Va. teacher holds mock slave auction

April 11, 2011

Trying to bring a Civil War history lesson to life, teacher Jessica Boyle turned her fourth grade Norfolk classroom into a slave auction: She ordered black and mixed race students to one side of the classroom. Then, the white students took turns buying them.

Parent complaints began rolling in shortly after the April 1 lesson, and the principal at Sewells Point Elementary School, Mary B. Wrushen, wrote to parents last week that Boyle had gone too far.

“The lesson could have been thought through more carefully, as to not offend her students or put them in an uncomfortable situation,” Wrushen wrote.

Lessons on the Civil War have long been among the most sensitive topics in Virginia classrooms, many located near the grounds of the Confederacy’s bloodiest battles. And the role that slavery played in the conflict’s origins has been particularly controversial.

Boyle’s attempt to drive home the connection between slavery and war took place in an elementary school named for one of Virginia’s earliest Civil War skirmishes, the Battle of Sewells Point, which was fought within sight of campus grounds, near the mouth of Hampton Roads. Boyle taught her lesson less than two weeks before the 150th anniversary of the conflict.

“She had not conducted a mock slave auction in class before,” Norfolk public schools spokeswoman Elizabeth Thiel Mather wrote in a statement. She added that “appropriate personnel action is being taken” but would not discuss the details.

Boyle has been teaching in Norfolk for six years.

Sewells Point’s fourth grade class is about 40 percent black and 40 percent white.

Calls made to Boyle through the school’s communications department were not returned.

Last month, an Ohio television station reported that a teacher at an elementary school near Columbus divided a fourth grade class into slaves and masters.

Kevin Sieff has been The Post’s bureau chief in Afghanistan since 2012. He served previously as an education reporter in Washington, and had covered the U.S. -Mexico border.
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