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Elementary School Gets Flak for ‘Slavery Simulation’

What began as a history lesson for fifth-graders in Ohio may end up a lesson in multicultural sensitivity for educators across the country.

When a teacher held a “mock slave auction” in class, some believe a line was crossed.

“Empathy-building activities in the classroom can be very beneficial,” said Nina Sundell, regional director for the Anti-Defamation League. “The ADL is strongly against simulation activities, however.”

The controversy in Ohio began when a 10-year-old boy told his mother that he was embarrassed in school because he was “auctioned off” as a slave. According to the Associated Press and local news outlets, Nikko Burton, who is African American, was one of several students who were labeled as “slaves” in their Chapelfield Elementary social studies class. Other students were labeled as “masters” and were encouraged to poke and prod the “slaves” to determine if they were worth purchasing.

While the school has since apologized to Burton’s mother, the question remains regarding the types of interactive lessons that are appropriate in the classroom.

“Our concern is that it does cause humiliation for the students that can result in negative effects, rather than the positive effects the teachers may be going for,” Sundell said. “We would hope that the school would look at the curriculum to see if it is appropriate.”

Kristin Gilbert, assistant principal at Waterville Junior High School in Waterville, ME, said she doesn’t believe a similar situation would have transpired at her school, since Waterville Junior High is home to several student-led advocacy groups.

“We have a civil rights team and a student leadership team, and we just formed a student ally team,” Gilbert said. “The student ally team’s focus is supporting sexual minority youth, and the civil rights team focuses on what most civil rights groups do—civil rights for all students, with a focus on harassment and bullying.”

Gilbert said that the groups’ efforts have led to an overall attitude shift in the school, to the extent that students will call out teachers if they feel something inappropriate is being said or done. She shared one example.

“We have what is called the South End here, and I don’t like that, but the South End is where all of our ‘poor kids’ come from. So a teacher made a comment like, ‘He’s from the South End, of course he’d be dressing like that.’ The student said, ‘We really shouldn’t categorize students by where they are from.’ I was shocked, and the teacher came to me and told me about the comment and said that it wasn’t meant to be derogatory or flip, but just came out.”

It is stories like this that lead Gilbert to believe the mock slave auction would have been stopped before it got started at Waterville Junior High.

“I don’t think it would have happened,” Gilbert said. “So let’s say the teacher sets up an activity like this here. I feel fully confident that with the right student body advocate, there would have been a challenge. One of them would have said, ‘I’m not sure we should be doing this. I wonder how this makes Nikko feel?’”

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Article by Jason Tomaszewski, EducationWorld Associate Editor
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