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Tackling Tough Topics

India ink and pencil, Section four. . . (detail), 1921, Art Young, LoC

What are some of the difficult or charged issues that Social Studies teachers (grades 5-9) deal with? How can history teachers foster a sense of empathy among their students as a way of dealing with difficult or charged topics?


The broad scope of Social Studies that examines past and present human behaviors and interactions provides potentially rich topics for the Social Studies classroom. However, as a result of examining the human condition through such a broad lens, Social Studies teachers invariably encounter a variety of charged or difficult topics.

Issues around personal values, race, ethics, and stereotypes highlight just a few of the topics that can be potentially charged and consequently challenging for the Social Studies teacher. Teachers can also struggle with how to present controversial or contested interpretations of the past.

The Curriculum Guidelines for Multicultural Education issued by the NCSS recommends "Students should also be encouraged to examine alternative interpretations of the discrepancies between ideals and realities in the life and history of the United States."

Students should also be encouraged to examine alternative interpretations of the discrepancies between ideals and realities in the life and history of the United States.

The NCSS suggests that teachers provide students with a conceptual framework for understanding and identifying multiple perspectives. The Canadian Benchmarks of Historical Thinking offers some guidance for teachers to develop such frameworks for their students. The document describes the aspects of perspective taking as well as identifies two potential tasks that ask students to assume or critique perspectives.

Lastly, while some teachers find role-playing to be an effective way to teach perspective, other educators view such simulations as being superficial or potentially harmful to students. Regardless of what approach teachers use, students should be equipped with the skills necessary to identify and understand multiple perspectives about the past and present.

For more information 

Here are some other resources that may be of use to Social Studies educators teaching difficult or charged issues:

  1. Simulations
  2. Multiple perspectives
  3. Using primary resources to tell both sides of the story
  4. Confronting the "official story" of American history