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'Slavery game' presents opportunity to become smarter: Will teacher and supporters take it?

The teaching of slavery in school is far more complicated than I realized after researching the issue this week in connection with the controversy in Cobb County where a simulation of the Underground Railroad in a fifth grade classroom angered a grandparent with the wherewithal to harness social media indignation.

One problem was the indignation was based in part on some misinformation, so the debate never reached a productive level.

I hope this essay helps change that as it tackles substantive issues worth discussing. Christina Berchini’s expertise is in race studies and teacher education. She is an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin Eau Claire. (Thanks to University of Georgia professor Peter Smagorinsky for steering Berchini our way.)

Several of the points Berchini raises were brought up on the earlier blog on this issue and in emails from teachers.

By Christina Berchini

The situation of the “slavery game” in Cobb County’s Cheatham Hill Elementary School has emerged as a prime example of the desperate need for white privilege training in both public schools and departments of teacher education across college campuses.

Note that I did not say “diversity training”—implying that people are unaware of diversity. Nor did I say “sensitivity training”—implying that we might do better to consider others’ feelings. This is not about “feelings.” We already see a ton of this kind of training in our corporate and public institutions, and it is typically met with lukewarm and dismissive responses, perhaps understandably so. This situation at Cheatham Hill Elementary—from the activity itself, to the utter dismissal of the concerns of the child and grandmother in question, to the gaggle of white support for the activity—has presented to us, practically on a silver platter, the need for better, harder, more meaningful discussions, not about diversity and sensitivity, but about what it means to be white teachers in today’s classrooms.

I am a teacher educator. I agree with Hope Largent—the teacher at the focus of this debacle—when she says that teaching about slavery is difficult. And while, as she points out, it is something required of the state standards, I am of the belief that slavery and the Civil Rights Movement are worthy of sustained, careful attention regardless of where these topics happen to be situated in the state or national standards.

I also agree with her principal—thinking outside of the box is the hallmark of good teaching.

Finally, I agree with the Cheatham Hill Elementary School’s fifth grade team when they point out that learning, particularly in this digital age, is very different from even five or ten years ago, let alone a generation ago. As any one of my student teachers will tell you, I abhor “boring lessons straight out of the textbook.”

And while I agree with these particular arguments, I have to ask, what do these points have to do with the potentially ill-conceived construction of a slavery simulation game? What, exactly, does slavery have to do with fun and games, and why are we not listening to a child who responded negatively to this classroom experience?

According to Cobb County demographics, approximately 40 percent of students enrolled in the Cobb County system are children of color. Moreover, students of color enrolled in Cheatham Hill Elementary School account for approximately 55 percent of the student population. There do not seem to be any available statistics speaking to the racial makeup of this particular school’s teaching force, but statistically, the vast majority of elementary school teachers are white (upwards of 90 percent, if not higher). Unlike generations before us, teachers are now tasked with thinking about what it means to be white educators of children from vastly different backgrounds. And this is where I believe Largent, her supporters, and the most recent coverage of the issue have missed the mark.

Firstly, the article focuses on how the Black child who shed light on her experience in class on that day was not the only Black child in the classroom. That, in fact, the class of 23 is quite diverse. I am left to wonder: Why does this matter? Because only one student internalized the experience in a way she found upsetting, means her interpretation of what happened in class on that day is null and void? Should she, could she have rallied the troops around her, in much the way her (white) teacher, (presumably white) colleagues, and select (presumably white) parents had?

I am reminded of when one of my teacher candidates approached me, some years ago. She nervously explained to me that another teacher had created a game about the Holocaust. Similarly, it was a roll-the-dice type of game where, if the dice landed a certain way, the player was forced into a gas chamber.

I imagine that students, in an unsettling sort of way, found that game enjoyable. I imagine the laughter and giggling punctuated by an air of competition; the “fun” they had perhaps overshadowing the reasons for teaching about these despicable events in the first place. Moreover, I do not know whether there were any Jewish children in that classroom. But I am inclined to ask: Does it matter?

Lessons about racism, and in the case of this current controversy, slavery, when ill-conceived and executed irresponsibly (as very well could be the case here), therein exists greater potential for negative psychological impacts on children of color, given this nation’s historical legacy of institutionalized discrimination, and current resurgence of openly expressed racism. Simply put, white students are not likely to receive and interpret curricular and pedagogical missteps in the same way, if it even occurs to them at all.

Hard to swallow? Let’s take a look at white privilege in action:

The teacher employed an activity that simulates the conditions slaves might encounter when they attempted to escape southern plantations. I wonder: Did the conditions represented in the different “stations” include maiming by bloodhounds? Did they include lashing and branding? A slicing off of the nose, or castration? How about lynching? Did the activity involve pardoning a master for murdering his slave, if his reason for doing so was legally determined to be “reasonable”? Because that is what slavery and escape entailed. Given that this is a fifth grade classroom, I am going to assume that the activity was substantially watered down and diluted of this sort of historical accuracy and detail. Had, though, the painful realities of runaway slaves been highlighted in these stations, how many of the white parents would have cried foul? How much of this lesson would have been categorized as “teaching outside of the box,” had it presented history in all of its sickening glory?

The problems with this activity, as I understand it, appear to be foundational. Slavery was a not a roll of the dice, a sort of luck of the draw, a fate distributed equally across the races, and it is a privilege of whiteness to represent (and support) it as such. For a child to have been upset by this particular approach to teaching about slavery suggests to me that she was taught a profound understanding of this nation’s history, perhaps by her family if not her school. For teachers, administrators, and parents to rally around this game as a sort of “out of the box” teaching method suggests to me that they have no such understanding. In the end, approaching the topic of slavery as a roll of the dice scenario—whether literally or metaphorically—undermines the very teaching this teacher had hoped to accomplish in this activity.

It is a privilege to go through 13 years of compulsory schooling and four years of teacher education believing that slavery, one of the ugliest chapters in this nation’s history, can be converted into a game for the purposes of giving students a good, fun time. For the purposes of entertainment. It is a privilege to think nothing of supporting an activity of this nature as a product of “thinking outside the box.”

It is a privilege to deflect from the possible misstep, here, by rallying the troops in the interest of  “clear[ing] up misinformation.” Because what matters, here, is that our chronically distracted, technology-obsessed children found the activity “fun.”

Not teaching about this chapter of our nation’s dark history is not, as the fifth grade team put it, an option. And I agree with Largent—slavery, an institution that relied on racism, power, and laws to protect itself —is, as she put it, a tough topic, and one that should be handled responsibly. But the aftermath of teaching it irresponsibly — as could very well be the case here — presents to us a teachable moment. An occasion to become smarter about what it means to teach about these issues.











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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.