Social Studies

Georgia Teacher Defends Controversial Lesson on Slavery

By Jaclyn Zubrzycki — September 06, 2016 3 min read
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In an elementary school classroom in Georgia last month, students played a dice game about the Underground Railroad. A roll of the dice determined whether a player would make it to freedom or be sent back to the plantation.

Was it an engaging, creative approach to the topic of slavery, or an insensitive and unhelpful device? The stir prompted by the game is the latest reminder of how many schools and teachers grapple, and sometimes struggle, with how to teach about this piece of American history.

Delores Bunch-Keemer went to the teacher with concerns about the game after her granddaughter came home from school upset. Bunch-Keemer said the game tried to make slavery into something fun and was demeaning. When she wasn’t satisfied by the school’s response, she shared the story on social media and contacted local advocacy groups and media.

Soon, news stations around the country picked up the story and people shared it on their own feeds.

The Cobb County school district responded with a statement: “Cheatham Hill administrators were not aware in advance of the activity. The activity in question was not an approved lesson plan. School officials are taking appropriate personnel action with the teacher.”

But Bunch-Keemer has continued to post her concerns. For instance, she wrote a note asking if school administrators were supposed to be aware of what’s being taught in classrooms and posted that she had heard that other nearby schools were also using games or simulations to teach about slavery. She also exchanged emails with the original author of the game.

Hope Largent, the teacher who taught the lesson, spoke to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Get Schooled blog about her rationale:

Georgia standards require 5th graders learn about how states’ rights and slavery fueled the growing tensions between the North and South. “It is very hard to bring that down to a 10-year-old’s level,” said Largent, a Georgia Southern graduate in her second year at Cheatham Hill Elementary School. “I wanted to find something interactive, engaging, and memorable.”

That blog post also includes a letter from the school’s principal, who writes that the school remains a welcoming place for students and encourages teachers to develop “innovative” ways for students to learn. A group of teachers and parents also defended Largent’s lesson and commended her teaching. While there had been early reports that the Largent would be disciplined, Get Schooled reports that she was unaware of any upcoming actions as of last week.

The school’s explanations didn’t fly with University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire professor Christina Berchini, who shared an essay on the Get Schooled blog calling for more teachers to receive “white privilege training":

Not teaching about this chapter of our nation's dark history is not, as the 5th 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.

The Get Schooled blog’s Maureen Downey recounted how the facts were sometimes misreported as the story was picked up across the country:

For example, newspapers reported Bunch-Keemer's granddaughter was the only black child in the class; the girl was one of four African-Americans out of a diverse class of 23 that includes Hispanic children. Reports stated the girl somehow ended up back at the plantation six times in the simulation—implying some nefarious plot that kept routing her back there. But the journals students filled out on their journey around the room showed the child, like every other student, visited almost every station and was among the half of the class who found freedom.

That blurring of facts distracts from a persistent question: What’s the best way for young people to learn about slavery? Do most teachers have the resources, training, and judgment necessary to guide students through tough chapters in history? Downey cites the Southern Poverty Law Center, which says that games and interactive simulations can help lead students to valuable insights but risk oversimplifying issues or having negative psychological effects.

In 2015, a digital game about slavery also caused controversy. Its developers intended the game to give students a window into slaves’ experience, but many, including descendants of slaves, were concerned that it trivialized a horrific period of history.

In that story, Howard Stevenson, a professor of urban education and Africana studies at the University of Pennsylvania, told Education Week that if schools are introducing such a game, teachers should be equipped to help students manage the emotions they may feel after playing it.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.