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SPLC Project Expands Framework for Teaching American Slavery to K-5 Students

Teaching Tolerance guide marks 400th anniversary of enslaved Africans’ arrival in Jamestown, Virginia, and highlights enslavement of Native Americans

MONTGOMERY, Ala. – As part of an effort to improve classroom lessons about American slavery and the important role it played in shaping the United States, the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance project has released a first-of-its-kind framework for introducing the subject to elementary students.

The new guide follows a widely cited report, Teaching Hard History: American Slavery, that Teaching Tolerance announced last year. The report found that U.S. education on American slavery was sorely lacking. As a companion to the report, Teaching Tolerance offered educators a framework to better teach the subject in grades 6-12. 

Now, marking the 400th anniversary of the first enslaved Africans’ arrival in Jamestown, Virginia, in August 1619, Teaching Tolerance has released a revision to that framework alongside a new guide for teaching K-5 students about slavery. The frameworks also include guidance for teaching about the enslavement of Native Americans. 

“Students in elementary school have a strong sense of right and wrong,” said Maureen Costello, director of Teaching Tolerance. “They want to create a more just and equal society. Teaching them about American slavery, when done properly, can build on these instincts, create a firm foundation for later learning, and help them understand how the world in which they live came about.”

The mission of Teaching Tolerance is to help teachers and schools educate children and youth to be active participants in a diverse democracy. Its K-5 framework for teaching about American slavery aims to provide fundamental concepts that lay a foundation for future learning, just like other classroom subjects such as math and science. It identifies age-appropriate, essential knowledge about American slavery, and provides concrete recommendations for introducing the subject to young learners. The lessons are organized thematically within grade bands. 

The framework seeks to balance oppression with stories of resilience and agency. It is designed to help students see that enslaved people were human beings – with names, families, music, food, hopes and dreams – who strived for freedom. It also covers fundamental concepts such as power, ownership and freedom that can build a foundation for deeper learning in later grades.

The dependence of early Europeans on the enslavement of millions of indigenous people is completely ignored in both primary and secondary instruction on the subject. Despite this ignorance, the slavery of indigenous people was essential to the formation of all European colonies. 

The K-5 framework expands on last year’s Teaching Hard History Text Library, a collection of more than 100 primary and secondary sources that have been selected to support robust teaching and learning about American slavery. The new library includes dozens of originally commissioned works of fiction and non-fiction for elementary students. The texts are organized by the key concepts and summary objectives that are described in the Teaching Hard History frameworks. They help educators provide a more complete and accurate history of slavery in the United States. 

In addition to the new resources, the Teaching Hard History: American Slavery podcast, hosted by Hasan Jeffries, a professor of history at Ohio State University, will return for a second season. The podcast will feature talks with educators who are implementing Teaching Hard History materials, as well as talks with historians who have a range of expertise. The new podcast season will particularly focus on the history of enslaved indigenous people in what is now the United States.

Teachers can also access a video series on Teaching Tolerance’s website, which features scholars such as Annette Gordon-Reed, Christy Coleman, Ibram X. Kendi, Ed Ayers, and Martha Jones. 

These and other resources on teaching American slavery can be found at: www.tolerance.org/hardhistory. The resources are offered to educators at no cost.