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A Trauma-Informed Approach to Teaching the Colonization of the Americas (

Trauma-informed teaching isn’t just about reaching students who have a history of adverse childhood experiences and may have specific learning needs as a result. It’s also about managing the emotional reactions that both students and teachers may have when sensitive topics are introduced into the classroom.


When teaching the history of the Americas, excessive empathy for Indigenous peoples often impedes inquiry and learning. This happens when the feelings of non-Indigenous students and/or the teacher become the center of the lesson. This can derail the discussion—which should be about power relations—and limit student understanding. When Indigenous peoples are portrayed as victims of history and students see the history of the Americas solely through an emotional lens, inequitable power relations are reproduced. As Potawatomi-Lenapé educator Susan Dion has written, empathy-centered teaching reduces historical inquiry to “a binary of self/other that situates the self/reader unproblematically as judge.”

Teachers can avoid this situation by creating discussion questions that work outward from the self in the present day and backward toward a nuanced understanding of the events of history. This teaches students how to think (not what to think) and shifts the discussion from non-Indigenous people and their feelings toward relationships and responsibility. The following outward-looking questions help non-Indigenous students process their feelings, avoiding the vicarious trauma that can result from studying racism and genocide in the Americas. They also recognize the agency of Indigenous peoples, which avoids re-traumatizing any Indigenous students who may be present in the classroom:

  • What does this story mean to me?
  • What does it mean to my understanding of what it is to live in this country right now, today?
  • What does this story mean to my understanding of Indigenous peoples today?
  • How does my experience in this country differ from that of Indigenous people?
  • What aspects of the past do non-Indigenous people have to try to understand?
  • What does this story tell me about who has power in this country and who does not?
  • How does power relate to hardship and suffering?
  • How are Indigenous peoples addressing the challenges they face? How have they done so in the past?

To read more of Suzanne Methot's article, please click here.

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