Teaching Hard History: Using Inquiry to Help Students Navigate Challenging Topics

Trail of Tears (Lindneux)

Teaching American history can be complicated when it comes to some of the more challenging chapters in our nation's ongoing development, and history teachers have the responsibility of maintaining awareness of diverse perspectives on historical events and issues, from the impact of slavery to the Trail of Tears and World War II internment camps. This responsibility often results in questions about how to address difficult topics with students. According to Grant Skinner, social studies content specialist for the Phoenix Union High School District, teachers shouldn't shy away from teaching "hard history." However, it's important to facilitate discussions of such topics with sensitivity and honesty, and employ an inquiry mindset that can help students examine sources and arrive at their own informed conclusions. ABC-CLIO sat down with Grant to learn more about his approach.

Grant, thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts. Let's take a moment to consider the term "hard history" itself. What does the term mean to you, and what are some topics or issues that are included in it?

America is an exceptional nation with an amazing history, and its constitution has allowed for the American experiment to flourish. But that same history has some difficult chapters, and we must own our challenges as well as our triumphs. U.S. history shows us that people in our country have been mistreated, and rights have been violated. Our hard history consists of those events and eras in which our nation was not exceptional; and in many instances, were outright terrible. Ultimately, hard history means studying the contradictions of a nation that is a beacon of freedom, yet has displayed acts of discrimination and inequality.

Those hard history topics include, for example, the role slavery played in the development of the nation and the American attempt to cling to white superiority even after the abolishment of slavery. Another example is how the United States has interacted with and treated the indigenous people of North America.

What more recent events have brought some hard history topics into the foreground of U.S. history? Have you seen changes in which topics these are over your career?

Much of the hard history we're currently living through reflects the same themes that have shown to be hard history over time. One example is race relations. The deaths of Trayvon Martin in 2012, Michael Brown in 2014, and George Floyd in 2020, have brought our nation's historical treatment of Black Americans to the foreground. The Black Lives Matter movement identifies its mission as an attempt to expose racial injustices in the United States. On its website, the organization vows to "fight for Freedom, Liberation, and Justice..." and "eradicate white supremacy"(blacklivesmatter.com). Not all Americans agree with the perspective of the BLM, but the movement is bringing this complex issue to surface and having an impact on the way Americans interact.

Another example is the partisan politics that the United States is experiencing. Having polarized political views is something that can be traced back to the American Revolution with the Tories and the Whigs, and to the Federalists and Democratic-Republicans during the beginnings the United States' development. Today we see a deep divide between Democrats and Republicans. In addition, in modern politics, we see political movements such as antifa or the U.S. Capitol rioters, that have both been a part of violent protests against the government. Both are examples of the extreme perspectives that are a part of the hard history currently being forged.

A topic that I would consider new to the category of hard history would be the shift in America's view of marriage, family, and sexuality. In the past, the ideal American family was viewed as one that consisted of a mom, dad, and children. That perspective is being challenged by the LGBTIQA community and its supporters. This issue of what is and isn't a family runs deep in the heart of the American people. This issue has led to legislation, has influenced elections for public officials, and has become a controversial topic in American schools.

You work with teachers who are committed to providing students a thorough history education. What challenges are they describing to you?

The biggest challenges I hear about from teachers are about student engagement and student follow-through on completing work. I'm hearing it from schools across the district. Yet I also hear teachers say they have a good rapport with students; these two scenarios don't seem like they fit together. Usually, when a teacher has a good rapport with students, the result is a higher level of engagement. But many teachers find themselves with low student engagement, as well as students who are missing assignments and whose low performance results in equally low grades. This classroom dynamic makes the challenge of taking a deep dive into hard history even more challenging.

One solution is for teachers to worry less about trying to "cover" all of the material in their curriculum, and instead devote more time to taking those deeper dives into curriculum topics that students can relate to—the ones where students have a high level of interest. It could be a topic that's considered a part of America's hard history. Those topics, such as slavery, equal rights, civil rights, etc., are often found to be interesting and relevant to many students. It could be the needed link to help some students become more engaged in learning history—which in turn can help them invest in their own learning and step up their performance.

