one of the highlights of the year, and TJ himself is an important part of our curriculum.  But how to reconcile the fact that that the man who wrote the Declaration of Independence, who put the eloquent words “all men are created equal” into the very foundation of our country, was also a slave owner?

Again: go back to the primary sources.

I let my students analyze the Declaration in excerpts, but since they’re in fourth grade, it’s also essential to help them break down some of the high-flown language.  After all, primary sources won’t be of value if your students have no idea what they’re saying.

It’s important for students to break down the real text of the document to understand its goals.

A close read of the document, though, is a great way to help them tap into what Thomas Jefferson was trying to communicate.  We typically watch some fun videos that help illustrate the document’s message, and then take a vote: do we think the aims of the Declaration are fair? Do we think they sound like good ideas for a new country?  Most of the time, students say yes.

At this time, then, I also present my students with some of the darker primary sources surrounding Jefferson, such as his list of rations for the enslaved people on his plantation.  How could a man who wrote such elegant ideas keep people as property?  Why would he do such a thing?

Jefferson’s list of rations goes against his ideals of freedom.

This is a great time to let students debate and draw conclusions of their own.  Yes, it was a common practice back then.  But a lot of people litter and pollute the earth today – does that mean it’s okay to do that, that we don’t know it’s bad?  Do we think he knew that it was wrong?  If so, why would he continue?

These questions are deep, and don’t necessarily have “right” answers – but they help kids begin to think independently and reject force-fed narratives in which historical figures are all good or all bad.

Primary Sources Across Historical Event

This kind of thinking becomes even more important as Virginia history progresses and we find ourselves at the Civil War.  I teach in Richmond, the state capital, which was also the capital of the Confederacy.  Many important Confederate generals lived here, and until recently, many of the streets and statues in our town honored these men.  Why?  Who should we honor instead?

Websites like Flocabulary help make historical perspectives come alive while including primary sources.

This is another great time to jump into our primary sources.  Letting students analyze the letters and stories of real people in the Civil War – men, women, black, white, Native, Confederate, and Union – helps them form a rich understanding of what people were fighting for, and why.

By the end of the unit, I love to ask my students who we should commemorate with statues instead.  There are so many unsung heroes of the Civil War from our state, and the more students research, the more they realize that the white male generals weren’t the only people driving change.

Looking to the Future

Our history, as a country, is hard.  It’s nuanced, and it’s recent, and it’s never finished.  Reading from the textbook and telling kids who and what was “good” or “bad” is a lot easier than having the deep, open-ended talks that primary sources require. 

But this is what we must do if we want to give students the tools they need to trace a news item to the source and form their own opinions.

By helping students analyze primary sources and discuss the hard parts of history, we not only give them the ability to understand the past.  We give them the foundation they need to build a better future.

Are there any primary sources you remember teaching or learning about in school?  Do you have suggestions for other ways to help students engage with history? We’d love to hear your ideas in the comments below!

girl in old fashioned dress standing in library holding books



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