Parents in San Francisco are split over a teacher’s use of a cotton plant to demonstrate the challenges of slavery, given the sensitive subject matter, amid a nationwide conservative movement to eliminate such lectures from the school curriculum.
In an effort to educate her eighth-grade pupils about the dangers of harvesting cotton and removing the seeds, a history studies teacher at San Francisco’s Creative Arts Charter School brought in cotton plants, or bolls, to class on March 3.
School officials initiated an inquiry into the classroom activity within 24 hours, after several students complained that it was an unacceptable imitation of slavery.
For “unacceptable, harmful,” and “inappropriate” teaching that didn’t match the school’s “anti-racist, progressive-minded curriculum,” the school’s director wrote a letter to parents on March 4.
After the contentious lesson, the instructor was absent from school for five weeks. It’s unclear whether she was penalized or put on leave during the inquiry, but her parents believe it was because of it. On April 15, when the teacher returned, she made a written apology to the families of the students she had disciplined.
An interview with the instructor, who has not been identified by The Chronicle, was not possible.
All 435 pupils in the San Francisco Unified School District’s K-8 charter school are classified as either white (219), black (47), Hispanic (84), Filipino (14), or Native American (14).
At a time when states like Texas and Florida are barring classroom study of America’s racial history, the issue at this school has split the mostly liberal town.
“Teachers — like most Americans — struggle to have open and honest conversations about race,” according to a 2018 report by the nonprofit Southern Poverty Law Center. “How do they talk about slavery’s legacy of racial violence in their classrooms without making their black students feel singled out? How do they discuss it without engendering feelings of guilt, anger or defensiveness among their white students?”
.Teaching the past, and in particular the history of races in America, can be tough and painful, and Hasan Kwame Jeffries, an Ohio State University history professor, warns against “trivialize the subject” or “traumatize the children.”
“You just can’t, despite your best efforts actually recreate what slavery was like,” he said. “Any kind of simulation, any kind of re-creation, any kind of that hands-on kind of teaching, just pushes you into the area of re-trauma, traumatizing children and there are better ways to go about it.”
Rebecca Archer, a Black and Jewish parent of Creative Arts students, said the lecture on cotton bolls was inappropriate and that she was surprised to find it taking place at a progressive San Francisco school.
Re-creating settings that “evoke so many really unpleasant things about this nation,” she added, by placing raw cotton in the hands of youngsters, particularly kids of color like her biracial son.
“There are people who think this lesson plan promotes empathy; I’ve heard that and understand that,” she said. “There are a lot of people who don’t understand why it’s hurtful or offensive.”
She argues that students may develop empathy for slaves even if they have never suffered as slaves themselves.
According to another family member, the situation is “unbearably cruel” and “unbearably cruel” for the instructor who has been subjected to it.
“I think it’s insane they would treat a teacher like this and basically discard a teacher that has been so inspiring and dedicated,” said the parent, who requested anonymity to protect her child. “It feels like it was a lesson in sensitivity and empathy. That’s why my mind is so blown and I can’t stop being angry about it.”
While in other jurisdictions discussions about racism and white supremacy are forbidden because they might make white children feel guilty, the parent noticed that this lesson seems to have been criticized for the exact opposite reasons here in this state.
The instructor addressed a letter to the school’s families upon her return to work on April 15.
“Prior to spring break, I taught a tactile lesson involving raw cotton in an effort to get the students to understand the difficulty of manually processing cotton prior to the invention of Eli Whitney’s Cotton Gin,” she said. “While this lesson was sourced from reliable sources, after conferring with the administration and hearing many of the students reflections, I realize that this lesson was not culturally responsive and had the potential to cause harm.
“In teaching U.S. history, there are many challenging and sensitive topics to learn about and I look forward to continuing to improve my approach to addressing these, with support from the administration.”
To deal with an imperfect scenario, Jeffries of the K12 Teacher Institute on American Slavery says that’s the best course of action. He went on to say that teachers would make errors while teaching about slavery and other controversial subjects.
“Making the mistake does not mean we shouldn’t teach it. It just means we should teach it better.”
There was no response from the school’s director, Fernando Aguilar, on any disciplinary action taken against the instructor.
“We didn’t feel like the lesson fit into our mission and our vision,” he said, adding the leadership is following collective bargaining procedures in regard to the teacher. “We don’t take things lightly that affect the well-being of our students.”
Professor Zeus Leonardo, from the Graduate School of Education at UC Berkeley, says that teaching difficult topics is an art form.
“Being uncomfortable is part of learning,” he said. “And part of the learning is in the discomfort.”
It’s important, though, to keep an eye on the appropriateness and execution of the knowledge you’re imparting.
“It could be producing harm for the very students the teacher thinks they’re speaking up for, whose history they’re trying to unveil.”
There are several places where you may get this lesson plan, including the Smithsonian Learning Lab, however it has been removed from some of those sites. Contrary to popular belief, however, this isn’t the first time that school officials have expressed worry over “cotton picking.”
In 2019, a mother in Flint, Michigan, questioned why her children were forced to clean or pick cotton, reenacting the persecution of their ancestors. The instruction was later dropped from the middle school curriculum.
An investigation against a teacher in New Jersey in 2020 found that he had kids lay on the floor plucking and washing cotton while the instructor made whipping noises. The instructor was found not guilty of misconduct.
During a cotton-cleaning lesson in Spokane, Wash., in 2021, two Black girls were given instructions and challenged to see who could do it the quickest.
An offer was made to remove the two girls from their classroom after their mother’s complaint. The mother asked for a formal apology and the dismissal of the school’s headteacher.
In the last several decades, teacher preparation has undergone significant transformations, according to Gilda Bloom-Leiva, a professor at San Francisco State’s Department of Secondary Education
Racism is “linked to generational trauma,” and student instructors are instructed to think about what problems or damage lesson plans could cause for students.
“We’ve come a long way in how we train teachers,” she said. “It’s more beneficial for the teacher, rather than just being suspended, to take a course on curriculum instruction on how to teach Social Studies in 2022.”
Jeffries emphasized the importance of the cotton-picking lesson plan as a learning opportunity.
“Polls show that most parents want their children to learn history the way it happened. They want them to learn the difficult aspects of America’s past so they can understand America’s present and be on a course to make America’s future better than anything we’ve seen before,” he said. “There has to be a little grace given, especially in this moment where teachers are being beat up for the wrong reasons. We have to teach this. We just have to do it better.”
The article is parpahrased from the following: S.F. teacher used a cotton plant to teach about slavery. The fallout has divided parents, Jill Tucker, April 22, 2022 Updated: April 22, 2022 11:33 p.m., https://www.sfchronicle.com/bayarea/article/An-S-F-teacher-used-a-cotton-plant-to-teach-17121022.php