‘Slavery game’ presents opportunity to become smarter: Will teacher and supporters take it?

This mural by Cincinnati artist Kyle Penunuri is called “Following the Tracks of the Underground Railroad in Warren County.” (AJC FIle)

The teaching of slavery in school is far more complicated than I realized after researching the issue this week in connection with the controversy in Cobb County where a simulation of the Underground Railroad in a fifth grade classroom angered a grandparent with the wherewithal to harness social media indignation.

One problem was the indignation was based in part on some misinformation, so the debate never reached a productive level.

I hope this essay helps change that as it tackles substantive issues worth discussing. Christina Berchini’s expertise is in race studies and teacher education. She is an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin Eau Claire. (Thanks to University of Georgia professor Peter Smagorinsky for steering Berchini our way.)

Several of the points Berchini raises were brought up on the earlier blog on this issue and in emails from teachers.

By Christina Berchini

The situation of the “slavery game” in Cobb County’s Cheatham Hill Elementary School has emerged as a prime example of the desperate need for white privilege training in both public schools and departments of teacher education across college campuses.

Note that I did not say “diversity training”—implying that people are unaware of diversity. Nor did I say “sensitivity training”—implying that we might do better to consider others’ feelings. This is not about “feelings.” We already see a ton of this kind of training in our corporate and public institutions, and it is typically met with lukewarm and dismissive responses, perhaps understandably so. This situation at Cheatham Hill Elementary—from the activity itself, to the utter dismissal of the concerns of the child and grandmother in question, to the gaggle of white support for the activity—has presented to us, practically on a silver platter, the need for better, harder, more meaningful discussions, not about diversity and sensitivity, but about what it means to be white teachers in today’s classrooms.

I am a teacher educator. I agree with Hope Largent—the teacher at the focus of this debacle—when she says that teaching about slavery is difficult. And while, as she points out, it is something required of the state standards, I am of the belief that slavery and the Civil Rights Movement are worthy of sustained, careful attention regardless of where these topics happen to be situated in the state or national standards.

I also agree with her principal—thinking outside of the box is the hallmark of good teaching.

Finally, I agree with the Cheatham Hill Elementary School’s fifth grade team when they point out that learning, particularly in this digital age, is very different from even five or ten years ago, let alone a generation ago. As any one of my student teachers will tell you, I abhor “boring lessons straight out of the textbook.”

And while I agree with these particular arguments, I have to ask, what do these points have to do with the potentially ill-conceived construction of a slavery simulation game? What, exactly, does slavery have to do with fun and games, and why are we not listening to a child who responded negatively to this classroom experience?

According to Cobb County demographics, approximately 40 percent of students enrolled in the Cobb County system are children of color. Moreover, students of color enrolled in Cheatham Hill Elementary School account for approximately 55 percent of the student population. There do not seem to be any available statistics speaking to the racial makeup of this particular school’s teaching force, but statistically, the vast majority of elementary school teachers are white (upwards of 90 percent, if not higher). Unlike generations before us, teachers are now tasked with thinking about what it means to be white educators of children from vastly different backgrounds. And this is where I believe Largent, her supporters, and the most recent coverage of the issue have missed the mark.

Firstly, the article focuses on how the Black child who shed light on her experience in class on that day was not the only Black child in the classroom. That, in fact, the class of 23 is quite diverse. I am left to wonder: Why does this matter? Because only one student internalized the experience in a way she found upsetting, means her interpretation of what happened in class on that day is null and void? Should she, could she have rallied the troops around her, in much the way her (white) teacher, (presumably white) colleagues, and select (presumably white) parents had?

I am reminded of when one of my teacher candidates approached me, some years ago. She nervously explained to me that another teacher had created a game about the Holocaust. Similarly, it was a roll-the-dice type of game where, if the dice landed a certain way, the player was forced into a gas chamber.

