U.S. schools still struggling with how to teach about slavery

There are no national standards on how to teach about slavery in the U.S.

“They made me a slave today.”

Aneka Burton still remembers the way her then 10-year-old son, Nikko, who is black, recounted his experience to his grandfather after school one day.

It was 2011. But Burton believes the classroom exercise in which Nikko’s classmates were encouraged to examine and pretend to bid on each other during a history lesson continues to affect his life, even now as an 18-year-old high school graduate.

“He tries to act like it didn’t bother him, but I really think it changed him,” the Gahanna, Ohio, mother said.

It’s those memories that leave her shaking her head years later as reports about mock slave auctions continue to emerge, reminders that schools are still struggling with how to teach about slavery and its impacts.

There are no national standards on how to teach about slavery, although it is often recommended as a topic in curriculum at the state and local levels, according to Lawrence Paska, executive director of the National Council for the Social Studies. The guidance leaves specific lessons up to schools and teachers, who on several occasions have caused offence with attempts to bring history to life.

An investigation by New York Attorney General Letitia James found in May that a mock “slave auction” that singled out black students at the private Chapel School in Westchester County had a profoundly negative effect on all involved students.

ALSO READ: Fashion production is modern slavery, and here’s 5 things you can do to help

“Lessons designed to separate children on the basis of race have no place in New York classrooms, or in classrooms throughout this country,” James said.

Other recent examples include an “Escaping Slavery” game that gave North Carolina fourth-graders a freedom punch card that read: “If your group runs into trouble four times, you will be severely punished and sent back to the plantation to work as a slave.” Families also criticized a Virginia obstacle course intended to replicate the underground railroad, navigated by third-, fourth- and fifth-graders pretending to be runaway slaves.

“Teaching about slavery is hard,” summarized a 2018 report from the Southern Poverty Law Center, which surveyed more than 1,700 social studies teachers and analyzed textbooks. “No national consensus exists on how to teach about slavery, and there is little leadership. … It is time to change this state of affairs.”

Dozens of teachers surveyed reported simulations as their favourite lessons when teaching about slavery, according to the report, though its authors and others said such re-enactments do more harm than good.

At the Chapel School, the fifth-grade teacher who led the mock auction in March was fired. The school agreed to hire a diversity officer and change its discipline practices after parents complained that black students were lined up against a wall wearing imaginary shackles and “sold” to their white peers.

Nicole Dayes complained about a similar exercise in her son’s fourth-grade class in upstate New York’s Watertown City School District in May after he described it to her.

“His whole demeanour changed,” Dayes said. “It was kind of sombre and uncomfortable … It took me a while to really comprehend what he was saying to me.”

The district said in a statement the teacher had been placed on administrative leave. Superintendent Patricia LaBarr said the district has since sought expert guidance on diversity, inclusion and equity as it reviews its policies and programs.

New York’s social studies curriculum is typical in that it outlines grade-level concepts — fourth-grade students “will examine life as a slave in New York state,” for example — but does not provide specific lessons.

Ill-conceived lessons happen enough that advocates like Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, offer lesson plans with suggestions for texts and discussion. Teaching Tolerance plans to publish a framework for teaching about slavery in grades kindergarten through five in August.

“It’s never OK to recreate painful oppressive events, even in the name of education,” said Mara Sapon-Shevin, a professor of inclusive education at Syracuse University, who said teachers risk harming their students’ sense of belonging, safety and inclusion. “One would never simulate an Indian massacre or having Jews march into the ovens.”

Nor should teachers “gamify” painful history, Teaching Tolerance Director Maureen Costello said, citing exercises like having students compete to remove seeds from cotton.

“Often it’s done because it’s kind of traditional, maybe they had it when they were in school or they’ve heard about another teacher who did it and they think this is a great idea: It gets the kids out of their seats, they’ll be active,” Costello said.

In one example, a 10-year-old black child was told by a white student, “You are my slave,” in 2017 when a school near Kennesaw Mountain in Georgia invited fifth-graders to dress up as characters from the Civil War, according to the black child’s parent, Corrie Davis.

For generations, teachers have wrestled with lessons on discrimination, perhaps none more famously than Jane Elliott , who led a “blue eyes-brown eyes” exercise in her Riceville, Iowa, classroom in response to the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968.

Elliott separated her third-grade class of white students by eye colour and unapologetically treated one group as superior, calling them smarter and rewarding them with extra recess and other perks while demeaning the other group. She flipped the roles the following school day.

She said in an interview she has been through the same backlash as the New York teachers, and she stands by her exercise, which she credits with boosting students’ academic performance.

“Every student in my classroom who went through that exercise performed at a higher level academically than they ever had before because they found out the day they were on the top in that exercise how really smart they were,” she said.

Aneka Burton, whose son did not want to be interviewed, said she eventually pulled Nikko out of the school district, when it seemed he was being singled out for discipline and passed over for sports, and she was flooded with hate mail for making the issue public. The experience drastically altered his school experience, she said.

The school principal called to apologize.

“They were able to touch and feel on the slaves. It was really crazy,” she said. “Why would you think that’s OK to do to a child?”

Carolyn Thompson, The Associated Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Just Posted

Parksville Lawn Bowling Club on a roll for artificial turf

Project to cost over $500,000 but will save club money

More Parksville pop-up water parks planned

Fire department says Sunday, Aug. 18 next one on the agenda

Hi Neighbour Day celebrates 50th year in Errington

Pancake breakfast, parade, zucchini race and more planned for this years’ festivities

Semi-truck crashes on Hwy. 4 between Port Alberni and Tofino-Ucluelet

Drivers heading in or out of Tofino-Ucluelet Friday afternoon should expect delays

Errington scrap wood fire still under investigation

Three fire departments deployed to battle highly visible blaze

VIDEO: Langley Ribfest met with protesters

Groups that oppose the event for various reasons plan to be on site each of the three days.

Canadians killed in Afghanistan honoured during emotional dedication ceremony

One-hundred-fifty-eight Canadian soldiers died during the mission

It’s snow joke: Up to 30 cm of snow expected to fall in northeastern B.C.

Alaska Highway, Fort Nelson to be hit with August snowstorm, according to Environment Canada

‘I’m just absolutely disgusted’: Husband furious after B.C. Mountie’s killer gets day parole

Kenneth Fenton was sentenced to prison after he fatally struck Const. Sarah Beckett’s cruiser

Sea-to-Sky Gondola in B.C. likely out of commission until 2020

Sea to Sky Gondola carries between 1,500 and 3,000 people every day during the summer season

Helicopter-riding dog Mr. Bentley now featured on cans of new B.C.-made beer

Partial proceeds from every pack go to Children’s Wish

PHOTOS: Weapons seized at Portland right-wing rally, counterprotests

Not all who gathered Saturday were with right-wing groups or antifa

Ferries employees participating in Denman Island cleanup for plastic-shedding ferry

The cleanup comes a few weeks after one organized by residents of the Island

Discussion on grief and loss between Stephen Colbert, Anderson Cooper goes viral

The exchange includes emotional question from Cooper, and outlook on grief as a child

Most Read