What concrete advice and support are you giving your educators, and what successes have you seen when it comes to successfully teaching hard history?

One message I try to convey is that I don't believe teachers should teach their personal perspectives to students, since those students could potentially emerge from the learning with an incomplete view. As social studies leaders, it's important to monitor and check our own biases when we enter the classroom and support our teachers in doing the same. It isn't realistic to pretend that doing so is easy, for any of us.

Territory ceded to United States in Mexican-American War

Click to Enlarge Territory ceded to United States in Mexican-American War

I'm reminded of a situation I experienced several years ago in a Professional Learning Community (PLC) meeting. The PLC was doing some planning for the upcoming unit on westward expansion. A first-year Latina teacher expressed that she was excited to teach about the Mexican-American War. She wanted to teach her students, the vast majority of whom were Hispanic, how "they [Americans] stole our land." Land acquisition certainly fits under the topic of hard history, and how it's taught is important. I was excited to see this teacher's enthusiasm, but was concerned about her potential approach to teaching the topic.

I asked the teacher a few questions to help her think through the teaching opportunity ahead of her. One of the questions I asked her was, "Do you think that if students studied both sides of the Mexican-American War they could come to their own conclusion to determine if the land of the Mexican Cession was stolen or not?" She agreed that they could and was curious to hear more about the idea. I helped her to gather primary resources and develop an inquiry question; she then developed a sound, more fully-rounded lesson plan that put the onus of discovery on her students.

I don't believe teachers should teach their personal perspectives to students, since those students could potentially emerge from the learning with an incomplete view.

My advice is to ask students thoughtful questions. Help them search to find their own conclusions. Provide students with resources to analyze hard history topics from multiple perspectives. Then teach students how to develop a historical opinion based on their own work, rather than learning through the lens of a teacher's perspective.

Next, get to know your students. Show respect to their identity and listen to their ideas and perspectives. Relatedly, demonstrate respect to historical figures by not only acknowledging who they were, but also how that person's role in history is important. Teachers don't have to necessarily agree with students or with a person of history to show respect. Within that context, great work can be done with hard history topics.

How can an inquiry approach help students explore the more difficult topics in hard U.S. history?

An inquiry approach is a great way to approach difficult topics in hard history. Mostly because, on an initial level, everyone is right. When building a response to an inquiry question, it's less important if a student agrees or disagrees with the question posed than how they support their answer. This situation leaves the teacher neutral on the topic and puts the work and skill development on the students. Teachers should ask questions, allow students to examine and investigate hard history topics, and help them develop the skills of analysis and historical argument.

I encourage teachers to employ resources and activities like those found in ABC-CLIO databases that are inquiry-focused; when we give students early learning tasks that also provide them with room to search for their own answers (rather than filling in "right/wrong" blanks), we set them on the right course to view hard history with empathy and objectivity.

People often judge history from personal retrospect, which is part of what makes hard history topics so hard in the first place. It's human nature to look at things from one's own perspective, but when we give students the chance to explore hard history without letting our own beliefs take over the process, they can both build vital critical thinking skills and learn the important lessons hard history can provide us—and, consequently, build our nation a better future.


Black Lives Matter. Accessed March 7, 2022. https://blacklivesmatter.com/about/

Grant Skinner

Grant Skinner is the Social Studies Content Specialist for the Phoenix Union High School District (PXU). He has worked for PXU for 21 years, spending 19 of those years in the classroom as a teacher and instructional leader.

MLA Citation

Skinner, Grant. "Teaching Hard History: Using Inquiry to Help Students Navigate Challenging Topics." ABC-CLIO Solutions, ABC-CLIO, 2022, educatorsupport.abc-clio.com/TopicCenter/Display/2276397?productId=0&topicCenterId=2257524&subId=2275091. Accessed 4 Oct. 2022.

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