I imagine that students, in an unsettling sort of way, found that game enjoyable. I imagine the laughter and giggling punctuated by an air of competition; the “fun” they had perhaps overshadowing the reasons for teaching about these despicable events in the first place. Moreover, I do not know whether there were any Jewish children in that classroom. But I am inclined to ask: Does it matter?

Lessons about racism, and in the case of this current controversy, slavery, when ill-conceived and executed irresponsibly (as very well could be the case here), therein exists greater potential for negative psychological impacts on children of color, given this nation’s historical legacy of institutionalized discrimination, and current resurgence of openly expressed racism. Simply put, white students are not likely to receive and interpret curricular and pedagogical missteps in the same way, if it even occurs to them at all.

Hard to swallow? Let’s take a look at white privilege in action:

The teacher employed an activity that simulates the conditions slaves might encounter when they attempted to escape southern plantations. I wonder: Did the conditions represented in the different “stations” include maiming by bloodhounds? Did they include lashing and branding? A slicing off of the nose, or castration? How about lynching? Did the activity involve pardoning a master for murdering his slave, if his reason for doing so was legally determined to be “reasonable”? Because that is what slavery and escape entailed. Given that this is a fifth grade classroom, I am going to assume that the activity was substantially watered down and diluted of this sort of historical accuracy and detail. Had, though, the painful realities of runaway slaves been highlighted in these stations, how many of the white parents would have cried foul? How much of this lesson would have been categorized as “teaching outside of the box,” had it presented history in all of its sickening glory?

The problems with this activity, as I understand it, appear to be foundational. Slavery was a not a roll of the dice, a sort of luck of the draw, a fate distributed equally across the races, and it is a privilege of whiteness to represent (and support) it as such. For a child to have been upset by this particular approach to teaching about slavery suggests to me that she was taught a profound understanding of this nation’s history, perhaps by her family if not her school. For teachers, administrators, and parents to rally around this game as a sort of “out of the box” teaching method suggests to me that they have no such understanding. In the end, approaching the topic of slavery as a roll of the dice scenario—whether literally or metaphorically—undermines the very teaching this teacher had hoped to accomplish in this activity.

It is a privilege to go through 13 years of compulsory schooling and four years of teacher education believing that slavery, one of the ugliest chapters in this nation’s history, can be converted into a game for the purposes of giving students a good, fun time. For the purposes of entertainment. It is a privilege to think nothing of supporting an activity of this nature as a product of “thinking outside the box.”

It is a privilege to deflect from the possible misstep, here, by rallying the troops in the interest of  “clear[ing] up misinformation.” Because what matters, here, is that our chronically distracted, technology-obsessed children found the activity “fun.”

Not teaching about this chapter of our nation’s dark history is not, as the fifth grade team put it, an option. And I agree with Largent—slavery, an institution that relied on racism, power, and laws to protect itself —is, as she put it, a tough topic, and one that should be handled responsibly. But the aftermath of teaching it irresponsibly — as could very well be the case here — presents to us a teachable moment. An occasion to become smarter about what it means to teach about these issues.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Reader Comments 0

46 comments
two cents worth
two cents worth

Perhaps Ms. Berchini could expand her studies to include American privilege. Every person of every color born in America is born into privilege when compared to 90% of those born in other countries of the world. Ms. Berchini is making many assumptions of her own because she does not know the facts of the situation and that DOES matter.  

Starik
Starik

@two cents worth "American Privilege" is like "White Privilege," which resembles the privileges held by Greeks, then Romans, Persians, Egyptians, and the people of the British Empire. Whites in this country have enjoyed the benefits of their hard work and achievement, some of it by conquering some people, purchasing and retaining slaves, and other unpleasant means just like other successful builders and achievers. All empires end. 


Just out of curiosity, how and at what level do we teach the Reconstruction, Jim Crow and other more recent events? 

MiloD
MiloD

Relax, everyone. After a round of slavery games, we can play race cards. 

Lee_CPA2
Lee_CPA2

Wait for it, wait for it.....

"...desperate need for white privilege training..."

