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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

What to Say and What Not to Say

When Teaching About the Dark Sides of History

I spoke to a small gathering of New York City Social Studies teachers this past weekend about the various ways I work with high school students. That naturally led to some of the choices I’ve had to make in dealing with difficult subjects — how explicit to be about the tortures inflicted on runaway slaves by overseers? how much to say about the sexual abuse of slaves? whether to show the castrated bodies of the victims of lynching? whether to show the piles of skeletons from the Holocaust? I am always torn because my personal sensibility is towards restraint. I do not think it is right to shock young people with the most in-your-face gruesome images or descriptions. That itself feels abusive. And yet when you realize quite how vile we humans have been, I also feel a need to register those crimes, to mark them on the record, to make them known.
       One teacher raised her hand, and said she faces exactly the same conflicts and choices in her classroom. One solution she suggested is to focus on the rescuers — setting the actual horror of slavery, the Holocaust, the deaths of the American Indians as the background, but putting the stories of those who overcame the moment and helped others first. I had two reactions — at first I wondered why I had never thought of that. Then I realized that in a way I always want to tell a larger story — how one moment of tragedy led to later change. So I am less focused on a noble or heroic person during the tragic moment and more on the flow of history and time — how a terrible event contributed to a next step in growth or change.
       I am of two minds — both about her suggestion and my response. Certainly giving students a sense of agency, of possibility, is good. And people who are inspiring are, well, inspiring — their nobility sets a standard for us. They show that it is possible to choose life, choose to help, choose to resist the easy prejudices of a time and place. And yet I think we can’t jump too quickly from the crime to the saint. In order to appreciate the exceptional person we also need to know what most people did — that too is a warning we all need. And then I worry that my answer is too distant, too Olympian — sure tragedy leads to change, but what is that to those who died? 
   The best answer is that there is no clear answer — that we carry the weight of the past in sharing it with young people, and must constantly keep searching for the best ways to fulfil that responsibility, in fairness to the past and to our students.


  1. I try to determine the subtext of the narrative of the predetermined curriculum over which I have no choice and then , broaden the picture. I teach Jewish histor
    to middle schoolers and one stereotype I want to banish is what Cecil Roth called the lachymorose version of Jewish history.
    I find that with an era or geographic location,if I do due diligence, I can always find something that opens up a new perspective: the entire Jewish experience in Poland wasn’t miserable, for example, and life in America wasn’t always a joyride ( sometimes we were part of the rich and the powerful sitting on someone’s neck ). I find that the kids often come to class with pre-conceived notions but when treated with seriousnes,
    they are very receptive to new ideas and frankly, they are very asture politically.
    Last week, for instance, we discussed the Italian ghetto and I asked to tell me why it was different from the gated communities in which so many of their grandparents live.

  2. mary ann rodman says:

    Keep fighting the good fight, Marc…keep on questioning, and looking for some sort of balance. I spend a good deal of time doing middle school presentations on the Civil RIghts Era (specifically Freedom Summer, and Emmitt Till). I have learned to take the temperature of a school to know how much to push the grittier aspects. There is so little in the actual curriculum (which is why I am there) that almost anything I talk about is a complete shock and revelation. I have made peace with myself by thinking of my presentations as “opening a door” to a dark place in history. The students can go into that dark place further if they wish…and I know from readers and teachers that some have done so. I have also learned to include the “good” Southerners, who followed their conscience in actively supporting the Civil RIghts Movement. I also stress that these acts of conscience resulted in serious and sometimes fatal consequences. I might add that finding the stories of these “heroes” is pretty difficult…I am still discovering, six years after the book’s publication, these people of conscience, because no one talked about what they did, both then and now.
    It’s a highwire act anyway you go.

  3. I find this a difficult question too. I teach about the civil rights movement to 5th graders, and I always feel it is a precarious balance: I want students to really “get” the dangers, the terrors, the kinds of choices that people made, without scaring students too much, and without turning them off by overburdening them with the bad things. I too try to focus on resistance, of both organizations and individuals, and I tend to stress the collective nature of resistance, rather than the hero model. On the other hand, my memories of my own explorations of history as a middle/high school student are that it was precisely those things that gave me nightmares that were the spur for me to reorganize my view of the world, and provided the insights that made me who I am as an adult. My experience was mostly self-education (my schooling was almost irrelevant to the process): achieving that balance with a group is a major challenge.

  4. thanks to Mira, Mary Ann, and Sue — you are out there in classes having to make these choices with real students. We authors do it on the page — always wondering how our decisions will play in schools. I wish there were a way for us to share our work as we write it, to have you try out texts with your students, so we could get real world responses as we make these difficult choices.

  5. Marc,
    I wonder if you have considered writing one of those Choose Your Own Adventure books? My experience is that the kids love reading those books and the sharing of their stories opens the way to explore various choices. I actually had a student tell me once that he understand where the by-standers were coming from on Kristallnacht.He said they were scared for their own lives and property. Not a noble reaction, but an honest one. The paucity of books of this genre makes us vulnerable to the underlying narrative message of the few authors ( no matter how much we like them ).

  6. while I probably won’t one of those, I do think it is important to give kids access to many historical POVS, not just the heroes. That was why Hitler Youth was such a great approach. Getting readers to identify with kids who supported Hitler adds a depth of knowledge and understanding not available any other way.