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Monday, March 2, 2015

Teaching Sensitive Content

I've been thinking about teaching sensitive content because our unit "Montana's Landless Indians and the Assimilation Era of Federal Indian Policy: A Case of Contradiction" is full of it. While editing this unit, I was genuinely shocked by the virulent racist language and attitudes expressed by Montana newspapers like the Anaconda Standard. And I should have known better. It's one thing to read about prejudice and discrimination, but it is another thing to read sentences like these:
  • "Thriving on filth, constantly moving from place to place, as a disseminator of disease he is a howling success." Anaconda Standard, June 7, 1901
  • "...the buffaloes, led on by instinct, would travel hundreds of miles, if need be, to the salt licks. In like manner are the Crees irresistibly attracted to the garbage dumps of Montana." Anaconda Standard, May 12, 1901
These statements are hateful, and their emotional impact makes them hard to read--and very likely hard to teach. But that is exactly why I think we need to ask students to wrestle with them.

This troubling history shaped Montana--and I believe that if we don't recognize it and face it head on, then we cannot understand how to move forward. As Terry Pratchett says, "If you do not know where you come from, then you don't know where you are, and if you don't know where you are, then you don't know where you're going. And if you don't know where you're going, you're probably going wrong.”

Age appropriateness is, of course, key. We say the Montana's Landless Indians lesson plan is for grades 7-12, but I wonder if it isn't actually more appropriate for high schoolers than for middle schoolers. I'd appreciate feedback--as well as any other feedback you might have if you choose to use this lesson in your classroom.

Looking for guidance on how to teach sensitive material and subjects? TPS-Barat recently posted these suggestions for selecting primary sources that deal with difficult issues.

The Wisconsin Historical Society also has some useful thoughts on dealing with racism, sexism, and offensive language in its article "Sensitive Content: How Could They Say That?" posted on its American Journeys website. The site contains over "18,000 pages of eyewitness accounts of North American exploration, from the sagas of Vikings in Canada in AD1000 to the diaries of mountain men in the Rockies 800 years later," and you can bet some of those pages contain offensive stereotypes, depict violence, or express racist and sexist views.

I'm curious.  Do you steer away from difficult subject matter in your classroom? How do you decide what to--and what not to--teach? When you do incorporate difficult subject matter, how do you approach it? What suggestions--or cautions--would you like to pass on? I'll compile any responses in a future blog post.

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