Slavery, Apologies, and Stumbling Through the 5th Grade

I love teaching social studies.  I love it because I believe that it really, truly, matters.  I love teaching it, but there is so much of it that I just don’t know.

In my first year of teaching, with each unit I struggle to just stay one step ahead of my students and the curriculum we’re learning.  It’s overwhelming the amount of things I want to teach my students and yet don’t have the background of knowledge to do so.

With the exception of a few incredibly dedicated and impactful teachers, I was not taught social studies well.  In fact, I don’t remember learning any meaningful social studies when I was in the fifth grade.  I remember two things: labeling a map of the United States, and creating a poster about the state facts of Georgia (I think each student was assigned a different state.  I drew peaches in glitter glue.)  Needless to say, it was not meaningful.

This lack of social studies education has left a gaping hole in my abilities to teach my own students well.  I was not set up for success.

Learning to teach, just like learning anything, is a series of trial and error, a series of faithful leaps in which I sometimes land on my feet and sometimes fall flat on my face.  Teaching the Civil War has been one of those falling flat on my face moments.

Language arts and social studies are so intricately integrated, that it was an easy decision for me to wrap our point of view study and Civil War unit together.  I created what I thought was a creatively crafted and brilliantly thought out lesson.  I created 22 different roles for the kids, ranging from poor Northern boy to Union solider to Confederate nurse to Alabama slave desperately trying to reach freedom.  Students then entered into these personalities, stopping intermittently during our research to stop and journal from the perspectives of their characters.  Brilliant, right?

Not so much.

I started to realize this was a bad idea when one of our girls, who had drawn a slave role, was reading aloud one of her journal entries to me, this entry in particular describing the way that she was treated by her master after an escape attempt.  While she was reading to me, something turned in my stomach, knowing that she could never really understand what it was like to be a slave, and neither could I.  I praised her for her creative dedication to writing, gently critiqued the level of sensitivity, and steered her in a different direction.  What I didn’t realize until later, though, was that this was a deeply rooted flaw not just in my lesson, but in my own privilege.

As a white female teacher, (and we dominate the teacher force, in case you haven’t noticed), I try my absolute best to not just be sensitive and respectful to different races and cultures, but I try every day to check my privilege and perspective.  Somehow this one got away from me.

I put my students in an inappropriate role playing situation.  What I thought would be a creative and challenging integration between writing and social studies ended up being insensitive, disrespectful, and upsettingly ignorant.  So often, I have been patted on the back for my courage to openly discuss race and social justice in the classroom, so much so, that I really needed a humbling moment.  It wasn’t until a good friend and colleague pointed out the flaws in my lesson did I realize how wrong I had been.

I can check my privilege all I want, but the bottom line is that I will never really know what it’s like to be a person of color.  I can empathize, but I will never actually experience it.  I am so grateful for the colleagues and friends willing to tell me when I’m in the wrong, and when my privileged white perspective has gone unchecked.

On Monday we sat in a circle on the carpet and I apologized to our kids for not setting them up for success, for putting them in an inappropriate and insensitive situation.  We talked about race and privilege, like we somehow end up doing every day, and I admitted that even teachers don’t always know how to lead well, and we always need different perspectives to tell us what is good and what is hurtful.  I admitted to them that in many ways I don’t think I was taught well, and we watched this video about the Whitney Plantation,  the country’s first and only slavery museum, and discussed the need for a better education, both for teachers and for students, on the wrongs of our country’s history.

To the dismay of many students who had been thoroughly invested in their characters, I cancelled the project.  Some students understood, but despite our conversation on the carpet, most didn’t.  But in spite of it all, they said they forgave me, and one sweet kiddo assured me, “it’s okay, now you know the right way, so you can just start off that way next year.”  That’s what learning’s all about, isn’t it?


Although I am now pretty convinced that role playing like this is inappropriate, the conversation in the education community is still on-going.  I was shocked to find the amount of role playing Civil War/slavery activities are available on the internet, especially on such reputable sites like, PBS, and National Geographic Education.  I even found an Underground Railroad simulation game, similar to The Oregon Trail.  I would love to hear more opinions on this.  What do you think? Does role playing like this lead our kids to a deeper understanding and empathy, or does it downplay the devastating reality of slavery?



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