Considering Students Emotional Well-Being While Exposing Them To Trauma: Using The Movie 12 Years A Slave (2013)

My colleague and I are writing a book chapter about using the memoir and film 12 Years A Slave to teach about the trauma of slavery to eighth grade students. I discussed with another colleague, a Black American woman, who discussed how she is unable to watch the film. She described how the movie is too traumatic and she fears that watching it will only result in a worsened emotional state. My colleague’s perspective of being potentially traumatized by the film demonstrates a key reality that educators must remain aware of: the necessity of socio-emotional and relational pedagogy that is fundamental when teaching historical trauma. Sondel et al. (2018) describe how socio-emotional pedagogy is imperative, because without it, sharing the realities of past traumatic actions can damage a students’ emotional well-being.

In order to be mindful of the consequences of using 12 Years A Slave as part of our curriculum, we believe that Sondel et. al’s theme of socio-emotional relational pedagogy should be combined with a framework for selecting and using movies in the classroom. Christopher Clark in the Teacher’s College Record created a seven step guide into how a teacher can select and effectively use film in curriculum. The table below shows the seven steps that Clark outlines as being necessary in selecting a film. The table also shows Sondel et al’s. Themes of Pedagogy for Teaching Political Trauma. We will go through each of Clark’s seven steps and describe how a teacher can consider the socio-emotional learning of students.

Solomon Northrup wrote a memoir titled 12 Years A Slave, adapted into a movie in 2013, which accounts for his years in which White kidnappers subdued Solomon and enslaved under false and illegal pretenses. 

Seven Steps of Selecting and Using Films, and Three Themes of Political Trauma Pedagogy


Seven Steps (Clark)

Pedagogy of Political Trauma (Sondel et al., 2018)

1. Selecting Films of film clips

Socio-emotional and Relational Pedagogy

2. Developing Questions

Civic Knowledge

3. Finding Historical Resources

Activism and Resistance

4. Creating Student Scaffolds


5. Enacting the lesson


6. Having students draw conclusions


7. Debriefing



Exposing trauma in the classroom is not inherently good nor bad. It can be a useful tool to help students gain clarity to alternative perspectives around them and the historical moments that brought those perspectives about. Teachers intentionally recognizing the trauma in a classroom, community, and the past can help the students understand modern and past abuses. With a better historical and present consciousness of injustice, students are better equipped to be advocates for change. Although we believe in the use of trauma, we are not blind to how it may negatively affect students.

Exposing students to trauma may encourage them to become advocates for social justice.

The risk of evoking trauma on students is serious, and so too is the necessity for students to become historically conscious of how past actions create lingering trauma. In order to both respect the necessity to protect students and to provide them a curriculum that reveals past realities, we combine Clark’s theme of socio-emotional and relational pedagogy with the seven steps that Clark outlines.

1. Selecting Films or film clips

Students will arrive in classrooms with different experiences, perceptions about race, and ideas about the current state of affairs for Black Americans in the United States. Also, students will possess varying levels of trauma that they experience from day-to-day life and from other curriculums. As much as possible, students should be a part of the selection of the film or the parts that they watch. Since my colleague and I have already chosen to use 12 Years A Slave it is imperative that a list of scenes is created so students may review them before watching them. The list can be categorized by the type of trauma the students will see, and other characteristics that are important for students, and parents/administration, to know (ex. sexual abuse/assualt, explicit rape, domestic abuse, nudity, alcohol, drugs, physical abuse/assualt, verbal abuse/assualt, murder/lynchings).

The teacher should inform students that they do not have to watch the film or any of the scenes if they feel that their emotional well-being is compromised. Students should have an understanding of what compromised emotional well-being is, and the differences between positive and negative experiences with trauma. If students opt out of watching films or scenes, the teacher should ensure that students can participate with the curriculum in other ways. One idea is for students to read excerpts from the film, or view primary sources that convey similar messages.

Potential for Future Work

We can make even more progress with combing a socio-emotional pedagogy with steps for selecting and using films. If we choose to take this research further, we will link subsequent articles below.


Sondel, Beth, Baggett, Hannah Carson, Dunn, Alyssa H. (2018). “For millions of people, this is real trauma”: A pedagogy of political trauma in the wake of the 2016 U.S. Presidential election. Teaching and Teacher Education, 70, 175-185.

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