Opinion, please: teaching slavery

The story of the fourth grade Norfolk teacher who used a mock slave auction in demonstrating the Civil War has  spread like wildfire. It seems nearly everyone is outraged about it. But a question remains: just how do you teach about slavery, the Civil War and race?

In an editorial today, The Virginian-Pilot discusses the difficulty of the topic:

The legacy of slavery is with us always in America. It is the durable bequest of the Founders, who, for all their idealism, managed to institutionalize one of history’s great inhumanities.

The historical freight of that injustice doesn’t disappear because people want it to, or because time passes. Slavery is as integral to American identity as the Revolution, as Manifest Destiny, as the world wars.

But the board whiffs when coming up with a solution on how to teach it, only saying that the way the teacher did it was wrong.

I’ll admit it: I have no solution. I know that the lesson needs to be taught. I just don’t know how you do it. My niece, who teaches first grade, told me about how her kids didn’t realize there were different races until she pointed it out to them. Part of me wants to live in a utopian society where judgements are not made based on the way people look, so I cringe at the thought of pointing out the racial differences.

At the same time, it is the legacy of slavery that most black people deal with on a regular basis. So it is important that we teach that history – to understand the context in which the U.S. operates today.

The “how” is the hard part.

So, dear reader, how do you suggest we teach slavery?


20 thoughts on “Opinion, please: teaching slavery

  1. While reading A Tale of Two Cities in elementary school, my English teacher decided to split up our class into two sections — “peasants” and “aristocrats.” The students who were randomly assigned into the peasant class had to call the aristocrat students “sir” or “miss,” had to sharpen their pencils and do other minor tasks on behalf of the randomly-chosen aristocrats, had to wait for all of the aristocrat students to leave the room at the end of class before they could begin packing up their things, and had to write an extra two page paper on the book.

    I probably didn’t get it at the time, but it actually did a pretty good job teaching us why everyone was so angry in the book — whether class was a toil or you got special privileges was entirely determined by what estate in French society the capricious hand of fate had placed you.

    I don’t necessarily see driving that same point home as part of a lesson on slavery as a bad thing. It’s actually a pretty good way to teach empathy. Just don’t make the pants-on-head moronic decision to assign the master and slave roles based on a student’s actual race, which is what was so egregious in this particular case — have them draw cards from a deck instead.

    (Incidentally, the teacher kept ratcheting up the amount of work the “peasants” had to do until one of the students complained that it was unfair — which signaled a “peasant revolt.” She then stood in the role of toppled monarch-turned-defendant before a tribunal of miffed fifth graders, after which the aristocrat students played the role of peasants in the interest of fairness. She really was a very creative, inspired teacher.)

  2. I give this teacher an “A” for effort, but in these highly politicized times, and the ubiquitous speech police, she should have gotten prior approval from the school administration, since it was inevitable that this would cause a firestorm.

    Frankly, I suspect that it could have been a very good lesson in the dehumanization that accompanies slavery. I’m not so sure that the lesson is one which fourth graders could meaningfully appreciate.

  3. Would there really have been a problem if she hadn’t separated the kids by race? I think doing that kind of defeated the whole purpose of teaching the lesson.

    When we went to the holocaust museum in middle school, they didn’t make just the Jews go through that whole train car simulation thing, they picked people at random. No one complained about that, although I’m sure people would have if the teacher just singled out the Jews.

  4. I’d agree that separating the kids by race was really dumb.
    I’m not sure I think that’s an appropriate way to teach the topic anyway.
    To borrow Max’s analogy, having some kids play the role of “masters” would be the sames as putting kids in the role of “concentration camp gaurds” in a lesson about the holocaust.
    We can explain to children that there is evil in the world, without asking them to take on the roles of evil.

    1. The issue I take with the holocaust analogy is that we don’t need to teach our kids about what it was like to be a concentration camp guard as part of an American history class because Americans didn’t run German concentration camps. But I do find myself hoping that Germany’s schools have a robust unit on the holocaust which deals in part with how a nation of imperfect people who generally want to think of themselves as fundamentally good could also be goaded into blindly participating in something so evil. Don’t you?

