Social Studies

Mock Auctions. Pretending to Flee Captors. Do Simulations Have a Place in Lessons on Slavery?

By Sarah Schwartz — March 27, 2019 10 min read
Fugitive slaves fleeing from Maryland to Delaware by way of the “Underground Railroad,” 1850-1851. Some educators say that classroom simulations of the Underground Railroad and other historical events related to slavery, designed to foster empathy, can actually minimize horrific events.
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The same education story makes headlines time and again: In search of an engaging or memorable history lesson, a teacher decides to do a slavery simulation.

Just this month, a 5th grade teacher in New York told several black students to play slaves, and pretended to auction them off to their majority-white classmates.

Also this month, a 4th grade teacher in North Carolina had students play a Monopoly-like game about the Underground Railroad. Too many wrong turns, and students would “be severely punished and sent back to the plantation,” according to their worksheets.

Two years ago, teachers at a high school in Cerritos, Calif., bound students’ hands and told them to lie close together on the floor to reenact the forced transport of enslaved Africans across the Atlantic.

Teachers have said that the goal of these activities is to convey the brutality of slavery and foster empathy. But in practice, many educators say, slavery simulations can minimize horrific events, recreate racist power dynamics, and cause emotional hurt to black students.

“You cannot actually replicate this experience. What you’ve basically done is gamify it, and by gamifying it, you’re actually reducing the horror,” said Maureen Costello, the director of Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center. “Yes, you could work harder to make it more real, then you’re potentially introducing trauma.”

‘Curriculum Violence’

Classroom simulations aren’t just used to teach about slavery. History and social studies teachers often ask students to model different parts of political and civic life: representing different interest groups and coming to a compromise, or debating a law, for example.

These kinds of simulations can be useful tools for civic learning, many say, as they’re open-ended and engage students in decision-making. By contrast, reenacting a historical event “is simply like having kids do a play,” said Costello. If students are following a script, they’re not engaging in historical inquiry, she said. On the other hand, if teachers do give them license to rewrite the past with their choices, she added, they may come away with a misunderstanding of history.

Slavery simulations are among the less common types of classroom reenactments, but some say they have the potential to be the most harmful.

Stephanie P. Jones, an assistant professor of education at Grinnell College in Iowa, has tracked those that have made the news or drawn attention on social media. Through her project, Mapping Racial Trauma in Schools, she’s counted about 30 separate incidents of what she calls “curriculum violence” from the beginning of 2018 to now.

These classroom activities include simulations of slave auctions, the Middle Passage, and the Underground Railroad, but also assignments that dehumanize black people—like those that ask students to list reasons why African Americans made “good slaves.” Jones said she sees spikes in February and early March, when teachers are likely looking for Black History Month lessons. She noted, though, that not every incident makes the news.

When slavery simulations do receive press attention, school officials often condemn them, saying the activities are not aligned with the district’s values.

But simulation activities are also easily available on the web. The online marketplace Teachers Pay Teachers, which allows educators to upload and sell original lesson plans, lists a handful of plans that ask students to take on the identities of enslaved people, and “experience” capture, traveling the Middle Passage, being sold at auction, or escaping via the Underground Railroad. The board game that the teacher in North Carolina used was purchased through the site, local news station WECT reported.

Emotion as Learning Tool

Some educators argue that eliciting intense emotions from students, which simulations are generally designed to do, can be a starting point for inquiry. The idea isn’t new.

In 1968, the day after Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated, Iowa teacher Jane Elliott created a stratified society in her elementary school classroom, in an attempt to demonstrate the kind of discrimination that King had devoted his life to fighting. In the now-famous exercise, Elliott, who is white, divided her all-white class into two groups—blue eyes and brown eyes—and gave preferential treatment to brown-eyed children all day. The next day, she reversed the simulation.

Elliott wanted students to understand what racism felt like, to see that it was based on socially constructed differences. She hoped to change their behavior as a result. In the years since, educational institutions and businesses around the world have invited Elliott to run diversity trainings. But research on the effects of the blue eyes/brown eyes exercise is mixed. Only some studies have found long-term effects in reducing bias; others have shown that the activity causes stress and anxiety.

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In the context of a history classroom, some educators say that kind of role-playing can make oppression in the past feel more real to today’s students. The late John A. Stokes, a civil rights activist who was also a teacher and principal in Baltimore, used to conduct a simulation of a segregated bus ride in the Jim Crow South with K-12 students. Stokes, who grew up in Virginia in the 1940s and 50s, helped lead a student strike for better conditions in his segregated high school and was one of the plaintiffs in Brown v. Board of Education. The simulation he designed “presents students with some of the actual facts and conditions that are part of our nation’s history” and gives them an opportunity to discuss what this history means to them today, he wrote in a 2010 article in Social Education, the journal of the National Council for the Social Studies.