Yep, there it is.  Didn't have to wait long.  First sentence in the first paragraph.


So, Ms Berchini teaches "Critical Whiteness Studies" and is the author of politically correct vomit including "How to be White", "Why are all the teachers White", and "Go White, Indeed".  Let her utter one sentence critical of blacks and see how far her "white privilege" extends.


So-called "White Privilege" is the latest strategy of the Social Marxists to try to distract attention away from the dysfunction of black communities.  Otherwise, we might have discussions about why the black illegitimacy rate is 75%, or why the black murder rate is SIX TIMES that of the White murder rate.  We might even have a discussion on why if New York City were all white, the murder rate would drop by 91 percent, the robbery rate by 81 percent, and the shootings rate by 97 percent.  Plug in any major city, the percentages are similar.


But no, much easier to accuse someone of having "White privilege".  That way, we don't have to talk about the real issues.

After all, if order to solve a problem, you must first be able to discuss the problem.

redweather
redweather

@Lee_CPA2 The word "privilege" has been used now for at least three decades when discussing various societal/cultural hierarchies. In literature, for example, there are "privileged" texts, those being texts written by men exclusively and allowed to monopolize courses of studies.

I've never liked the use of the word "privilege" in these contexts because it is overly broad. For instance, the writings of Herman Melville, privileged though they may be, stand head and shoulders above just about anything every written by an American author. Calling them "privileged" ignores, or so it seems to me, their unusual excellence.

newsphile
newsphile

Knowing that the author of today's column reaps personal gain by continuing to pedal racial division lessens my ability to take the writing seriously. 
Only slightly off topic:   I do not approve of the slavery that occurred years ago any more than I approve of the current sex slave trade of today.  I do wish that everyone would understand that many white people never owned slaves and were struggling to feed their own families and that not all black people are descendants of slaves owned by white people.  Ignoring these facts does nothing but continue to incite racial divide.  Of course, sticking to the facts doesn't always earn fame and money for writers.

daks
daks

Of course, none of us were alive 150 years ago. 

Meanwhile, today's black family faces problems that have nothing at all to do with slavery: 3 out of 4 black children are growing up without a father in the home, the resulting crime wave is killing them, traditional public schools serving their communities are hopeless ...

But partisan white journalists distract us with this stuff.

daks
daks

@redweather @daks 

Any "shadow" is being manufactured by the liberal media ... to the detriment of black children they apparently care very little for.

kaelyn
kaelyn

@daks Which black family are you talking about? Certainly not mine, where my husband is a wonderful father to our children and has been for decades. Funny thing is, most of our friends are living in the same situation and they happen to look just like us.

But ignorant people, white AND black distract us by saying that all (fill in the blank) are the same.

daks
daks

@kaelyn 

The figures come from the Census Bureau, but it sounds as though you yourself are blessed. 

Now how do we help more black children share that blessing?

eulb
eulb

"I am a teacher instructor."

I am glad to see someone who is presumably competent to offer an acceptable lesson plan for Underground Railroad.  But very, very disappointed that Christina Berchini did not provide the lesson plan or even a hint of what would be an acceptable way to instruct students on this topic.  

I don't know whether or how this topic is presented in Ms. Berchini's state, but here in Georgia, all 5th grade teachers (regardless of their own race/ethnicity) are required to teach it.  It cannot be avoided or postponed.  Some 5th grade classes have already reached this topic this year.  Others will arrive there soon.  So how about divulging a lesson plan that would be acceptable to Hope Largent's critics? 

Any lesson dealing with slavery is difficult.  But the USA is not the only country where difficult topics must be taught in public schools.  Can you imagine being a teacher in Germany and teaching a unit on the Holocaust?  Especially if some of your students are Jewish and their relatives may have perished in concentration camps?  But the topic must be taught, and they do teach it.  

I'd love to see an essay by a German teacher explaining how they present those difficult lessons. And soon!  Might be very helpful to Georgia teachers whose Underground Railroad and Civil War lessons are looming.  

redweather
redweather

@eulb If you are a teacher, why do you need someone to develop a lesson plan for you? Were you perhaps looking for Ms. Berchini to provide one so that you could pick it apart?

