There’s no easy way to explain the brutal horror of America’s slave history to young people in an elementary school classroom.
But here’s one way not to illustrate that horror: Allow the students to carry out a mock slave trade.
School officials at Jefferson School in Maplewood, N.J., say that’s exactly what happened in a fifth grade classroom that was under the supervision of a substitute teacher earlier this month.
“There was a sale of a black child by white children in the classroom,” Tracey Jarmon-Woods, a mother whose child attends the same school, told CBS New York. “If you’re demoralized — sold on a block in 2017 — it may affect you the rest of your life.”
According to a note sent home with students by the fifth graders’ regular teacher, the incident occurred March 9 when the class’s teacher was out for the day having dental surgery. As part of an ongoing project focused on colonial history, a substitute instructor allowed students to use “creative license” when depicting part of the Triangular Slave Trade by orchestrating and filming the mock slave auction.
The students had been asked to research elements of colonial life and make a presentation to the class using PowerPoint. School officials said one group of students filmed an “impromptu video reenactment” instead.
“While I understand the creative effort, and the impact it had upon the students who viewed this, I used it as a teachable moment to elaborate on the gravity of this part in our history,” the teacher’s note said. “I was concerned about the students who viewed and participated in this reenactment and would like to convey this event to you so we can address the students’ perceptions as a whole.”
A spokeswoman for the district, Suzanne Turner, told The Washington Post that the decision to reenact the slave auction was “absolutely led by the students” and not authorized by South Orange and Maplewood School District.
Despite not being part of the plans left by the teacher, Turner said, students told the substitute that their teacher had approved the exercise.
“The substitute did not follow the classroom plans left by the teacher and instead allowed this exercise to go in this other direction,” she said.
Turner said the classroom — like the community itself — is a very diverse environment and black students were in the classroom at the time that the mock auction was held. Turner said the school has tried to turn the incident into a lesson, one designed to restore damaged relationships and educate young people about the gravity of America’s history of slavery.
“We offer mandatory substitute training and we’re making sure we incorporate this incident more explicitly in our next round of training for substitutes as well,” Turner said.
South Orange, N.J., is just over 60 percent white and about 29 percent black, with the remaining residents split fairly evenly between Asian and Hispanic Americans, according to the 2015 U.S. Census.
A letter sent to parents by Jefferson Elementary School Principal Kimberly Hutchinson said administrators who reviewed the students’ video of the auction were struck by how “lightly students treated the topic.”
“The jovial nature of the video suggests that either there is a lack of understanding about the true barbarity of a slave auction, or a lack of awareness of how treating this topic comically is offensive,” the letter said.
The letter went on to suggest additional work was needed to help students consider how disrespectful it is to joke about slavery to all Americans, but “especially to the African American community.”