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Educators learn how not to teach children about slavery

How to teach the facts of Negro slavery in America to schoolchildren historically has been fraught with tension and controversy. Last month, proof of that sore spot surfaced again. by Tarice L.S. Gray
NNPA News Service

How to teach the facts of Negro slavery in America to schoolchildren historically has been fraught with tension and controversy. Last month, proof of that sore spot surfaced again. This time, it was attached to the lesson plan of a white Virginia elementary school teacher, whose method of introducing her fourth-grade class to the issue of slavery has provoked a furious response.

The teacher, a six-year veteran, conducted a mock slave auction. She made her class’ African-American students and mixed-race students play the roles of the human property to be sold, with her white students portraying “buyers.”

The reaction from parents and educators was blistering, and the teacher faces disciplinary action.

Dr. Mary Frances Berry, the noted historian and educator, and former head of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, believes punishment is appropriate because the exercise may constitute a violation of the African-American students’ civil rights.  The lesson, in her opinion, was “misguided.”  

Berry also believes it may challenge the rights African Americans worked so hard to gain and preserve.

“Under the education amendments and Title IX of the Civil Rights Act of 1964,” she said, “you are not supposed to do things in federally funded institutions, (such as public schools) that discriminate against people based on race….This might be characterized as discriminating against the students, if they are told they have to be the slaves.”

According to Berry and others, the consequences of making young students play “masters and slaves” in an exercise of discrimination are hard for children to bear. In another incident earlier this year, an African-American fourth grader in Ohio reflected feelings of confusion and shame after his teacher, who is white, conducted such an exercise, with him among those assigned to play slaves. The teacher, who is white, used a random method to designate slaves and masters, with one of the two African-American students in the class ending up on the faux auction block.

The boy, in describing the incident to a local television station in Columbus, said that when classmates started “bidding on people it made me a little mad.”  The 10-year-old refused to participate any further and his mother claims her son was “humiliated” by the experience.

The youth of these students had many people in the community upset, but the lack of racial sensitivity remains the biggest issue. Berry said that it’s, “insensitive to black students to have them act out the behavior of slaves and have their peers, people treating them as if they were, examining them, trying to assess whether they’d be a prime field hand.”  She added, “it boggles my mind that a teacher wouldn’t think it through enough to realize that’s not an appropriate lesson.”

Educator and historian Judith Bentley was equally disturbed by the divisiveness of the lesson.  She is the author of “Dear Friend: Thomas Garrett & William Still: Collaborators on the Underground Railroad.” Written for adolescents, the book tells the story of two unlikely friends – Still, a free black man, and Garrett, a white Quaker – joining together to help blacks escape slavery.  Bentley wanted to share the story with a young audience because she feels it is important for children to know their history. Her book has also been used in classrooms as a teaching tool.  

Bentley, who is white, sees the value in teaching through experience, but believes the incident in Virginia proves those teaching about slavery, especially those not from the black community, should tread carefully.   Some whites are likely just not that sensitive to how the discussion of slavery makes black children and adolescents feel.

“That insensitivity can undermine any lesson plan,” said Bentley. Still, she champions the idea of re-enactment, if done right.  

 “I certainly understand the desire to teach through experience. But I think it’s very hard to do.”

One educator who made it look easy is Jane Elliot. She is the author of the “Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes” experiment that has garnered praise over the course of four decades. In 1968 after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, Elliot, then an elementary school teacher in Iowa, addressed her all-white class about the issue of race to help them understand what King had died for. She asked for their participation, and then segregated her young students according to eye color. Blue eyes were deemed to be superior and brown eyes inferior.

Unlike the Virginia re-enactment, the rules of division were arbitrary in Elliot’s case. According to Bentley, that’s why that lesson was successful. It eliminated race as a factor. Separating children by race reinforces the racial problems that hide in the plain sight of society, said Bentley.

Dr. Sharon Draper, a Milken National Teachers of the Year, an honor established by the Milken Family Foundation to reward outstanding educators, is the author of the historical novel “Copper Sun,” based on the slave experience. Draper believes proper planning and preparation are a must in confronting harsh lessons of the past. As an African-American educator, she promotes educational building blocks as much-needed tools to help children absorb lessons that carry heavy baggage.  

“I think the information (on slavery) should be given at grade four,” said Draper. “It’s like you’re not ready for trigonometry in grade four, but you are learning multiplication and division so that you’re ready for it when you get there.”  

Similarly, said Draper, children should “learn the building blocks in grade four about slavery, so that by the time (they’re) in eighth grade, (they) you can (understand) the detailed intricacies.”

The re-enactments were “inappropriate” lessons that were doomed to fail, said Draper, whose book “Copper Sun” was written for adolescents and includes a tool to help students grasp the material. The tool is a set of preliminary questions for teachers to ask the students before their students receive the book, or even before the class begins to explore the topic of slavery. The point is to build up to the lessons the literature provides.

Bentley and Draper hope the controversies in Ohio and Virginia have alerted educators and parents to a fundamental point: that when it comes to teaching children about slavery, proceed with caution. Or, simply don’t go there.

(Special to the NNPA from thedefendersonline.com. Tarice L.S. Gray is a freelance writer and blogger for GrayCurrent.com.)

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