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Teaching Difficult Histories in Difficult Times: Stories of Practice

reviewed by Yonghee Suh - May 10, 2022

coverTitle: Teaching Difficult Histories in Difficult Times: Stories of Practice
Author(s): Lauren McArthur Harris, Maia Sheppard and Sara A. Levy
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807766445, Pages: 224, Year: 2022
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Harris, Sheppard, and Levy’s new edited book Teaching Difficult Histories in Difficult Times: Stories of Practice has come out at just the right time. Partisan division and anonymity have deepened in the United States and globally. The pandemic is fading away, although uncertainty remains about how the education system will recover from its impacts, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has continued during the past two months. As educational researchers and social studies and history teacher educators, the three co-editors of this book provide their expertise on the topic of teaching difficult histories. Together, they state that the book’s purpose is to “highlight practices of teaching difficult histories from the perspectives of teachers, teacher educators, and museum educators who, despite the challenges, have chosen to take on this work” (p. 2).

The co-editors begin the book with a strong introduction that presents their conceptualization of difficult histories. Drawing on scholarship from sociocultural and critical perspectives, they first theorize difficult histories by foregrounding the significant role that emotion plays in shaping the process of teaching and learning them. To understand the complex nature of teaching and learning difficult histories in K–12 classrooms, the co-editors have developed a framework in which they argue that the dynamic and interconnected issues characterizing difficult histories include a) difficult content, b) teacher decision-making, and c) contextual factors such as identity, place, and contemporary events (p. 4). This framework guides the structure and content of each chapter.

Teaching Difficult Histories in Difficult Times comprises four main parts. Part 1, “Centering Difficult History Content,” showcases how characteristics such as suffering, dehumanization, and injustice embedded in historical topics like 9/11, Black history, and the Nanjing Massacre create difficulties that teachers and educators experience when constructing and implementing curriculum for students and fellow teachers.

Part 2, “Centering Teacher and Student Identities,” presents various experiences of students and teachers whose identities align (or not) alongside experiences of those in the past who are the subject of the study. This section further discusses how each student and educator encountered and responded to learning and teaching difficult histories depending on their identities. The chapters in this part hone in on the experiences of several disparate groups of teachers and learners: Black pre-service teachers teaching the history of slavery; Pakeha (non Maori, usually of British/European ethnic origin) teacher researchers and Pacific learners teaching and learning the 1929 Black Saturday Massacre in Samoa; a middle school social studies teacher and military veteran of the U.S. military occupation of Iraq; and a 10th grade social studies teacher who taught in a Jewish day school where students and their families have a strong connections to Holocaust survivors. These chapters illustrate how the issue of identity plays a critical role in the pedagogy of teachers teaching difficult histories and students’ encounters with this traumatic material.

Part 3, “Centering Local and Community Contexts,” examines the role of local and community contexts and the tensions generated by certain contexts that interfere with the process of teaching and learning difficult histories. These contexts include predominantly White communities in former Confederate states such as Florida and Georgia, and traditional and unceded territories of Indigenous people in Canada.

The chapters in Part 3 serve as solid groundwork for Part 4, “Centering Teacher Decision-Making.” The burden of managing the difficulties of teaching these histories resides in teachers’ curricular and pedagogical choices about narrative, resources, and learning strategies. Furthermore, teachers’ decisions are made within community contexts influenced by the political, cultural, and social atmosphere of local and national communities. The availability of teaching materials, levels of emotional and epistemological comfort that teachers experience when teaching difficult histories, and pressures from standards and high-stakes assessments vary on the basis of local and community contexts, impacting teachers’ decisions.

Teaching Difficult Histories in Difficult Times makes an important contribution to the educational literature that examines teaching and learning difficult histories. The book builds on while being distinct from other recently published books presenting research on teaching difficult histories (Epstein & Peck, 2017; Gross & Terra, 2019; Stoddard et al., 2017). This book centers the voices and experiences of both skilled and new teachers, museum educators, and teacher educators. It offers insights into why and how teachers who teach difficult histories make their pedagogical and curricular decisions. Moreover, listening to their intimate stories regarding the challenges they face when teaching difficult histories is an invaluable part of understanding the nature of teaching and learning difficult histories at hand. Teachers’ perceptions of difficulties may originate from limited educational resources and epistemological tensions experienced when teaching multiple conflicting narratives.

Overall, this book is an important read for prospective and practicing teachers and teacher educators, administrators, researchers, and policymakers who are willing to confront the challenges of teaching difficult histories. It offers an inspiring and promising set of tools that social studies and history educators and scholars can use to tackle this challenging process.


Epstein, T. & Peck, C. (2017).  Teaching and learning difficult histories in international contexts: A critical sociocultural approach. Routledge.


Gross, M. H. & Terra, L. (2019). Teaching and learning the difficult past: Comparative perspectives. Routledge.


Stoddard, J., Marcus, A., & Hicks, D. (2017). Teaching difficult history through film. Routledge.



Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: May 10, 2022
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 24058, Date Accessed: 5/25/2022 11:39:01 AM

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About the Author
  • Yonghee Suh
    Old Dominion University
    E-mail Author
    YONGHEE SUH, Ph.D., is an associate professor of Teaching and Learning at Old Dominion University. Her research focuses on teacher learning in history education and interdisciplinary collaboration across the subject matters. Her research has been published in peer-reviewed journals, including Theory and Research in Social Education, Action in Teacher Education, The Journal of Social Studies Research, and The Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy.
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