Teaching Challenging Topics to Students

Teaching Challenging Topics




Teaching about the Underground Railroad presents a challenge for many teachers because it is a part of United States history that deals with slavery. Slavery, as well as other topics related to the Underground Railroad, are uncomfortable for teachers to discuss with students because it involves discussing racial issues. Discussions of racial issues are usually avoided for fear of treading into moral, ethical and political territory. Teachers have not been sufficiently prepared for these kinds of discussions. Yet, to properly understand and teach about the Underground Railroad, discussions about slavery and the treatment of African Americans are necessary. Multicultural education provides a structure for investigating and discussing these challenging topics.



Multicultural education incorporates models and practices that lead to viewing issues from multiple perspectives including:


  • Bloom’s Taxonomy and critical thinking

  • Banks’ Transformation Teaching

  • Relevance through relating and referencing students’ own world

  • Resources that are accurate and authentic


A multicultural approach allows students to not only experience their own feelings but also gives them the experience of looking through a lens that is different from their own and one they may not have even considered. The ability of viewing issues in this way leads to the development of empathy and comprehensive understanding.  



Bloom's Taxonomy Image



Critical Thinking


Multicultural lessons focus on questioning students in ways that foster critical thinking through investigating and analyzing concepts from multiple perspectives.  Voices that have been omitted and distorted are sought out to enable students to view issues through multiple lens.


One tool that is used in facilitating critical thinking is Bloom’s Taxonomy.






Multicultural Guiding Questions

Amazing Grace is the story of an African American girl in elementary school who wants to audition for the role of Peter Pan in a school play and is told by her White classmates that she can not be Peter Pan because she is African American.   View the Multicultural Questioning PowerPoint for a comparison of the kinds of questions that are traditionally asked when discussing this book and questions that would be asked from a multicultural perspective.


As you can see, questions are a very powerful tool for moving students to think more critically but to also look at information through the lens of others. This type of questioning reveals additional information and perspectives allowing students to see things they did not realize existed before.




Transformational Teaching


Using Banks’ Model of Content Integration provides a way to look at events and issues in a way that allows those perspectives that have been distorted or omitted to be included.  Teaching at Banks’ Transformational level requires including the perspectives and voices of all who are involved.  The teacher is able to take students out of their own shoes and to view events through the shoes of those who experienced those events.  Notice how students are placed in the shoes of those who are traveling on the Underground Railroad in the following Underground Railroad Webquests.


Seeking Freedom Through the Underground Railroad


The Underground Railroad: Escape from Slavery


Slavery Then and Now LessonRelating history, experiences, and events to current experiences, events, and issues is of utmost importance in discussing challenging topics.  It allows for understanding the full impact of events in the past and in the present and in the future.  


View the Slavery Here and Now lesson about practices during slavery and the continuation of practices to current times.







Slave Codes


The following resources are related to practices during slavery called slave codes.







Accurate Resources


In addition to using critical questions to encourage students to think deeper and broader, presenting multiple perspectives about events and issues to give students a comprehensive account, and transporting students into the shoes of those who actually experienced history, it is critical to use content that is accurate.  Primary resources and secondary resources should always be sought in presenting the context of events.  Listening to the words of those who were part of the event are critical.  There are many resources available online but care must be given to ensure that these resources are not biased as well. 




Slavery Then and Now LessonSelect a topic related to the Underground Railroad and Abolitionist Movement that you find challenging and create a lesson that will allow students to examine and discuss the topic utilizing the following strategies and resources from the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History. This is a great opportunity to explore th :

  • Primary and secondary resources including print, media, video, interviews, etc (Research Library)
  • Multiple perspectives of issues and events bringing in silenced voices (Historians and Descendents Interview)
  • Critical questions that encourage students to apply what they learn to the past, present, and future (Interactive Timeline)
  • Activities that transport students into the shoes of those who experienced events (Henry Bibb)



Lesson Plan Examples


Use the following examples to self-assess your own work. Additional examples are available from The Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History's Underground Railroad: the struggle against slavery portal.




Self Assessment


Use this Challenging Topics Checklist to self-assess the lesson plan that you created.





Addressing historical issues in an authentic and truthful way can be very challenging but  is necessary for students to develop a comprehensive understanding of the world.  Omitting people's voices, distorting the truth, and minimizing the contributions of people leads to the reinforcement of stereotypes and prejudice.  Bringing in multiple perspectives with authentic and accurate resources are critical to teaching and thanks to technology, these resources can be easily found. 


The final topic, takes another look at Technology and the different strategies available to give students voice and demonstrate their understandings in more creative and innovative ways.


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