East Lansing Public Schools Superintendent Dori Leyko and Curriculum Director Glenn Mitcham concluded on Friday, Apr. 16, during a meeting with ELi that a social studies assignment on slavery given to MacDonald Middle School eighth-grade students was “a collective failure” that may have caused harm.
ELi first became aware of the assignment at the Apr. 12, 2021, School Board meeting when district parent Chelsea Wade called attention to it during public comment. The assignment had been given to eighth-grade social studies students, including Wade’s daughter, at MacDonald.
Wade criticized the assignment, which she said asked students to answer questions from the perspective of an enslaved person. Students were prompted to consider how they would feel living in the conditions enslaved people faced, whether they would ever fight back, and how they might respond to seeing a beating, according to Wade.
“Reading her answers bought me to tears,” said Wade to the School Board on Apr. 12. “Usually, I get to congratulate her when she brings me an ‘A,’ but instead receiving an ‘A’ on this assignment from her white teacher made me furious.”
For a response to the question “What would bring you to the point of fighting back?”, Wade said her daughter wrote, “I don’t think that I would fight back actually. There is no point in it at all. All I would do is make matters worse and risk getting killed.”
When Wade asked her daughter why she wrote that, she says her daughter told her that’s what she thought her teachers would want to hear.
Wade asked the School Board, “If my daughter had answered the opposite and said, ‘I’d fight back every chance I got to gain my freedom and kill every white slave owner in my path,’ would that answer have been correct also?”
“How deeply disturbing it is to know that two teachers handed out this assignment during Black History Month and read through all the return homework assignments from 200-plus eighth-grade students and not once did they think this was wrong,” continued Wade.
Wade further criticized the choice to focus on slavery instead the achievements of Black men and women around the world and in the United States.
ELPS administrators informed families of the assignment back in March and apologized then.
After the assignment was given to students on Feb. 19, administrators received correspondence from at least one family on Feb. 21 who was troubled by it. A letter was sent on Mar. 12 to the families of students who were issued the assignment.
The letter – collectively signed by Leyko, Mitcham, MacDonald Principal Amy Martin, and social studies teachers Matthew Christians and Katelyn Newcombe – stated that “our students had to engage with images and process thoughts that could be potentially re-traumatizing from recent events including the killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and other Black and Brown people.”
The assignment that asked students to understand “on a personal level” a system that “was evil, dark, and twisted” was inappropriate, they wrote, and “can perpetuate the harmful idea that Black people are inferior and cause youth to internalize these racist ideas.”
The letter said a better approach to understanding slavery would have been critical thinking about the institution of slavery “instead of focusing on the individual horrors of those who lived through it.” The administrators and teachers also acknowledged that the assignment “failed to present the rich history of the African people.”
How did ELPS teachers come to this assignment?
In Michigan, the state sets forth standards for public school curricula in various subjects, and individual districts then find materials to help teachers and students achieve those standards and cover specific content.
For eighth-grade social studies, MacDonald Middle School uses the History Alive series, published in 2005, which Mitcham said is also used by other districts across Michigan.
Mitcham told ELi on Friday that he imagines the particular assignment in question was devised by “well-intentioned thinking” on the behalf of those who developed the materials and most likely wanted students to better understand slavery.
But he critiqued the assignment for “reflecting white supremacist culture.” Since 2005, Mitcham said, more is known about internalized racism, and assignments like the one given to the eighth graders could contribute to Black students feeling inferior and white ones superior.
As leader of the district, Leyko told ELi on Friday that she accepts responsibility for what is included in the curriculum. She said that the incident speaks to the need to provide more professional development to teachers to help them identify problematic and offensive assignments and to avoid them.
Leyko told ELi that the assignment was not acceptable and said that children who might not feel the effects of the assignment now could experience trauma later.
What is the district doing going forward?
During public comment, Wade referred to an ELi article from June 2020 that outlined actionable steps the district vowed to take to renew its commitment to racial equity following the killing of George Floyd. Wade said that the district had failed to deliver, particularly on the formation of equity teams.
Several years ago, parents at Marble Elementary formed the Marble Equity Team, and more recently as part of its recommitment to racial equity and social justice, the district pledged to form equity teams at each school building.
During public comment, Wade pointed out that the teams were not yet functional, and, unlike at Marble, teachers and administrators at other schools were being trained to lead the teams, rather than having parents lead.
When meeting with ELi, Leyko said that the Marble Equity Team was important to the district, but the idea was not to replicate Marble’s model at every school. The teams will now most likely be called “social justice teams,” and Leyko said the district felt it was important to train staff well in ideas of social justice that they will address and to have them serve on the teams. It is possible that parents and community members may join the teams once they are formed.
Training for staff who will serve on the social justice teams has been paused since teachers returned to in-person learning and is expected to resume over the summer.
Currently, the School Board Policy Committee is working on its racial equity policy, and more information should be available soon.
At the Feb. 22 School Board meeting, Mitcham provided a comprehensive overview of the professional development focused on social justice that staff have received, and a summary is available here.
Leyko said that more details on where the district stands on implementing its goals announced in June will be given at the Apr. 26 School Board meeting. ELi will be reporting on that.