Teaching Difficult History and Current Events

The APS Social Studies Office envisions that, “All APS students will have the social studies knowledge and skills to become informed, responsible, and reasoned citizens of a democratic society and an interdependent world.

”We, as social science educators, support our students in examining issues of justice and human rights around the world. Teachers should support student inquiry through exposure to primary sources, multiple perspectives, and compelling questions as students learn to communicate, collaborate, and take action as global citizens.

Teaching difficult history and current events can be a challenge for all social studies educators.  Issues from both the present and the past can bring up many feelings for both students and teachers.  Addressing issues at the classroom level allows teachers to use knowledge of their students to prepare them to engage in lifelong inquiry and informed civic action.

The Social Studies Office has curated information and resources to help guide and support teachers as they plan for teaching hard history/ current events.  It is imperative that the classroom materials and instructional strategies that teachers  utilize do not replicate trauma for students or foster inequities. We encourage teachers to use materials from a variety of sources and perspectives to support student inquiry and meaning-making around difficult topics.  Teachers should use professional judgement and knowledge of their students in order to determine what resources are appropriate for use in their classrooms.

The links represented on this page do not represent an endorsement of any specific resource.  Instead they are meant to help provide the means for teachers and members of the community to help build knowledge and skills as they prepare to discuss difficult topics.


Slur: an insulting, offensive or degrading remark, often based on an identity group such as race, ethnicity, religion, ethnic, gender/gender identity or sexual orientation.

Hate Speech: abusive or threatening speech or writing that expresses prejudice against a particular group, especially on the basis of race, religion, or sexual orientation.

Role Playing and Simulations Hateful Speech Strategies Resources on Current Events

Role Playing and Simulations

APS Social Studies Office Position


  • Role-playing and simulations should not be used for traumatic historical events or events that can trigger emotional trauma for students.
  • Role-playing and simulations around traumatic topics can often trivialize the experience of those who actually experienced the injustice and oversimplify complex historical events.
  • Do not group students in ways that represent real-life oppression such as racial or gender lines.

Hateful Speech

“We absolutely treasure the freedom to debate ideas and perspectives in schools. That’s precisely why we forbid talk that threatens harm or harasses and so obstructs the opportunity to learn. And to insist on schools kept safe for learning—and on educational standards where claims’ accuracy is bolstered by evidence—we challenge and question all speech that devalues or distorts fellow human beings.”-Mica Pollock (Responding to Hateful Speech in Schools)

APS Social Studies Office Position

Racial slurs and hate speech are used to cause harm.  When engaging with text and sources that contain racial slurs and hate speech, these should not be replaced with the name of a group of people.

  • Never tolerate racist, Islamophobic, xenophobic, homophobic, antisemitic, sexist, and other language in the classroom.
  • Always challenge or question  hateful speech, or speech that devalues, disrespects, or misrepresents identity groups. It is the role of educators to model this for students.

Racial Slurs and Hate Speech in Sources and Texts

There are many times when the N-word will appear in historical sources, books, and literature.  It is the stance of the APS Social Studies Office that the N-word NEVER be spoken in any classroom. The N-word is a word that has been used as a symbol of hate, to perpetuate violence, and dehumanize a group of people. Students may engage with primary source text and literature where the word appears as developmentally appropriate but care should be taken so that the word is not spoken out loud by teachers or students in a school learning environment.

As we, as educators, increase our equity literacy and racial and cultural consciousness, we recognize that language is evolving and that we need to be aware of the impact of the language we use. There are a variety of terms that cause harm to many groups.  Those words should be treated similarly to the N-word.

What to do when text contains racial slurs or hate speech.

  1. Set clear classroom expectations from the beginning of the school year about how you will approach these words when they appear in instructional materials. This allows you to have a conversation about the impact of the N-word word and the history of when it started being used, why it was used, and why it is dehumanizing.  You will also be able to address the context and impact of other racial words that cause harm.
  2. Before you teach with a text that contains racial slurs or hate speech:
    1. Consider if the text is vital to teaching the subject. Our intent is not that teachers avoid all text that contains these words. Consider the value of text and choose wisely.
    2. Explain to students ahead of time that they will be reading text that contains racial slurs or hate speech. When text includes words that cause harm, the reading or source should not be read out loud. Students may read individually and then the class may have a conversation or dialogue about the text or source.
    3. Teach the historical context of the text, and how/when the word will be encountered. Why white people used them at the time and why they were, and are, offensive to the targeted group.  How does the word relate to the history of white supremacy, economic suppression, segregation, discrimination, etc…
    4. Explain to students why you are asking them to read this text when there are others that do not include such words or themes. Many students don’t feel comfortable asking this question of teachers.
    5. Never single out a student to ask them how they feel when they hear a word (never ask a student to speak for their race/identity).
  3. Do not avoid a piece simply because it has racism in it.  There is value in having students engage with primary sources that demonstrate how racial slurs and hate speech were used to target and dehumanize groups of people.
  4. Consider consulting with colleagues, counselors or other experts if you are struggling with a text or source and wondering if there is the potential for the text to cause trauma.
  5. Communicate with parents in advance of sharing that content with students if you plan to utilize content that a student or parent may find distressing.