Although I have never taught ten year olds, I don't understand why addressing the Underground Railroad should present unusual difficulties, or that it should be any more difficult than addressing slavery in general. 

Obviously the lesson would have to be age appropriate. Some details regarding the physical treatment of slaves would have to be glossed over or the teacher would have another problem to deal with. But discussing how some slaves were able to escape from the south via this so-called Underground Railroad, and that southern slave holders hired men to track down escaped slaves and prevent their escape are matters of historical fact.

The most difficult thing about teaching this subject, whether students are ten or twenty, is why slavery was at one time perfectly legal and tolerated in this country. But I don't think it is impossible to help young people understand that history is replete with examples of various forms of inhumanity that are no longer considered legitimate. 


eulb
eulb

@redweather I am not a school teacher.  I'm a parent.   I appreciate what teachers do.  I'm not looking to pick apart anyone's lesson plan.  But I do think teachers are being left without guidance here.  An example of a successful, appropriate lesson plan would be helpful.  If there was something wrong with the way Ms. Largent presented this topic to her class, what was it, and what is a better approach?  

Ms. Berchini focused some of her criticism on the use of dice/randomness in Ms. Largent's simulation.  That's not unique to Ms. Largent's lesson plan, though.  If you look at GA's DOE website and the standard pertaining to this topic, you'll find some suggested websites.  Those sites provide students with Underground Railroad simulations that are very similar to the simulation Ms. Largent used in her class.  The main difference is:  students using the websites don't use physical dice.  My understanding is:  the "random" aspect is still there, just built into the computer program.  I would think that anyone who finds Ms. Largent's approach unacceptable would also fine the online simulations unacceptable, even though the state DOE recommends them.  Should the DOE remove those links and discourage using simulations for this topic?

It's easy to criticize what Ms. Largent did if you don't have to offer an alternative plan.  But that doesn't help teachers at all, nor serve the students' needs.  Christina Berchini apparently teaches teachers how to teach.  I'd like to know:  if she were teaching this topic to 5th graders, what would she do with it? 


redweather
redweather

@eulb @redweather It is hard for me to respond since I have no idea what these online random simulations are like. Is "randomness" part of the assignment?

eulb
eulb

@redweather "The most difficult thing about teaching this subject, whether students are ten or twenty, is why slavery was at one time perfectly legal and tolerated in this country. But I don't think it is impossible to help young people understand that history is replete with examples of various forms of  inhumanity that are no longer considered legitimate." 

I  agree completely.

Astropig
Astropig

I noticed that she used Liberal Privilege to criticize White Privilege.Liberal Privilege is the ability to call anyone that disagrees with you a racist or a bigot.


The above essay is divisive and hateful.Not worthy of serious consideration.

bu22
bu22

@Astropig She's not much of an educator if she doesn't see how throwing White privilege in there automatically causes half the people to tune her out.  I was tempted to quit but lumbered through it.  She didn't explain how "white privilege" was involved, only how some things like insensitivity that she dismissed might have been involved.  Good simulation games can be really powerful ways to get understanding.  I remember a labor/management simulation from high school history that emphasized the lessons and feelings far more than any reading could do.

MotocrossSurvivor
MotocrossSurvivor

The efforts to continue dredging up ancient history like this is really intended to continue to stir the hate against Anglo America.  How does it go, oh yeah, Stop the Hate.  They want that door to only swing one way, IOW, yet another double standard.  Everybody but the hatemongers are a bit tired of it.

MotocrossSurvivor
MotocrossSurvivor

@Astropig @MotocrossSurvivor But what has David Duke ever done?  Has he ever killed anybody? hurt anybody? Encouraged violence against anybody? Stolen anybody's land?  Sprayed anybody with sewer water? Destroyed anybody's orchards?  Their homes? Mass murdered while claiming self defense?  Shot children in the head?  None of that.  What he has done is the same as Jewish people and blacks do constantly: speak up about preserving their culture and heritage.  When a white guy does it, we are taught that it is HATE.  When anybody else does it, it is admired and supported.  Duke has been a smear target from Jewish groups nearly as much as Hitler.

