Parents quickly brought the assignment to leaders at Blades Elementary School, who apologized for a “culturally insensitive” exercise, placed the teacher on administrative leave and promised new training for staff across campus. Families and community members blasted the St. Louis school’s teaching tool as “absolutely unacceptable” and potentially traumatizing for young people.
For many, it was another reminder that schools still struggle with teaching a horrific chapter of American history that some call a “third rail” in early education. With headlines about a classroom’s use of mock auctions of black students less than a year old, experts saw a familiar pitfall in teachers’ quest for activities that go beyond rote memorization.
“Teachers, you know, they’re not fully thinking the assignment through, and they’re trying to do something more than just give kids a textbook,” said Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education who has contributed to a nationwide initiative recommending best practices for teaching American slavery.
But, Thomas wondered, would anyone suggest role-playing a genocide? A modern-day humanitarian crisis?
“We see assignments like this all the time,” she said. “It’s because we’re really wrestling with how to teach about the trauma of the past.”
In a letter to families, Blades Elementary Principal Jeremy Booker said on Monday that he is working with school district officials to give cultural bias training to every teacher and staff member in the school. Mehlville School District Superintendent Chris Gaines followed up Tuesday with his own note, saying it is unacceptable to put students through a simulation that “puts a price on a person.”
“Racism of any kind, even inadvertently stemming from cultural bias, is wrong and is not who we aspire to be as a school district,” he wrote.
Booker said he had met that morning with the unidentified teacher to talk about the assignment’s purpose, the staffer’s interpretation of curriculum standards and “the impact the activity could have on students.”
The teacher has “expressed significant remorse,” he said.
The assignment that led to an investigation, Booker said, was meant to fit in with state and local social studies curriculum: Students are supposed to learn about “having goods, needing goods and obtaining goods and how that influenced early settlement in America.”
The work sheet asked students to imagine that they own a plantation or farm and “therefore need more workers.”
Dismayed community members zeroed in on dehumanizing language.
“Your product to trade is slaves,” the sheet instructs, before moving on to reflection prompts about the “free market economy.”
The assignment “does not speak to us taking care of each other as human beings,” the president of the St. Louis County branch of the NAACP, John Bowman, told FOX 2.
Angela Walker told local news station KMOV that she was stunned to discover the work sheet in her son’s folder of school materials.
“We have to be more culturally sensitive,” she said. “We can say get over a homework assignment. It’s just a homework assignment. That was 100 years ago. It was but it’s still someone else’s family.”
“Maybe there are people who don’t see the wrong in it but we need to be talking about it,” she added.
Stories of misguided or whitewashed lessons on slavery have repeatedly frustrated experts and families. Textbooks have turned to euphemisms such as “workers” to describe the people forced into bondage in the United States. One teacher was rebuked last year for asking students about both the “negative” and “positive” parts of slavery.
What students learn about slavery varies widely by state, The Post’s Joe Heim reported earlier this year:
In their official standards for teaching social studies and history, some states explicitly call for teaching about aspects of slavery throughout a student’s K-12 education, while others refer to it in passing or not at all.
Massachusetts mentions slavery 104 times in its history and social studies framework. Louisiana’s standards for K-12 social studies refer to slavery four times. Idaho’s guidelines mention slavery twice. Few states mention the enslavement of Native Americans in their standards despite growing scholarship that points to it being widespread in early colonial America and continuing throughout much of the 19th century, particularly in Western states and territories.
Schools that want to tackle slavery both honestly and sensitively can shun simulations for resources like books that center on enslaved children, said Thomas, the University of Pennsylvania professor — stories that are more than dry textbooks but don‘t threaten to traumatize like a re-enactment.
The best books will capture more than servitude, she said. They will show that “an enslaved child has family, has friends, can still play, had an imagination.”
“That’s really important,” she said.