Education Opinion

Take Your Students to see “12 Years a Slave?” This Teacher Did.

By Nancy Flanagan — December 14, 2013 6 min read
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I saw 12 Years a Slave last weekend. And I’m still reeling, flashing back from horrible scene to horrible scene, pondering the mindsets behind slave owners reading the Bible aloud to their slaves as proof that they were divinely entitled to dominion over other human beings. The film is so layered with meaning and questions--and deep, ugly shame.

Beth Sanders, connected educator extraordinaire at Tarrant High School in Birmingham, Alabama, took her students to see the film last week, too. Beth is an incredible teacher--I’ve engaged in rich Twitter chats with her students around critical issues in American democracy--and whatever she had to do to make it possible for her students to see and experience this masterful film was worth the cost. She’s

agreed to share her students’ experiences and--very powerful-- thoughts here. (Photos, top to bottom: Ms. Sanders, Courtney, Kim, Enrique and Asherah.)

Tell us a little about you who are (as a student), and why you thought this was an important film for you to see. What was your overall take-away from seeing the film?

Courtney: I am a junior in high school who hasn’t been given the opportunities that most high school students have, but I’ve still managed to succeed in the things that I want to do, academic- wise. I thought it was important for me to see this film because it is based off of a true story, and I wanted to know how people were really treated during slavery.

Kim: I found this film a necessity not only as a student, but as a human being who refuses to take sugar-coating suffrage an acceptable method in educating history. The film brought to light more than just “slave and master;" it showed the entity of raw emotion and misery to a new, mesmerizing degree.

Enrique: My name is Enrique. I attend Tarrant High School, an overall great student. As for the movie, I believe it was important to see so one could be exposed to the life of a slave during those times. My overall take-away from the movie was that slave owners made the slaves feel less than human but they themselves were far away from it.

Asherah: I am Asherah, a student who could never be measured by the standards put in place by the government. 12 Years a Slave was important for me to see because I really wanted to see how we were treated back then without the sugar-coated version. Something I took away from this film is to remember where my people came from and to never be an average person who accepts the status quo of how things are, regardless of the adversity being faced.

Some adults might argue the film shows too much devastating content for students to see. What is your response to this opinion? Did you personally have any trouble absorbing such violent content?

Enrique: My response to this opinion is when do they think it is appropriate for us to view this content? I’d rather it be sooner than later for educational purposes. Me personally, I didn’t have trouble absorbing the content of this movie.

Kim: Of course I had an issue with the violent and brutal nature of the film. Not only was I absorbed by it, I felt every lashing, the suffocation, and the betrayal as it played out on the screen before me. I cannot begin to fathom the sort of individual that would not be taken back by the devastating story in 12 Years A Slave. As resentful as one might feel towards the content of this beautifully captured tale - I feel the need to state this: It. Is. Real. All of this happened. The slave trade, the brutal beat downs, the lack of mercy for so many misfortune the souls; All of it. Why censor oneself from one’s past that has put them in the position they are in today? Why hide your history?

Asherah: The truth is that some of the content probably could be taken as devastating-- if everyone who watches this movie misses the point that some African Americans were free. Why is it the man who followed the standards is the one who is robbed of his life? The content in the movie was not devastating in my opinion- it is reality. Even though a few scenes were hard to watch, mainly the beatings, this film was not devastating because it was the truth. We need to be able to see things like that so we can truly learn from it. So no, I did not have trouble absorbing the devastating content.


What are your overall thoughts and feeling after seeing the film? What new understandings do you have about American Democracy, American History, the perspective we learn about slavery/race relations etc in schools?

Asherah: My overall thoughts on the film? You can never win in this country. I say that because the leading actor tried to try his captors in court and it was pretty much was thrown out. Even though he is free they only pacified him with a trip home. I think that could still happen today. A new understanding I learned about from the film is that even though slavery was over 200 years ago, a lot of people still think with a slave mentality. It makes me question if black households are more stable in slavery or now--or is there even a difference?


Kim: The film put me in a total shock. I did not want to speak, nor eat, nor think. Nothing. My mind felt numb and my chest sunken in. Once I recollected myself sorrow was the only thing I could feel towards not only the protagonist of the film, but all the historical others who share the same story of misfortune due to something as petty as skin tone. The film featured a huge use of symbolism for hope and trust-- both of which were literally broken and burned. For any mature audience, I feel this is the way history should be shown: As it was. Simply saying that “slaves were whipped and shackled” does not give the vivid imagery of the true misery involved in the actions. Overall I am glad I watched it. As sickening as the film was, it was a perfect demonstration of American History.

Enrique: I believe this film is the closest thing we have to the truth as far as America’s dark past. Everything we learn today in school is sugar coated. Nothing seems to be the whole truth.

Any advice for other teachers/students/schools who want to incorporate the film (and/or controversial topics/issues/content) into their teaching?

Kim: Do it! Don’t be afraid, but be prepared. To truly understand to the best ability what one is going through, place yourself in the perspective of each and every person involved. Let your emotions show. And don’t be afraid to speak.

Enrique: My best advice would be not to restrict your opinion on any matter. Having a class where everybody is a student--even the teacher-- makes learning productive and always interesting.

Courtney: Before watching the movie, you could get the students to tell why they believe happened in detail during that time. After watching the movie, you could have a class discussion on how their opinions have changed and what they got from the events that occurred in the movie as well as personal connections they had to it. Our class looks at opinion before anything-- and then we back it up. We take others thoughts into consideration and respect what they have to say while still feeling like we can express ourselves too. Seeing films like this have stirred intelligent discussions within our class and we enhance ourselves by looking and listening to all perspectives before coming to a group conclusion- it’s also okay if we don’t all come away from it thinking the same thing.

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And this last comment, tacked on to the end of one student’s response:

The bell is ringing now and I cannot comment any further - but I am very thankful for #SandersTHS and Ms. Sanders, for giving us a chance to think for ourselves!

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.