      I have to disagree entirely with the philosophy of your premise, Steve. “We can explain to children that there is evil in the world, without asking them to take on the roles of evil.” ESPECIALLY when it comes to slaver, it’s not simply enough to say that evil exists and slavery’s an example gloss over the complexities. Otherwise, what do you say when one of your kids points out that Thomas Jefferson and George Washington were both slave owners — were they evil, too?

      Slavery’s too complex a topic to gloss over. It’s worth understanding not only that it was wrong, but how so many otherwise good people came to believe in something so abominable.

      1. Sorry the syntax fell apart a couple times in that comment — there was a lot of starting and stopping and Ctrl-Z’ing as I tried to find a polite way to express how wrong-headed I think the philosophy there is.

        The TL;DR version goes: “It’s not good enough to expect our children to know American history; me must also expect them to understand it, including the parts we’re not particularly proud of.”

  5. Good point. Stanford Prison Experiment anyone? Maybe all the teachers need a refresher course in what happened there before they do anymore racially charged role playing exercises.

  6. Slavery is the stain in the fabric of our democracy and we must teach, learn and relearn the pain that this institution causes. Understanding that no matter how a teacher write a lesson plan there will be some form of outrage that it was not done in a different way, this should not stop us from teaching our history no matter how uncomfortable it makes us feel

  7. Slavery must be taught or else we forget the past and repeat it. Or else we carelessly diminish the impact that it continues to have. There should be little discussion about how to teach the topic appropriately. Ms. Boyle used extremely poor judgment. Students can learn effectively without reenacting tumultuous times. When doctors learn medicine, they are not cut open to experience what the patient experiences. There are many creative ways to teach slavery including visiting the slave trail in Richmond, going to Williamsburg demonstrations, watching segments of movies like Roots or Glory or Sankofa or… the list goes on and on. How about we do not demoralize students when teaching them!

  8. I think the problem was not that it was taught but how it was taught. I asked my 4th grade grandson what he would do if his teacher told the white kids to go to one side of the room and the black kids to go to the other side of the room because they were going to have a mock auction. His response was I would tell Mrs. H. that she is acting like a racist and I’m not going to do that and if she trys to make me I’m going to the principal and tell on her. Then he wanted to know where would his chinese friend and his spanish friends go? He also said that you could have a pink side and a purple side and let anyone be on any side and teach the kids that way. I have told him many stories about how the schools were closed down when I was in Jr. High and I didn’t go to school and he asked why were grown men so stupid back then. Hard to explain huh!

  9. Here are a few things my kids’ history teacher told them about slavery not so long ago: that Virginia slaveholders were kind to their slaves, that blacks fought for the Confederacy, that the Civil War was not about slavery, and that after the war, slaves stayed with their masters because they had nowhere else to go. Maybe we can agree to discard this whole series of Confederate-apologist myths while we are at it.

  10. You guys made some good points, particularly the one I had missed: that the teacher could have – or, rather, should have used some other method for separating the students to teach the lesson.

    Spotter – that’s what I was taught. Our history books had those tales in them. And you would appreciate this article that was reprinted in the Pilot today.

  11. Vivian, Since you asked for opinions I will weigh in with mine. I think the teacher was courageous in what she tried to do in her allotted time to do it. I do not think that talking about slavery/racism for one hour a year will teach a child anything. There was a big controversy several years back about Colonial Williamsburg holding a slave auction during tourist season. Some said it was insensitive, some said it was exploitation to make a tourist dollar. No one seemed to agree whether it should be done. It seems to me that what this teacher tried to do was a good start but would have to continue with ongoing converstations about the way we treat one another. These children have to have a venue to talk about race and fairness, the things they see with thier own eyes everyday.

  12. Vivian good post. I dont have the answer either. I like the idea about the first graders not noticing races. This may be really naive but I would like to think that one day the color of one’s skin will matter about as much as the color of one’s hair or eyes, means now. Doubt I’ll live to see that

    1. I know a lot of people who grew up here during Segregation who didn’t think they’d ever live to see a black President. I’m not under any illusion that it necessarily follows that we now live in a post-racial society or that we shall live in such a society in the near future, but I do think it’s worth considering that the hope or belief that it will happen one day might not be so terribly naive.

  13. At what age is it appropriate to teach/discuss slavery with your children? I have a son that is scheduled to go on a field trip to a plantation to discuss slavery and life during those times, however I’m not sure if I’m ready for that. He’s in the first grade and is African-American.

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