But anti-bias simulations differ in an important way from slavery reenactments, said Jones. An exercise like Elliott’s can expose the structural foundations of racism and demonstrate how bias can lead to prejudice, and prejudice can lead to discrimination. But in a slavery simulation, “the objective is not for students to understand bias and discrimination. They want students to understand the psychological trauma of slavery,” said Jones. “I’m not sure if that is a teachable goal.”

But other educators think that there is a way to do slavery simulations well. Karen McKinney, an associate professor of biblical studies at Bethel University, a Christian college in St. Paul, Minn., has long practiced experiential learning in her college courses. In her dissertation, she studied several simulations that gave high school and college students the opportunity to be alternately powerful and powerless, with the goal of helping students and teachers understand oppression and systemic racism.

One of these activities was an outdoor simulation of escape on the Underground Railroad that took high schoolers through a three-mile course in the woods. The activity, held at a YMCA camp, was attended by a group of students of color and run by a black facilitator.

In a debrief after the exercise, some black students who had participated reported feeling fear and strongly disliking parts of the experience, including when facilitators had pretended to sell members of the group at a slave auction, McKinney wrote in her dissertation. But these students also said they felt like they had a better understanding of black history after the simulation. Experiencing some small part of what enslaved people went through conveyed to black students “you are important, you have a voice, you have a story,” said McKinney.

White educators can also lead simulations that deal with racism, said McKinney, but it’s necessary that any facilitator undergo training beforehand and work to understand how their own privilege would operate in the space. Even still, she accepts that students may have intense reactions to simulations, including tears. “It’s OK for people to be in emotional pain, if we can talk about it,” said McKinney.

‘The History Is Painful’

LaGarrett King, an associate professor at the University of Missouri’s college of education, agrees that educators and students are going to have to navigate discomfort to learn about slavery.

“The history is painful, people feel uncomfortable, there’s no way around it,” said King, who is the founding director of the university’s CARTER Center for K-12 Black History Education.

But when black children are asked to play-act as slaves, that violence disproportionately affects them in a way that reproduces historical oppression, said King. He opposes the use of slavery simulations, which he says are “about continuing to reinscribe pain on black people and black bodies.” Even though white teachers aren’t trying to hurt their black students, said King, simulations of slavery can be traumatic.

Often these exercises can mimic the power dynamics of slavery, said Jones, such as in the incident in New York, where a high school teacher pretended to “auction off” black students to their white peers. In a simulation like that, “What exactly do teachers want? What is the objective?” Jones asked.

Above all, there’s agreement that educators need to approach slavery simulations with caution.

“Teaching controversy is what we do in social studies,” said Lawrence Paska, the executive director of NCSS. The organization doesn’t take a position on simulations, but Paska said these exercises around sensitive topics like slavery can pose unique challenges. “How do you do a simulation in a way that’s authentic, that’s not in any way derogatory or minimizes historical perspective, or in any way marginalizes the experience of the individuals or the groups that are being portrayed?” he said.

Teachers Need Slavery Education, Too

Many say educators need more guidance on how to teach slavery. At the elementary school level, especially, teachers are often reading or math specialists, and don’t have specialized training or content knowledge in social studies, said Costello of Teaching Tolerance. These teachers also generally have a lot of flexibility in how they approach the social studies curriculum.

”For many teachers, they’re looking for something that will engage kids and be fun,” she said.

But Jones, the Grinnell professor, thinks putting an end to slavery simulations will require more than better resources and more professional development.

“Teaching this [history] in a real way means that teachers are going to have to talk about complicity—that they have benefited from this system that they’re trying to reenact in their classrooms,” said Jones, noting that most teachers in the United States are white women.

Often, teachers present slavery in passive terms, said King: Bad things happened to enslaved people; violence was done to them. This framing erases the fact that white Americans were the perpetrators of this violence.

Simulations can rob lessons on slavery of that context, said LaKeshia Myers, a Democratic member of the Wisconsin State Assembly, and a former middle and high school social studies and special education teacher.

When she taught the subject, Myers explained to students that slavery was also an economic mechanism—that America was built on the exploitation of black people. “That portion is sometimes lost,” said Myers.

For teachers looking to convey the trauma and pain of slavery, educators say there are far better ways than asking students to imagine the experience.

For instance, Costello said, teachers can introduce primary sources around slavery, such as the Lost Friends messages, which were personal ads placed by freed slaves seeking lost loved ones after the Civil War.

Even dramatized versions of first-person accounts can have a strong impact on students. Myers used to show her middle schoolers parts of the movie “Roots,” an experience she said gave them a deeper understanding of slavery than reading the textbook.

Patrice Preston Grimes, an associate professor at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education, recommends field trips. For several years, she has taken her preservice teachers to James Madison’s Montpelier estate. They spend hours immersed in the history of the enslaved people and their descendants who once lived there, examining primary source documents and walking through the buildings where they slept.

“That was far more effective than me trying to do some sort of simulation in the classroom,” she said.

A version of this article appeared in the April 10, 2019 edition of Education Week as Experts Warn Against History Lessons That Simulate Slavery


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