Opinion Brief

A 4th-grade teacher's 'appalling' slave-auction lesson

Trying to bring Civil War-era history to life, a teacher turns her elementary school classroom into a mock slave auction. Worst lesson plan ever?

The video: In a misguided effort to educate students about the horror of Civil War-era America, a fourth-grade teacher in Norfolk, Va., set up a mock slave auction in her classroom. (See a news report about the incident below.) On April 1, Sewells Point Elementary's Jessica Boyle divided up her classroom and had white 9-year olds "sell" their black and mixed-race counterparts. After parents expressed outrage, principal Mary B. Wrushen sent them a letter on April 6, conceding that the auction was "inappropriate for the students." While it's unclear what the repercussions will be for Boyle — the school only says it is taking "personnel actions" — she is not the first teacher to set up a fake slave auction. Just last month, a teacher in Columbus, Ohio, did the same thing.
The reaction: "The attempt to stage a mock slave trade is a mockery of the institution of slavery itself and the experiences of those whose lives were destroyed by it," says Nsenga Burton at The Root. Schoolteachers, please take note: Any type of re-enactment regarding such a "precarious period" in the country's history is a bad idea. Yes, Boyle showed "appalling judgment" with her lesson, says The Virginian-Pilot in an editorial. But this incident also reminds us that "race retains a potency unrivaled in our culture." That only reinforces the point that 9-year-olds should learn about such complicated issues; in this case, "it is not what was taught at Sewells Point that was the problem. It was the way it was taught." Check out local news coverage of the mock slave auction:

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