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Help! How do I introduce history and cultural topics to my students without alienating any particular groups?

Dear Ask a Montessorian:

Help! How do I introduce history and cultural topics to my students without alienating any particular groups?

This is a great question, and one that is commonly shared. Dealing with history and cultural topics can be challenging, and I’d like to acknowledge you for being considerate of all students to make sure you aren’t alienating anyone. There are a few different ways you can approach this.

First, using primary sources allows you to introduce various topics objectively. Pictures, letters, and diary entries to use can be found on the Library of Congress website as well as other collegiate sites. Gettysburg College is a fantastic resource for Civil War primary sources. Because these are first-hand artifacts, you are able to be objective and present the facts. For example, when teaching about the Civil War, it is important to recognize that there were, and still are, two very different views. Requesting that students use primary sources for their research allowed them to learn history first-hand instead of inferring from a secondary source.

Second, you can use literature as a way to discover various points of view. When you look at a particular topic from different vantage points, you can elicit discussions to which the students can contribute. One of my favorite ways is to use historical fiction. For example, when we were studying the Revolutionary War in my Upper Elementary classroom, I used Chains, which is told from the point of view of a slave, and Sophia’s War, which is told from the point of view of a white colonist. Once my students read these two books, we discussed the differences in the two girls’ lives and how their upbringing affected their situations. When putting together my cultural plan, I did research online to find historical fiction that would align with the topic we would study. Your local librarian can assist you in finding books as well.

Third, you could use the inquiry-based method of learning. This allows for students to make a connection in their own lives and their understanding of a particular topic. It is a way for them to begin to ask questions and conduct research to find answers to those questions. During my student teaching experience, I used this method to study the theme of identity. Once the connection was established, the students were able to ask questions and research topics. It was a powerful example of the wonderings of fifth graders, and it was an amazing lesson for me. Kathy Short, a professor from the University of Arizona, created this Inquiry Cycle. More information can be found in the article she wrote (link: http://www.ibmidatlantic.org/Inquiry_as_stance.pdf).

Finally, you can host a parent education night to bring up the topics you plan to discuss. You can let them know that you are aware of the importance of being objective and approach the specific topics with care. They will see the effort you are taking. They may even be able to give you insight about sharing the information.

I hope these suggestions help and that you are able to navigate these sensitive topics with care.

Maria Burke, M.Ed, the Director of Lighthouse Learning, LLC has a Bachelor’s Degree in Elementary Education, a Bachelor’s Degree in French, and a Master’s Degree in Curriculum Education. Ms. Burke holds credentials through the American Montessori Society for ages 3-12, and completed the course “Building a World Class Montessori School” through the Montessori Foundation. Maria began Lighthouse Learning, LLC in 2007. The Dollar Board™ was the first material she created. Labeling the ClothPush Pinning Through the Curriculum and The Quiet Book Manual followed. Ms. Burke has presented and exhibited at a number of conferences across the country, and she continues to create uniquely handcrafted educational materials.