MotocrossSurvivor
MotocrossSurvivor

@kaelyn Fifty bucks says an IQ- 75 like this sees no problem with the crimes of the ultra supremacist Jewish state.  We have so many lemmings--and they sometimes vote.  Ever wonder why this country is going to hell....

kaelyn
kaelyn

Wow. Defending white supremacist, David Duke.

redweather
redweather

I would say Ms. Berchini has hit the nail on the head  . . . a couple of times.

Wascatlady
Wascatlady

I would expect that some parents, white and black, would react negatively to a game that reduces life to a crapshoot.  That is, that what happens to you is just a roll of the dice, and you have no opportunity to improve your life; it is preordained.


In addition, sometimes I wonder about those who set our curriculum goals--that maybe they suffer from "white privilege" as well?

DrPohl
DrPohl

I read Prof. Berchini's piece with great eagerness to learn about better ways to teach youngsters about the difficult history of slavery. I was greatly disappointed. She did not make a single constructive suggestion. Rather, she repeatedly criticized the supposed "fun" aspect of simulation activities about painful topics. Nowhere did I get the impression that that elementary school teacher who used simulation about slavery wanted it or expected it to be fun. I think Prof. Berchini contributed nothing to this important topic but, instead, laid unjustified blame on hard-working, well-meaning, competent teachers.

Astropig
Astropig

@DrPohl


Agree.The teacher here is the chum thrown to the sharks of Political Correctness.Other teachers would be well advised to watch and learn from the way that she is treated.

dsw2contributor
dsw2contributor

Professor Christina Berchini is a white lady who describes herself as "a native New Yorker from Brooklyn".  According to the link Maureen posted, 11 of her 17 published papers are about "Critical Whiteness Studies".

Professor Berchini teaches at a college where 89% of the undergraduate students are White (Source: http://www.collegeportraits.org/WI/UWEC/characteristics).  Her college is located in a city where 93% of the population is White (Source: http://eauclaire.areaconnect.com/statistics.htm) and in a state that is 87.6% White (Source: http://www.census.gov/quickfacts/table/PST045215/55).

What experience and qualifications does she have regarding instruction in diverse classrooms in the south?

Astropig
Astropig

@dsw2contributor


"What experience and qualifications does she have regarding instruction in diverse classrooms in the south?"


None.She sees her hatred as a path to power.Nothing more,nothing less.

Lee_CPA2
Lee_CPA2

@dsw2contributor

I agree.  She needs to take a stroll around some of Atlanta's more "vibrant" communities about sundown.

cuppa
cuppa

Was there ever a country with a media as obsessed with the color black?

Infinite Hope
Infinite Hope

Oh, brother. If it happens that it might have happened, we should all feel guilt for some priviledge gained because it could possibly have happened and take steps to never forget what might have happened, if that's what happened.

Annette Laing
Annette Laing

More likely, they will avoid discussing subjects like slavery for fear of giving offense, and inviting massively patronizing responses like this. I have done a roleplay with children of factory child labor in the industrial revolution. Sometimes, they laugh and get silly, because they are children. But without attacking their responses, I also drive home the point that child labor was a major factor in slavery and industrialization. and still is. I am an academic historian (PhD, Early American history)and have worked with kids for over a decade. So long as the Georgia curriculum introduces subjects like 19th century Georgia to kids, we have a responsibility to try to get through to them that slavery was a part of that history, reaching them where they are. I won't address this specific effort, because I still don't know enough about what happened, but I will say that we don't need more education experts ensuring that kids' interest in history is destroyed for yet another generation.

AJC  Get Schooled
AJC Get Schooled

Would love to have a column from you expanding these points.