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Nudity and Language in History: Handling Sensitive Material in the Classroom

The inevitable has arrived; you're about to teach a history lesson with nudity and not-so-tasteful language. But it's for education, so what's the big deal?

Children are much more aware of their surroundings and impacted by personal experiences than you think, and teenagers tend to be more socially conscious than preceding generations. Additionally, the language you encounter in your lesson, i.e., racial slurs, may have personally impacted some of your students. Not only that, but those who are dealing with trauma may be hypersensitive to historical cases of violence and nudity. 

It is our responsibility to teach students openly, honestly, and safely. Handling sensitive material properly is not a sign of weakness but loyalty to your trade. That's why you're here–you want to know how to convey history without hurting your students (or getting into trouble).

To help you along, here are some best practices for handling sensitive material, particularly nudity and language, in the history classroom.

1. Don't Go It Alone

Educators must carefully follow policy and make sure that nothing they teach comes off as intentionally offensive. To help you develop your lessons to standard, run them by colleagues or higher-level administration to ensure you aren't violating policy or ethical standards. Another pair of eyes may catch something you didn't.

Also consider, while developing your lesson, incorporating experts and documentaries directly related to your lessons. Bringing in another voice may create a more wholesome learning environment for your students.

2. Be Transparent

You may want to send a letter to parents explaining what you're about to teach, why it's important, your goals, and how they can help support your students if they have questions at home. On the same note, review the syllabus with your students well before you plan on teaching the unit so they know what to expect.

3. Lay Out Ground Rules

Never underestimate a student's capacity to be mature—but don't overestimate, either. Let your students know that it's acceptable to feel uncomfortable when seeing nudity. But don't allow them to use discomfort as a reason to be disruptive or inappropriate.

If you're about to delve into an art history lesson or show pictures of tribal communities where the women and men aren't fully clothed, for example, layout some ground rules for your students:

  • An uncomfortable giggle is different than judgemental laughter. Keep laughter to yourself.
  • Do not react in disgust.
  • It's okay to ask why someone isn't fully clothed if they are genuinely interested in learning about the cultural contexts of the people depicted.

You should always teach to grade level; don't introduce nudity until students are well-aware of their own bodies, i.e., high school.

4. Disclaimers

Tell your students in advance if you know that you will be showing historical images of tragedies that depict harmed, depleted, or imprisoned nude bodies. Do not surprise them. Some historical images are emotionally hard to look at, such as images of Holocaust victims or the 1972 picture of Kim Phuc running from a napalm attack during the Vietnam War. 

Remember, you aren't promoting voyeurism – you are showing the truth of the tragedy. If some of the material becomes too hard for students to look at, let them know that they may look away; even for adults, these images are deeply saddening. 

Instead of focusing on "looking," let them know that it's okay to feel emotional; they may actively listen to the lesson if an image is too difficult for them.

5. Ground Supplementary Material in History

Not all history lessons must solely rely on primary documents. Some units lend themselves well to supplementary fiction, non-fiction, and memoirs, e.g., "Uncle Tom's Cabin" by Harriet Beecher Stowe, "The Immortal Life of Henriette Lacks" by Rebecca Skloot, and "Night" by Elie Wiesel. However, several of these texts include racial slurs and traumatic instances of racism. 

Be sure to precede the text with primary documents and historical lessons about when the book takes place. Show your students that you aren't assigning works of fiction that needlessly conjure verbal trauma and bigotry.

Be Honest and Open

Sensitive material, historical or not, will always be that: sensitive material. Be honest and open with your students – and allow them to be the same. Give yourself room to adjust a lesson if you see it becoming too difficult for your students to handle, and always offer room to answer questions one-on-one if a student is having a hard time processing what they are learning.

Written by Amelia Ellis
Education World Contributor
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