Strategies that Support Criticality and Intellectualism

Focus on fostering skills of civility, civil discourse, and civic action. Make sure to set the ground rules for conversations with students in the classroom and consider the variety of perspectives that your students may have. 

  • Be clear about the purpose for the conversation in the classroom and in what way you are connecting the conversation to social studies content/ citizenship skills.
  • Do not use humor or sarcasm as you talk about difficult history and current events.
  • Acknowledge that students will experience emotions related to historical and current events.
  • Let students know that there are people in the school that they can talk to if they want or need additional support.
  • Let students know there are ways to express themselves outside of the classroom, ask students for examples of ways they may have expressed themselves ie. with their family, religious community, social media, reading or journaling.
  • Remain as calm as you can when discussing sensitive topics.  Your students may react to your emotions and feelings.
  • Never force students to share their thoughts or opinions.
  • Encourage students to share their personal perspective by starting their comments with “I” Statements, as they are not expected to represent a group of people, or any thoughts aside from their own.
Plan ahead for the ways you will address these topics with intention in your class. 

  • Assess where students are in their knowledge of the topic or current event.  Give students the opportunity, but don’t force them, to make connections between the topic/event and their own personal experiences. If students have not seen or heard the news, they might not understand what has been happening.  It is also possible that some students may not be aware of events. On the other hand, some students may have good insight to help plan the lesson, or inform the discussion. Consider ways student voice can be included in instructional planning.
  • Provide students with facts and context in a developmentally appropriate way and be sure to acknowledge and honor multiple perspectives.
  • Consider preparing information around definitions of words that students might be hearing in the news.
  • Include opportunities for students to explore ways in which young people are already taking action related to the topic/ event.

If a student raises a question or brings up a topic that you feel unprepared to talk about, consider acknowledging the question and setting up a date to talk more in-depth about that topic or question in a later class. This will allow students to feel heard, while ensuring that you are prepared to facilitate the conversation. It’s okay to say, “That is an important question. I want to make sure that we talk about that when I can be prepared to fully address that. Let’s plan to come back to that question, next class.”

Provide ample opportunities for students to examine primary source materials, including photographs, artwork, diary entries, letters, government documents, and visual history testimony.

Such an exploration allows for a deeper level of interest and inquiry on a range of topics from many perspectives and in proper historical context.

Include Time for Reflection

Assign reflective writing exercises or lead class discussions that explore various aspects of human behavior such as scapegoating or making difficult moral choices. These activities allow students to develop compassion and empathy, share how they feel about what they’re learning and consider how it has meaning in their own lives.

Do not ask students to pretend to be historical figures and write from their perspective. Instead, ask students to write about what they think people might have thought or felt.

Thoroughly Review Materials

Make sure that you have previewed/reviewed every text, video, or podcast that you plan to share with students.  If you plan to utilize content that a student or parent may find distressing, communicate with parents in advance of sharing that content with students.

Resources on Current Events and Issues

Learning for Justice: This collection of resources —organized by the themes Countering Bias, Civic Activities, Getting Along and How To—offers a range of resources for engaging students on some of our most pressing societal issues.

  • Immmigration
  • Islamophobia
  • Religious Diversity
  • Voting
  • Civic Action
  • Civil Discourse
  • Responding to Hate and Bias
Black Lives Matter

Anti-Asian Violence

Talking About Anti-Asian Bias and Racial Equity (Edutopia)

The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

  • TeachMideast:  The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: According to Teach Mideast (part of the Middle East Policy Council), “The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is among the most intricate and divisive issues on the global stage today, and teaching about it can be immensely difficult – but also immensely important. We’ve done our best to aggregate moderate and balanced resources with perspectives from both sides, but you know your classrooms best, so we encourage you to review the materials and decide what is suitable for your particular context. With that said, an important part of learning is confronting your preconceived notions and biases, and that can be uncomfortable, no matter how well a lesson is balanced. We hope that the resources we’ve curated here spark meaningful discussion, and help your students grow into more thoughtful and well-informed global citizens.The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been marked by violence on both sides, so some of the materials below include depictions of violence that may upset your students. As always, exercise caution and seek parent approval where appropriate.”
  • Seeds of Peace: United States Institute of Peace – Learn how young people engage in  dialogue across lines of difference, examine systems of power and learn the skills to affect change.