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Building Bridges Through History: Collaborative Learning with Communities and Families

When families and community members actively engage in teaching about challenging aspects of history, such as the experiences of enslaved people, it not only enriches the educational experience but also fosters empathy and critical thinking among students. In many cases, educational activities may unintentionally perpetuate harmful stereotypes or trivialize the struggles of marginalized communities, highlighting the importance of promoting sensitivity and inclusivity in the classroom. Through collaborative efforts, classrooms become spaces where students learn to respect and understand the diverse experiences of individuals throughout history. A poignant example of this can be seen in the story of a group of students who were asked to participate in a misguided activity for Black History Month.


In a school preparing for Black History Month, a group of students, including several Black students, were shocked when they were asked to participate in an activity that involved role-playing as slaves and slave owners. The activity was intended to "bring history to life," but it left many students feeling uncomfortable and marginalized. Recognizing the harmful implications of such an activity, the students and their families voiced their concerns to school administrators, highlighting the need for more sensitive and inclusive educational practices.

Collaborating with school administrators and educators, the students, their families and community leaders advocated for alternative approaches to teaching about the experiences of enslaved people. Together, they emphasized the importance of promoting balanced information. empathy and understanding rather than perpetuating harmful stereotypes. With their input, the school developed new activities and lessons that honored the resilience and contributions of Black individuals throughout history without resorting to insensitive reenactments.

Here's what we can do to enhance learning about challenging historical topics:

  1. Promote Sensitivity: Educators should prioritize sensitivity and inclusivity when teaching about challenging historical topics. Activities and lessons should be designed to foster empathy and understanding rather than perpetuate harmful stereotypes or trivialize the struggles of marginalized communities.

  2. Listen to Student Voices: Students should be encouraged to voice their concerns and perspectives when they feel uncomfortable or marginalized in the classroom. Their input is invaluable in shaping more respectful and inclusive educational practices.

  3. Foster a Comprehensive Understanding: Before delving into discussions about sensitive historical events, ensure that students have learned about the contributions of diverse individuals to all disciplines, including science, literature, art, and philosophy. This provides students with a broader context for understanding the complexities of history and the diverse perspectives that have shaped human civilization.

  4. Provide Historical Context: When introducing readings that contain slanderous or derogatory references, provide students with historical context to help them understand the cultural and societal attitudes prevalent during the time period in question. By situating the text within its historical context, students can better comprehend the motivations behind such language and critically analyze its implications.

  5. Encourage Critical Analysis: Encourage students to critically analyze readings that contain slanderous or derogatory references, prompting them to consider the intent behind the language used and the impact it may have on different groups of people. Encourage discussions that explore the power dynamics at play and the ways in which language can perpetuate harmful stereotypes and prejudices.

  6. Promote Empathy and Understanding: Emphasize the importance of empathy and understanding when engaging with challenging material. Encourage students to consider the perspectives of those who have been historically marginalized or oppressed, fostering a deeper appreciation for the complexities of human experience and the need for compassion in our interactions with others.

  7. Create a Safe and Inclusive Environment: Foster a classroom environment where students feel safe to express their thoughts and feelings openly. Emphasize the importance of respectful dialogue and active listening, ensuring that all voices are heard and valued. Provide support for students who may feel uncomfortable or triggered by sensitive material, offering additional resources and opportunities for reflection.

  8. Seek Family and Community Input: Before diving into sensitive topics, seek input from families and community members, particularly those who may be marginalized by the historical events being discussed. Their perspectives and insights can provide valuable context and guidance for approaching these topics with sensitivity and empathy.

  9. Addressing "Karen" and "Becky" Behaviors: Educators must be prepared to address behaviors associated with "Karen" or "Becky" stereotypes, which may include dismissiveness towards discussions about racism or a resistance to acknowledging privilege. Encourage open dialogue and provide resources that challenge these attitudes, emphasizing the importance of empathy and understanding.

  10. Navigating Colorblind Politics: Address colorblind politics by highlighting the importance of recognizing and celebrating diversity. Encourage students to explore the complexities of race and identity, fostering discussions that acknowledge the systemic inequalities faced by marginalized communities. Emphasize the value of multicultural perspectives and the need to actively work towards creating a more inclusive society.

