Slave students

A seventh-grade teacher in a New York City suburb taped the hands of two black students and told the girls to crawl under their desks to simulate the horrible conditions endured by enslaved Africans on their journey to America.  One girl had volunteered; the other had not. Trouble ensued.

The teacher should be fired immediately for racism and/or stupidity, writes blogger Sharon McEachern at Ethics Soup.

I disagree.  Certainly, it was unwise to re-enact slavery with an unwilling student. But it was hardly enough to end a career.

I also think it’s a very inadequate way to get kids to understand the Middle Passage, which was infinitely worse than lying under a desk. In my youth as an assistant to a curriculum writer, I read an account of the voyage by an African who’d escaped slavery and taught himself to read and write. It made me cry. I was assigned to rewrite the ex-slave’s story in simple English so that 20th century students in California Youth Authority (juvenile prison) schools could read it. I felt like crying about that too.

For many years, a Palo Alto High teacher used re-enactments to teach history.  Each year, ninth graders were marched out of world history class by older students dressed as Gestapo to see scenes from The Diary of Anne Frank.  Everyone knew it was coming and yet every year some students were very upset when the Nazis “arrested” the Jews. This story includes two of my daughter’s friends, one of whom played a Nazi and was upset by it. Nobody thought it was anti-Semitic. Last year, the principal objected to a re-enactment of the Black Death; the teacher has taken a leave of absence.

About Joanne


  1. Diana Senechal says:

    This disturbs me at least as much as the teacher’s action:

    “‘If a student was upset, then it was a bad idea,’ said Superintendent Brian Monahan of the North Rockland School District in New York City’s northern suburbs.”

    Wrong! It is wrong to bind students, period. Even if no student had been upset, it would have been wrong. The superintendent’s statement contains a fallacy: how are we to know in advance what will upset a student? Are we always to judge our actions in retrospect? Have we no better gauge than a child’s reaction to what is already done?

    If we must rely on students’ feelings and reactions for our sense of right and wrong, we are in deep trouble. Certainly we must take their feelings and reactions into account. But an upsetting lesson (say, on Macbeth) could be educationally justifiable, whereas a teacher might do something objectionable without upsetting a single child.

    “Let the child decide” is no way to go. We need to help children judge right from wrong, not require them to help us.

    Diana Senechal

  2. Diana Senechal says:

    P.S. There is a grey area when it comes to reenactment. But binding (even with tape) is wrong.

  3. I’m not sure whether the post’s about the teacher with ideas about the educational uses of duct tape or a lefty who, having missed the civil rights era, wishes to resurrect it by finding “evidence” of racism under every rock and growing faint in its presence.

    If the story’s about the the educational uses of duct tape, it is worth keeping in mind that mandatory attendance means the kids are being instructed about slavery in a venue in which their presence isn’t voluntary. It doesn’t seem to be that outrageous an idea compared to some of the unspeakable nonsense that periodically erupts from ed schools. Certainly it wouldn’t result in graduating hordes of functional illiterates from the nation’s high schools which seems rather the greater crime.

    If the story’s about Sharon McEachern’s near-hysteria at the incident and her umbrage at the dearth of public outrage, who gives a damn? If Sharon McEachern feels cheated by history because the civil rights era came to an end before she had a chance to put on her spandex superhero costume and set right the wrongs of racism that’s of concern to adults for what reason? I don’t find my own self-indulgences all that interesting much less the self-indulgent yearnings of a frustrated Freedom Rider wannabee.

  4. I have a hard time as well in settling on what the issue(s) is(are), although my list is quite different from allen’s. In my local district a teacher bound a couple of high school girls with duct tape, in some kind of office adjacent to the classroom. He said it was just a joke. He was fired. I think that was appropriate. That one really was about the propriety of binding kids with duct tape.

    Re-enactment does present more of a grey area. Would the teacher who invented the blue eyes brown eyes demonstration following the death of Martin Luther King Jr. have been allowed to do such a thing today? After all–they were only 2nd or 3rd graders, and she was messing with their heads and they were upset. Was there lasting harm done, or was there harm that outweighed the value of the learning? These are important questions.

