East Lansing School District apologizes for slavery assignment

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Posted at 4:48 PM, Apr 19, 2021

EAST LANSING, Mich. — East Lansing Public Schools is planning to change its curriculum after a homework assignment on slavery came under criticism from parents.

The assignment asked students to imagine how they would feel as slaves in several different circumstances. Parents said the assignment was insensitive and even traumatizing for Black students.

"We don't make any defense on this assignment, but it's completely wrong, and, and we're not going to waste any time trying to defend it or talk about our intentions or any of those kinds of things. It was an inappropriate assignment it was a hurtful assignment," said Director of Curriculum Glenn Mitcham.

"As curriculum director, I feel responsible that it ever got put in front of our kids you know we all as educators are responsible for every single thing that goes in front of our children, and the fact that it ended up in front of our kids is extremely disheartening and we need to do better than that."

The assignment, given to eighth-grade students in a social studies class at MacDonald Middle School in February, "asked students to put themselves in a place of what it would feel like to be a slave," he said. "And it did it in a number of different ways. One time it asked them to look at an artistic rendering of a slave, what you would assume to be a slave owner abusing a slave, and ask students to write about how it would feel to be that slave."

Mitcham says another picture "was an artistic rendering of what you assumed to be a slave, violently going after, like the neck of a white man" and the assignment asked students to imagine they were enslaved and describe what would bring them to the point of fighting back.

How did this assignment slip through the cracks?

Mitcham says the assignment was created by Teachers' Curriculum Institute and has been in their curriculum for a long time and is used at schools across the country.

"Our teachers had done many other assignments that were appropriate and done really well but this particular one, just didn't quite catch the significance of why it would feel bad for not only Black and brown students, but I think there's internalized racism, both for white kids and black kids that can happen as a result of assignment like this and that this probably wasn't in the consciousness yet, of our teachers," Mitcham said.

He says they are working hard in the district to have a higher level of consciousness around issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion.

"I can imagine a day for 2005 when this curriculum was released that somebody with maybe some good intentions was thinking like, 'Hey, it would be a good thing to try to, to help kids you know, really understand the atrocities of slavery to try to get them to a place of trying to understand it at a personal level,'" Mitcham said.

"But either, there wasn't as much consciousness back then to understand what that does to kids internally, and what kind of racism is internalized both for black kids to feel bad about themselves and inferior and even for white kids to feel a sense of superiority around, seeing those kinds of images."

What's being done moving forward?

Superintendent Dori Leyko says the assignment was brought to their attention by some parents and they have met with those parents, the two teachers involved and Mitchum to discuss the issues with the assignment.

They also drafted and sent out a letter back in early March.

"We sent it out to all of the eighth-grade families, to make them aware that this assignment had been issued and that we were pulling it from the grade book, but also that we address that we pointed out to the families and made sure they knew that this assignment had been assigned and that we, we understood what was wrong with it," Leyko said.

She says they also gave students an opportunity to talk about it and discuss their feelings and that the district is using this situation as a way to do better.

"A couple of things one is that it's really kind of risen to the top, the need for a new curriculum. So we know that that will be a focus area of ours moving forward into the next school year. And not just looking at how we've maybe adapted curriculum past but we also need to, and plan to, include Black and brown parents or community members and students who can help give us input on adapting new curriculums," Leyko said.

She says this has reset the focus on their commitments to hire more Black and brown staff members to better reflect their student population. They are also looking at their hiring practices, professional learning and increasing professional learning for their staff.

"One of the things I'm working on right now is to provide an update to our families and community about what we have done because it's great to put those on paper but if we haven't implemented or taken action on those, they're not really very important for meaningful," Leyko said.

"We know this was a very grave error on our part, and that, you know, we've apologized but we wanted to take more action than that and make sure that we can put some things in place to ensure that assignments like this don't get utilized moving forward."

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