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Mock Slave Auctions: How Not to Teach Kids About America's History Mock Slave Auctions: How Not to Teach Kids About America's History

Mock Slave Auctions: How Not to Teach Kids About America's History

by Liz Dwyer

April 14, 2011


When it comes to educating kids about the Civil War and slavery, teachers might want to think twice about the appropriateness of their experiential learning activities. According to the Washington Post, Jessica Boyle, a fourth grade teacher at Sewells Point Elementary School in Norfolk chose to teach a lesson on the Civil War by turning her classroom into a slave auction. Boyle segregated her students—black and mixed race students on one side of the room, and white students on the other. The teacher then had the white students, all around ten years old, play the role of slave master and take turns purchasing their black and biracial peers.

The incident came to light after parents, understandably, complained. The school's principal, Mary B. Wrushen, sent a letter home stating that although Boyle's "actions were well intended to meet the instructional objectives, the activity presented was inappropriate for the students." Wrushen said the lesson was not supported by the school or district and acknowledged that it "could have been thought through more carefully, as to not offend her students or put them in an uncomfortable situation."

Boyle probably did have good intentions, but teaching about the atrocities of slavery through such a visceral lesson simply is not appropriate. Not only does her make-believe slave auction mock the real horror of slavery, it's just absolutely unacceptable for a teacher to single out students specifically according to race for any kind of activity. Unfortunately, Boyle is not the only teacher out there that thinks that it's alright to deliberately put nonwhite students in a position where they're made to feel inferior. In March, an Ohio teacher also staged a mock slave auction, and then punished one of her black fifth graders when he refused to participate.

It's pretty incomprehensible that these teachers aren't thinking of the possible effects of their "lessons" on student self esteem. Consider these mock auctions through the lens of the infamous Stanford prison experiment, where researchers divided students into either prisoners or prison guards. The participants completely internalized their roles, and the project had to be halted after just six days. It's also not out of the question to wonder, especially given that black students are half as likely to be placed in a gifted and talented class, do these teachers subconsciously think that it is alright for black kids to be put in a position where they're inferior?

Unfortunately, when someone decides to become a teacher, their own biases don't automatically disappear. And, a magic wand doesn't wave over them, instantly endowing them with the skills to teach painful parts of American history. Teacher preparation programs also often don't train educators how to thoughtfully approach such subjects, and thanks to the pressure of high stakes reading and math tests, fewer school districts are spending the time on social studies and history professional development. Clearly, in light of these incidents, that needs to change. In the meantime, to all other teachers thinking of staging similar activities—mock lynchings, mock hunting of slaves who've run north, mock slave whippings—please reconsider your lesson plans.

photo via Wikimedia Commons

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