Difficult History Project: Teaching with Primary Sources



Cover image of Slavery in the United States: A Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Charles Ball.
Source: Excerpt (pages 115-119) from the autobiography of Charles Ball, a man from Maryland who was held in captivity at a cotton plantation in Congaree, South Carolina. Slavery in the United States: A Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Charles Ball.

In the late 70s, Elliot Eisner, an education professor at Stanford University, stated that "what schools do not teach may be just as important as what they do teach . . . ignorance is not simply a void; it has important effects on the kind of options one is able to consider, the alternatives one can examine, and the perspectives with which one can view a situation or problem" (1979).

The primary goal of this project is to provide high-quality professional development modules for teachers to meet a moral and historical imperative to help contribute to excellent education about enslavement in American society and schools. We aim to bring to light the myriad and important stories of perpetrators, resistors, heroes, and victims of slavery in the American South, and in tandem to complicate those same ideas- perpetrator, bystander, and hero. In particular, we bring together the global and the local by teaching teachers how to present difficult history in their classrooms, homing in on local stories that articulate the dehumanizing institution of enslavement in the state of Maryland. We focus on local resistors as well as those laws and citizens that were complicit in enslavement in Maryland. We will then provide a global context for slavery more generally. The overarching aim is to memorialize the past while drawing connections to the present, and in this way prevent slavery from becoming part of the phenomenon sociologists call "history hidden in plain sight" (Zerubavel, 2012).

The materials we produced with experts and teachers aim to combat the problem of representation of slavery in school materials- we aim to confront how the teaching of enslavement is about the present as well as about the past.  Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative,  explains “The great evil of American slavery ...was the ideology of white supremacy, in which people persuaded themselves that black people aren’t fully human. When you look at the 13th Amendment, which talks about ending forced labor, it says nothing about ending this narrative of racial differences. Slavery didn’t end in 1865; it just evolved.” 

Browse the tabs above to learn more about this project and to access lesson plans for teaching difficult history.

Image Source: Excerpt (pages 115-119) from the autobiography of Charles Ball, a man from Maryland who was held in captivity at a cotton plantation in Congaree, South Carolina. Slavery in the United States: A Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Charles Ball. New York, 1837. Retrieved from Library of Congress. Link: https://archive.org/details/slaveryinuniteds00ball/page/n7/mode/thu


This project is generously supported by the Library of Congress through a Teaching with Primary Sources Grant. 


Library of Congress Teaching with Primary Sources Consortium Member logo

Principal Investigators

  • Magdalena H. Gross, Ph.D., is a Senior Research Associate at the Center to Support Excellence in Teaching at Stanford University.  Magda examines the relationship between school knowledge and cultural knowledge of difficult historical episodes.  She links concrete findings to broader areas of inquiry on history education and collective memory.  Her work raises questions about the challenges and significance of facing difficult histories in high school classrooms more generally.  At CSET, Magda supports, leads, and designs research on teacher effectiveness in K-12 settings.  Magda is also a program development professional in the Hollyhock Fellowship in the content area of social studies.  She received her Ph.D. from Stanford GSE in 2014, and was previously an assistant professor at the University of Maryland College Park. 
  • Alison Jovanovic, M.Ed., serves as a Professional Development Site Coordinator for Social Studies Education, where she oversees the internship experience for the undergraduates, teaches the corresponding seminar and methods courses, maintains relationships and training for community partners, and is the project coordinator the UMD Difficult History Project: Teaching with Primary Sources.  Alison joined the University of Maryland in 2011, originally as a field supervisor. In 2005, Alison completed her Master of Science in Education Administration and Supervision from Johns Hopkins University. She received a Bachelor of Science from the University of Maryland in 1998, with a degree in Secondary Social Studies Education. Early in her career, she worked for Montgomery County Public Schools as a classroom teacher.

Additional Research and Lesson Development Support

  • Lisa Eaker, PhD., is a lecturer in the Department of Teaching and Learning, Policy and Leadership at the University of Maryland - College Park. Her research interests include addressing how cultural assumptions inform student thinking. 
  • Autumn Griffin is a second-year doctoral student in Department of Teaching and Learning, Policy and Leadership. Griffin’s research in the College of Education’s Language, Literacy, and Social Inquiry program focuses primarily on the literacy practices of Black women and girls and the representation of Black children in Common Core-recommended literature. 
  • Justine Lee is in the fourth year of the Minority and Urban Education program in the Department of Teaching and Learning, Policy and Leadership. Her research focuses on issues of equity and access in education, exclusionary school discipline, school non-completion, social studies and history education, anti-oppressive and critical pedagogies, and critical race theory. Lee is the author of the Brutality lesson plan. 

