A History Lesson Gone Wrong

All good history teachers work to bring the past alive for their students. Yes, it wreaks of cliche, but there is a grain of truth in the attempt to broaden our students’ perspective, to help them to see themselves as part of a broader narrative. In working toward this end we introduce students to a wide range of experiences from traditional primary sources to the sights and smells of the past. Some of the most meaningful lessons are those that provide an opportunity for students to make a personal connection with the past and that connection is often couched in emotion. This is not easy to do, and I don’t mind admitting that I tend to steer clear of these types of lessons, not because of any skepticism regarding the value of emotional identification, but owing to its potential to become a distraction from the historical reference itself. At the same time I believe that the history classroom can be an ideal setting in which students can exercise their other-regarding emotions such as empathy and sympathy. Again, my concern is that it be done carefully and with an understanding that up to a certain age students are self-centered and self-conscious.

With this in mind consider the lesson plan of Haverstraw Middle School teacher, Eileen Bernstein, who, in an attempt to teach the horrors of the slave trade chose to bind the hands and feet of her students and have them crouch under their desks. Her goal was to impress upon them the cramped quarters of a slave ship. As you can imagine some of the parents were very upset with the teacher’s decision after their children came home visibly upset. Unfortunately, there isn’t enough information to gauge how the teacher used this simulation in class. How did she hope to translate the emotion of the simulation where hands and feet are tied and turn it into a history lesson? What questions were the children being asked to consider?

Now I don’t teach middle school-aged kids, but it seems to me that given their emotional maturity it is going to be difficult for the teacher to redirect that emotion from self to other. In other words, how is it possible to get the student to look beyond his/her own feelings and anxiety to consider something historical or remote? Perhaps it is possible as in the famous case of the teacher who, in an attempt to demonstrate the hideousness of racism, divided her class to give the students a sense of what it is like to be discriminated against. However, even if the psychological leap is possible in such a situation, does this simulation have anything at all to do with the life of a slave? Does this in any way assist children in recreating in their minds the reality of the “Middle Passage”?

The teacher in question has apologized for causing any problems with her students, but refuses to apologize for using the simulation in class. I’m just waiting for the next story where the teacher asks her Jewish students to simulate “Sophie’s Choice” upon entering a mock Concentration Camp.

4 comments… add one
  • Kevin Levin Dec 6, 2008 @ 14:38

    Rob and Greg, — Thanks for the thoughtful comments. I was not considering the racial dynamic of teacher and student in any way. My concern was primarily with whether the lesson itself can really tell middle school students anything interesting about the horrors of the slave trade. It seems to me that all she did was give her students the experience of having their hands tied while crouched under their desks. I tend to agree with Greg’s assessment given his experience with this age range. Thanks again guys.

  • Greg Rowe Dec 6, 2008 @ 12:51

    As a middle school teacher, without the tying of hands, I have used the “getting under the desk” simulation of the Middle Passage in teaching middle school students about slavery. You are correct; the psychological effect escapes most students this age. Even when they ask about how one would be fed, relieve bodily functions or what would happen if one person got sick, the response is usually never more than, “Eww! Gross!” or “Well, that sucks!” Students at this age cannnot get past how they would respond to a similar circumstance based on actual experience. A middle schooler’s world is pretty small with not enough life experience (either actual or through reading, viewing or listening) with which to compare this simulation, never mind that a middle schooler’s psychological attachment to any other human doesn’t go very much beyond his/her family, circle of friends or latest crush. That’s not an indictment against these kids as human beings, it’s simply where they are developmentally in their brains.

    As for this teacher, most states have laws against restraining children in the classroom making an outcry by parents something to be expected rather than coming as a shock. Even in the context of a history lesson, the teacher might need to rethink her approach to this simulation. As teachers we should be free to teach, but we should also consider how a lesson might be perceived. Informing parents of the activity and even making it voluntary based on parental consent might be a better approach. These are issues I’m considering with regard to language and the Civil War elective class I have been given clearance to teach next year. It will be open to 7th and 8th graders. The use of primary sources from this era does include language some might find offensive. I am warning parents up front and students must have permission to take the class. Parents and student are being informed, up front, of the language issue and that no concessions will be made for alternative assignments. Students and parents can make the decision on whether or not to take the class or let their child take the class fully aware of the situation.

  • Rob Wick Dec 6, 2008 @ 8:30

    Kevin, normally I find myself in agreement with you about 98 percent of the time, but this case falls into that other two percent. I wonder if the two students had not been black, or if she had included white students as well, would the outcry have been as loud? What if the teacher had been black instead of white?

    One of the students even volunteered to do this. The teacher was wrong to make the girl participate (maybe in her mind doing that was attempting to show how blacks at that time had no choice as to whether they would be slaves…in that attempt I would agree it was wrongheaded). Even so, I think the parent overreacted. In the first place, tape is not the same as shackles. Second, the teacher was attempting to help these children understand something that, divorced from the emotionalism, comes across as hard to comprehend. A teacher can read to students from slave accounts, but showing them, albeit in a forced (meaning not realistic) situation will bring the lesson home to many more. I think middle school students especially would be more likely to learn from a demonstrative point of view as opposed to movies or first-hand accounts alone.

    As you might expect, I also disagree with the idea of divorcing emotionalism from this. With math or science you can do that, but when you’re telling the story of our experience in the world, to do so seems to me to push it toward the “dry-as-dust” history that tends to live and propagate in our school systems.

    Maybe I’m wrong, but reading between the lines, somehow this smacks to me of the idea that only blacks can know, and therefore are the only ones qualified to teach, what the experience of slavery was like. There was an episode of the Fox show “Boston Public” where a white teacher was trying to teach a lesson based on Randall Kennedy’s book “Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word” and was shouted down by the black teachers because of their view that no white person could understand what the word meant to blacks. Not only is that arrogant, it is wrong. Whites, as well as blacks, can understand and can offer their own experiences as to what the word means and what it symbolizes. In fact, isn’t something like that more likely to bring understanding between all parties instead of placing them further apart?

    I’m glad the teacher refused to apologize for the idea of the lesson, even if I might have approached some things differently. As to your comment about the Jewish children and the Holocaust, doesn’t the Holocaust Museum in Washington do just about the same thing by asking you to take on the identity of someone who experienced it first-hand?


  • John Cummings Dec 6, 2008 @ 5:24

    Visitors to the site of the future United States National Slavery Museum in Fredericksburg, Virginia can currently participate in interactive displays where they are encouraged to experience certain similar traumas. These include a simulated crawlspace used for hiding travelers on the Underground Railroad. All of this is presented in a “garden” atmosphere with extensive interpretive signs. It is presented as the “Spirit of Freedom Garden”.
    This is all done to provide “greater knowledge and understanding of the history of slavery”, states L. Douglas Wilder, the Museum’s Founder.
    Visit their website: http://www.usnationalslaverymuseum.org/home.asp

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