    McEachern points out that the teacher was white and the students were black–perhaps suggesting that there was in operation an additional layer to possible conditions of the re-enactment. We still ache from the harms of the middle passage and generations of segregation and unequal opportunity in this country. Is this a dimension that ought to have been taken into account? Is this more or less significant than the use of duct tape?

    I too recoil from the superintendent’s discomfort barometer. Understanding the Middle Passage, or the holocaust or clan lynchings or force-feeding suffragettes or a good many other injustices should make us and students uncomfortable. That is a good discomfort that that motivate action. On the other hand, I have heard white parents object to young students being taught that Dr. King was killed by a white man–based on their sense (or their children’s sense) of discomfort.

    I don’t know that there is an absolutely right response to this situation. I would vote for “stupid” in the use of duct tape, and possibly for isolating black students (if that is what happened–where there white students in the class?). I would probably not be in favor of firing–not only because I believe that some stupidity is redeemable–but because it offers up an illusion that a problem has been solved and will go away. I would prefer to see a solution that brings people together around the teaching and understanding of difficult content. Are there safe and appropriate ways to give students an understanding of the injustices of history? How do we present these things?

  5. I’m much harsher on the mother in my own post on the topic:

    I also offer up my own ordeal as a “bound” student in high school. I still suffer from nightmares! {drama /off}

  6. See, if 7th grade teachers would stick with the “All About Me” worksheets, we wouldn’t have problems like this.

    kidding, kidding.

  7. A question that I have had is did the teacher ask for volunteers or did she just randomly choose students to participate. This is not something I’ve seen addressed in the articles that I’ve read.

  8. Normally I agree with you, but as a parent of a black child who has had to endure far too many well-meaning slavery reenactments, I think teachers should just not go there.

  9. Richard Aubrey says:

    I think the students should re-enact Washington’s attack at Trenton.
    First, they go to the parking lot on Friday after school, late in December. Having one blanket and one PB&J, they stay there until midnight Sunday, whereupon they walk fifteen miles in the dark.
    We’ll leave out the part about fighting.
    Oh, yeah. This is only authorized north of the Mason Dixon line, or in unseasonably cold weather elsewhere.
    If you’re going to mess with students, do it with some panache, and teach a valuable lesson.

  10. Why not have teachers play-act the role of student! Ha ha! They can have the following experiences:

    1. Being denied such basic dignities as “going to the toilet when you please.”

    2. If you’re in a red state, being whacked on the butt for trivial for imaginary offenses with no due process.

    3. Being forced to study subjects you don’t care about for six hours a day.

    4. Being denied the right to social conversation for long periods of the day (sorry to apologists, but talking about school assignments in class doesn’t qualify as real social discourse).

    5. Having to endure all that misery and tedium for no money. (corollary: force the teachers to do hard labor for no pay under compulsion, and see how many of them can devise a word to describe it. I wonder if “slavery” would come to mind?)

    6. If somebody assaults them or steals from them, they cannot call the police for help.

    No wait, that’s too complicated: Let’s just have the teachers pretend to be prison guards (or nannies, if they teacher the lower grades) and see if they can see if its any different from their real job. (But I’ll admit, this isn’t as good as Mr. Aubrey’s suggestion about reenacting the Battle of Trenton. Haha! THAT’s pedagological creativity.)

  11. James:
    You miss the whole point of education-
    1) Education is a gift, not a curse. No other single factor has improved human society and life than education. Students have hated the rigors and discipline in school since it was “invented,” but despite their reluctance, they have gained an immenisvely valuable tool to empower them through their lives.

    2) Education includes not only content, but also behavioral knowledge, such as following the orders of a superior and respecting one’s elders. There is a big difference between the harm of slavery and the “harm” of mandatory schooling.

    Last time I checked, the students have a heck of a lot more “social” conversation than I or other teachers, have a lot more freedom to go to the bathroom, and sustain a heck of a lot more abuse (both verbal and physical) than any given student. For that, we are given a sum of money that is a pittance of the total value that is spent on a single class’s education.

    I’m going to guess that due to the fact that the idea of anything mandatory seems to makes you violently ill and that you felt the need to insult “red states,” that you are some product, directly or indirectly, of the 60’s hippie movement.

  12. Edit:

    I should have said that teachers sustain a heck of a lot more abuse than any given student.


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