Website Development Team

  • Eileen Drusjack, M.Ed., is a faculty research assistant in the Department of Teaching and Learning, Policy and Leadership at the University of Maryland.  She has been working for ThEMaT III since 2013 as a project coordinator. drusjack@umd.edu
  • Rebecca Vieyra, M.A.S., is a doctoral student in the Department of Teaching and Learning, Policy and Leadership at the University of Maryland. rvieyra@umd.edu




Source: New York : Harper's Weekly, July 4, 1863. Title “Raid of 2nd South Carolina Volunteers (Col. Montgomery) among the rice plantations on the Combahee.”
Raid of the 2nd South Caroline volunteers among the rice plantations on the Combahee

Use the following lesson resources to enhance your teaching of difficult history. Please note that some lessons include content associated with brutality against humans. Learn more about our expert review process by click on the Expert Review tab.

Additional Resources

  • Baptist, E. E. (2014). The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism. New York: Basic Books.
  • Berlin, I. (2004). American slavery in history and memory and the search for social justice. The Journal of American History90(4), 1251–1268.
  • Blight, D. W. (2009). A Slave No More: Two Men Who Escaped to Freedom, Including their Own Narratives of Emancipation. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
  • Cole, E. A. (2007). Reconciliation and history education. Teaching the Violent Past, 1-28.
  • Epstein, T. (1998). Deconstructing differences in African-American and European-American adolescents' perspectives on U.S. history. Curriculum Inquiry, 28(4), 397-423.
  • Faust, D. G. (2015, Dec. 17). John Hope Franklin. Race & the meaning of America. The New York Review of Books. Retrieved from http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2015/12/17/john-hope-franklin-race-mean…
  • Franklin, J. H. & Moss, A. A. (2000). From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans. 8th Ed. New York: 192-219.
  • Freedman, S. W.; Weinstein, H. M.; Murphy, K.; & Longman, T. (2008). Teaching history after identity-based conflicts: The Rwanda experience. Comparative Education Review, 52(4), 663-690.
  • McManus, E. J. (1973). Black Bondage in the North. 1st Ed. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 125-129.
  • Oglesby, E. (2007). Historical memory and the limits of peace education: Examining Guatemala's memory of science and the politics of curriculum design. Teaching the Violent Past: History Education and Reconciliation, 190-195.
  • Seixas, P. (1993). Popular film and young people's understanding of the history of Native American-White relations. History Teacher, 26, 351-369. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/494666
Source: New York : Harper's Weekly, July 4, 1863. Title “Raid of 2nd South Carolina Volunteers (Col. Montgomery) among the rice plantations on the Combahee.” http://loc.gov/pictures/resource/ds.05099/ 
Harper’s Weekly (at the time) was a partisan paper, on the side of Abraham Lincoln and the Union. It was published mostly in the North East United States and distributed. Circulation was about 200,000 people by 1860 (for the time this is a large number).

Due to the contentious content associated with the brutality of slavery and the lack of research on professional development on difficult history, this project employed an expert review process. This process included the following:

  • Identifying and modifying appropriate materials from the Library of Congress
  • Identifying expert historians to support the development of the professional development experience
  • Recruit veteran teachers to review materials and facilitate workshop execution
  • Revise materials and workshop plans based on historical experts' and teachers' feedback
  • Deliver professional development
  • Support teachers as they implement the materials and collect data on participants

