New Jersey Elementary School Project Goes Wrong

March 24th 2017

Ethan Simon

For the second time this month, parents in a New Jersey school district are enraged the insensitive depiction of black Americans in lessons about slavery.

Maplewood NJ

The latest faux-auction was not assigned by any teacher, Nj.com reports.

Rather, several 5th grade students in South Orange Maplewood District orchestrated the auction as part of their project on the Triangular Slave Trade — a part of the curriculum on colonialism. According to the report, students held an auction in which they sold a black classmate, and asked other students to participate, apparently filming the entire event. The students' usual teacher was out for a dental surgery, and the students were presenting to a substitute. It wasn't until after the teacher's return that she realized what had happened.

Her letter to parents regarding the incident reads, in part:

"While I understand the creative effort, and the impact it had upon the students [sic] viewed this, I used it as a teachable moment to elaborate on the gravity of this part in our history," the Jefferson Elementary School teacher wrote.

Parents were concerned, as well. “There was a sale of a black child by white children in the classroom. If you’re demoralized — sold on a block in 2017 — it may affect you the rest of your life," Tracey Jarmon-Woods, a parent, told CBS New York.

Slave Ship

The school's letter to parents regarding the incident, obtained by ABC 7 New York, reads, in part: "When we had the opportunity to view the full video last week, we were concerned to see how lightly students treated the topic. The jovial nature of the video suggests that either there is a lack of understanding about the true barbarity of a slave auction, or a lack of awareness of how treating this topic comically is offensive."

But according to the school district, the problem isn't that the teachers are approaching the topic of slavery lightly at all.

"Teachers are treating the topic with gravity," said Suzanne Turner, Director of Strategic Communication. "That said, we are in the process of revising our social studies curriculum (this work began in September), and will certainly take a close look at the unit on Colonial America as part of that process."

Maplewood sits just past Newark Airport outside of New York City, and the question of how to deal with slavery has proved particularly troubling for the school district.

Just last week, students at South Mountain Elementary in Orange, NJ were tasked with creating mock slave auction posters as part of a school project.

Slave Auction Poster (Submitted to Nj.com)

One parent, Jamil Karriem, posted the following message on Facebook:

"These images were on display for all students (ages ranging from 4-10) to see, including those that would lack any context of the underlying 'lesson' or 'purpose.' Educating young students on the harsh realities of slavery is of course not the issue here, but the medium for said education is grossly insensitive and negligent. In a curriculum that lacks representation for students of color, it breaks my heart that these will be the images that young black and brown kids see of people with their skin color. Furthermore, it is COMPLETELY lost on me how this project could be an effective way to teach any student in any age group about American history."

South Orange Train Station

The school responded by removing the posters and apologizing to parents.

However, according to Nj.com, some parents support the project, on the grounds that the assignment allows students to grapple with the harsh realities of slavery.

On Wednesday, March 29 the school district will hold a "town hall on equity and inclusion" featuring Professor Khalil Gibran Muhammad, a professor of Professor of History, Race and Public Policy at Harvard Kennedy School.

South Orange Maplewood School District Flyer

"Kids are going to have a range of responses to difficult material," said Muhammad, "Some will make light others will turn inward and feel shame. It is our job as parents and teachers to work through all of this. Adults spend years in therapy for personal trauma. How could we expect 10 year olds and 13 year olds to fully grasp historical trauma the first, second or even third time around. The town hall needs to leave people with a better understanding of why teaching slavery is difficult and not optional. People also should consider that black history is not simply the record of greatest moments and singular achievements. No history we teach in school is simply a record of success."