Slavery Lesson Exposes Flaws in U.S. Education

Not only has a mock slave auction humiliated a black fifth-grader, but it also exemplifies the kind of teaching that is destroying an entire generation's chances for success.

Nikko Burton

Also to blame are state and local attacks on teachers, which could impede Nikko’s chances of getting out of high school, as well as federal education policy. States are attacking teacher labor agreements. In Wisconsin the governor is attempting to eliminate collective bargaining, while the New Jersey governor lashes out at teachers and their union whenever he can. In Ohio the legislature has sharply reduced teachers’ collective-bargaining rights. Teacher layoffs are spreading across the country, from New York City to Los Angeles.

Meanwhile, Washington argues that having more testing, getting rid of “bad” teachers, establishing more charter schools and paying teachers based on pupil performance will upgrade teaching and learning — claims made with barely a scintilla of evidence.

Also crucial to the success of black boys like Nikko is having black male teachers as role models and mentors. “Black males represent 6 percent of the U.S. population, yet 35 percent of the prison population and less than 2 percent of teachers,” said Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, pleading for black men to enter teaching during a town hall meeting at Morehouse College. Yet it’s worth asking why a black man should become a teacher in this environment.

It’s also worth noting that while the slave-master experiment should not have happened, it tackled a topic that we must not avoid. We must confront controversial topics in school curricula, whether they are the evils of slavery or hunger or homophobia. And if a boy like Nikko is going to graduate and go on to college, he must be challenged, and he must learn to write persuasive essays, to analyze text, and to defend and argue for his beliefs.

As a teacher, I would give the following assignments:

Nikko, watch this three-minute YouTube video and listen to the actress Alice Walker read an 1851 speech by Sojourner Truth, the abolitionist who spent part of her life enslaved. Listen carefully, and write a few sentences about the speech.

We call this a “quick write” exercise and use it to simulate discussion in the class. Here is another example:

Nikko, your assignment is to react to this quote by Frederick Douglass, a freed slave who worked to free all slaves. Look up the words you don’t know. “If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightning.”

What is Mr. Douglass trying to say? Do you agree with him? Why?

Nikko might say, “Mr. G, this is really hard.”

If he does, then you know you’re doing your job.

Peter Goodman has taught in a Brooklyn, N.Y., high school, served on his union’s executive board and taught education at the New School University. He now works as a consultant in the design and support of new high schools and writes a blog, Ed in the Apple: The Intersection of Education and Politics.

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