Expert Biographies

  • Richard Bell, Ph.D., received his Ph.D. from Harvard University and his B.A. from the University of Cambridge. His research interests focus on American history between 1750 and 1877.  Bell has published three books. The first, a monograph titled “We Shall Be No More: Suicide and Self-Government in the Newly United States” (2012), examines the role that discourse regarding self-destruction played in the cultural formation of the early republic. The second work, “Buried Lives: Incarcerated in Early America” (2012), is a co-edited volume of essays centered on the experience of incarcerated subjects and citizens in early America.  The third, a book-length micro history narrative aimed at general readers is titled “Stolen: Five Free Boys Kidnapped Into Slavery and Their Astonishing Odyssey Home” (2019). Bell is the recipient of more than a dozen teaching awards, including the 2017 University System of Maryland Board of Regents Faculty Award for Excellence in Teaching, the highest honor for teaching faculty in the Maryland state system.
  • Joel Breakstone, Ph.D., received his Ph.D. from the Stanford Graduate School of Education. Along with Mark Smith and Sam Wineburg, he led the development of SHEG's assessment website, Beyond the Bubble. He received the Larry Metcalf Exemplary Dissertation Award from the National Council for the Social Studies in 2014. He holds a B.A. in history from Brown University and a M.A. in Liberal Studies from Dartmouth College. After college, he taught high school history in Thetford, Vermont. His research focuses on how teachers use assessment data to inform instruction.
  • Christopher Bonner, Ph.D., specializes in African American history, particularly black protest in the early United States. He is at work on a manuscript titled "The Price of Citizenship," which examines black activists' efforts to construct American citizenship before the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment. In their public protest statements, black people from across the antebellum free states worked to create a specific, inclusive citizen status, a central project in the long processes of creating American law and society. He is more broadly interested in the roots and results of radical politics, the nature and meanings of historical violence, and the creation of black freedom in a slaveholding republic. His teaching interests include African American politics and culture, slavery and emancipation in the Atlantic world, and race and ethnicity in early America. Originally from Chesapeake, VA, he earned his B.A. from Howard University and Ph.D. from Yale University.
  • Ethan Hutt, Ph.D., was an assistant professor in the Department of Teaching and Learning, Policy and Leadership at the University of Maryland - College Park and is now an Associate Professor at University of North Carolina Chapel Hill.  He is interested in the historical relationship between schools, the law, and education policy. In particular, his research examines the way in which the law has defined the purpose, organization, and success of public education in America through the creation of standards and the use of quantification.  This issue (and others) is explored in his current book project: The Bare Minimum: A History of Minimum Standards in American Education, which focuses on three specific historical cases of standard setting--compulsory school law litigation in the late 19th century; the creation, adoption, and diffusion of the GED in the 1940s; and minimum competency testing in the 1970s.  Prior to becoming a professor at the University of Maryland, he received his Ph.D. in Education from Stanford University School of Education. Prior to his dissertation work, he received an M.A. in History from Stanford University and a B.A. in History from Yale University.
  • Alana Murray, Ph.D., is an educator-activist who has taught world history on both the middle- and high-school levels and currently serves as a principal at Shady Grove Middle School. She has created pilot lessons on African-American history, conducted youth leadership training workshops for several organizations (including the National Youth Leadership Forum), and has provided professional development to educators at conferences across the country. She also serves as the co-coordinator of the nationally recognized Equity and Excellence certificate program a partnership between Montgomery County Public Schools, Montgomery County Education Association and McDaniel College.  Dr. Murray received a B.A. in government and politics from the University of Maryland, a M.A.T. from Brown University, and her Ph.D. from the University of Maryland. Her academic research focuses on the impact of black women in the development of the social studies field.
  • Ted Rosengarten, Ph.D., received his A.B. from Amherst College and Ph.D. in the History of American Civilization from Harvard University. While his primary field of research and writing is African-American history, he has been a student of the Holocaust for more than 50 years and teaches courses on the subject at the College of Charleston and the Honors College at the University of South Carolina. He also directs workshops for middle and high school teachers and leads semi-annual study-abroad trips to Poland and Germany. Dr. Rosengarten won the National Book Award for his oral history: “All God’s Dangers: The Life of Nate Shaw.”
  • Cambell F. Scribner, Ph.D., teaches courses on the history and philosophy of education as well as various aspects of educational policy.  Scribner’s primary interest is the history of American education, particularly conflicting interpretations of democracy in school governance, curriculum, and reform. Secondary interests include state and federal education policy and contemporary school reform.  His research covers a range of topics but centers on conflicting notions of democracy in schools. His first book, “The Fight for Local Control: Schools, Suburbs, and American Democracy”, examines the legal and political origins of school district autonomy, with attendant questions about community versus equal educational opportunity. A second book, in its early stages, will trace the history of school vandalism from the colonial era to the present, bringing new perspectives to school discipline, student resistance, and the role of destruction in education.  Scribner received his PhD. in history and educational policy from the University of Wisconsin.
  • Eric Shed Ph.D., is lecturer on education and director of the Harvard Teacher Fellows Program. Prior to coming to HGSE, Shed was the director of secondary history/social studies education at Brown University. He received his Ph.D. in Curriculum and Teacher Education from Stanford University, and has also served as a methods instructor at New York University, and with the Stanford Teacher Education Program (STEP). His work as a teacher educator has been greatly informed by eight years of experience as a high school social studies teacher in three distinct types of urban schools: a small alternative high school, a large comprehensive high school, and an early college magnet school. From the Bronx to Harvard University, Shed's passion for helping struggling students become critical thinkers has been the driving force in his fifteen-year career as teacher and teacher educator.