By incorporating these strategies into classroom discussions and seeking input from families and community members, educators can help students navigate challenging historical topics with sensitivity, empathy, and critical thinking skills. Through thoughtful engagement with diverse perspectives, historical contexts, and community input, students can develop a deeper understanding of the complexities of history and their own roles as informed and empathetic global citizens.

Here's where we should do it and why:

While schools aim to be safe and welcoming spaces for all families, the reality is that some may not feel entirely at ease within these institutions. However, there exists a network of trust and familiarity with other agencies and organizations beyond school walls. These are the spaces and places where schools need to forge partnerships to cultivate enriching educational experiences, particularly when it comes to teaching sensitive topics like historical events and atrocities. I talk about it more in these articles ASCD and School Community Journal.

Parent Groups:

Parent groups within schools hold a unique position in the educational ecosystem. They are not only advocates for their children but also allies in shaping the educational journey of the entire school community. By collaborating with teachers and administrators, parent groups can play a vital role in organizing events and discussions focused on historical topics. These groups can leverage their connections to invite knowledgeable speakers, such as historians or community leaders, who can offer diverse perspectives and insights into historical events. Moreover, parent groups can host informational sessions to educate parents about the significance of accurate historical narratives and empower them to support their children's learning at home. Not all parent groups are inclusive. Reach out and we can support you in that.

Community Organizations:

Beyond the school gates lie a plethora of community organizations ready to enrich the educational experience. Cultural centers, museums, advocacy groups, and more offer valuable resources and expertise that can enhance the teaching of history in schools. These organizations often house experts in various historical subjects and provide educational programs and exhibits that complement classroom learning. By partnering with community organizations, schools can arrange field trips, guest lectures, or workshops that expose students to firsthand experiences and diverse perspectives on historical events. Such collaborations not only deepen students' understanding of the past but also foster connections between schools and the broader community.

Faith-Based Organizations:

Faith-based organizations occupy a significant role in many communities, offering moral and ethical perspectives rooted in culture and information. These organizations can contribute meaningfully to discussions about historical events by providing unique insights shaped by faith traditions. Interfaith dialogues, educational forums, and guest speakers from diverse religious backgrounds can facilitate nuanced explorations of the intersection between faith and history. By inviting participation from students, families, and community members of different faith traditions, schools can foster dialogue and understanding that transcends cultural and religious divides.

By actively engaging parent groups, community organizations, and faith-based organizations, schools can create inclusive learning environments where discussions about historical events are enriched by diverse perspectives. Collaborative efforts between schools and external partners not only enhance students' understanding of the past but also empower them to critically analyze how historical events continue to shape contemporary society. As educators strive to cultivate empathy, sensitivity, and critical thinking skills in their students, partnerships with external stakeholders prove to be invaluable in achieving these educational goals.


  1. Rethinking Schools: Rethinking Schools offers resources, publications, and workshops for educators focused on social justice teaching and critical pedagogy. Their website features lesson plans, articles, and books addressing topics such as anti-racist education, LGBTQ+ inclusion, and indigenous perspectives.

  2. Teaching for Change: Teaching for Change provides resources and professional development for educators to promote social justice and equity in the classroom. Their website offers lesson plans, booklists, and teaching guides on topics such as civil rights, immigration, and environmental justice.

  3. National Education Association (NEA): The NEA offers resources and support for educators, parents, and students on a wide range of educational issues, including diversity, equity, and inclusion. Their website features articles, toolkits, and webinars addressing topics such as culturally responsive teaching, inclusive curriculum, and anti-bias education.

  4. Teaching Channel: Teaching Channel offers videos, lesson plans, and professional development resources for educators on a variety of topics, including culturally responsive teaching, social-emotional learning, and inclusive classroom practices.

  5. National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP): The NAACP offers resources and advocacy tools for addressing racial equity and social justice issues in schools and communities. Their website features reports, toolkits, and action guides focused on education equity and civil rights.

  6. American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU): The ACLU provides resources and support for educators, students, and families on issues related to civil rights and civil liberties in schools. Their website features guides, toolkits, and legal resources addressing topics such as student rights, LGBTQ+ rights, and freedom of expression.

In conclusion, involving families and communities in teaching about challenging historical topics enriches education, fostering empathy and critical thinking in students. Sensitivity and collaboration are key, and resources like Teaching Tolerance and organizations such as the NAACP provide valuable support. By partnering with local libraries, community organizations, and faith-based groups, educators can create inclusive learning environments. For more support and resources, reach out and explore these avenues together.

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