For several years, Mike Wormsley has used a role-playing exercise to give his eighth-grade social studies students a physical sense of what slavery felt like.
During the two-week assignment, Wormsley would have his students at Liberty Memorial Central Middle School take on the roles of being both slaves and slave owners. At the end of the unit, students would discuss and write about the emotional impact of being in those roles.
Part of the exercise involved having students — including African American students — wear mock shackles in school to make them feel more like slaves. But no more.
While Lawrence school district officials say they support the role-playing exercise and believe it has educational value, they scaled back the assignment to end the physical simulation of shackles.
“We asked that that not take place,” said Adam Holden, Lawrence’s assistant superintendent for teaching and learning. “We certainly understood what he was trying to do, but the notion of actually physically doing that was not something we felt was appropriate for school-age children.”
Use of shackles at issue
Wormsley did not respond to requests to be interviewed for this story. But Jeff Harkin, principal at the school, said the shackles were made of “clips and light chain” and did not replicate the feel of actual wrought iron shackles.
Still, for some African-American district officials, even that was going a bit too far.
“I’m usually pretty good about my emotions, but that — the thought of shackles — brought an emotional response in me,” said Kevin Harrell, the district’s special education director.
Harrell is a member of the District Equity Leadership Council, an administrative group appointed by the school board that focuses on issues about diversity and closing achievement gaps. After receiving a number of inquiries about the assignment in recent days, that group met with Wormsley and decided that the mock shackles should no longer be used.
“My parents grew up in Mississippi,” Harrell said. “And so growing up, I heard about Mississippi and I visited Mississippi, and to this day, when I hear about shackles, I think of that. There’s just an emotional response.”
According to data from the Kansas State Department of Education, nearly 9 percent of the students at Liberty Memorial Central are black, slightly more than the district average of about 7 percent. Whites make up 64 percent of the student body, compared with 71 percent in the district as a whole.
Holden said that while the mock shackles raised emotional questions, there also were concerns that the assignment could lead to abusive or inappropriate behavior and language. But Holden said he was confident that Wormsley had properly prepared the students for that.
“The teacher, to be fair, is really, really good at dealing with the kids, and the assignment is extraordinarily detailed in the way in which it’s laid out to them,” Holden said. “He specifically talks about the fact that they may not speak derogatorily to people, that they may not use certain language or that they may not lay a finger on anybody. They’re not even allowed to tell them, ‘go get me a pop’ or ‘walk down the hall on one leg.’ They can’t do any of those things. The assignment is really very well defined, and so we felt comfortable in that.”
Anna Stubblefield, who is now the district’s human resources director, said she was aware of the assignment when she served as principal at Liberty Memorial Central from 2008 to 2012. She noted that Wormsley does not use the assignment every year, but in those years when he did, she received mixed feedback about it from students and parents.
“There were people who definitely felt that the assignment should not occur in the fashion that it was occurring, and there were some people who felt that it was very powerful,” Stubblefield said. “I would say that (Wormsley) in general uses role-play and simulations throughout his teaching, so that is not out of the norm for his modality of teaching.”
Harkin, the current principal, said parents are notified in advance of the role-playing assignment, and they can opt in or out of having their children participate. Students who choose not to participate are allowed to do other individualized assignments on the subject of slavery.
So far this year, Harkin said, only one parent had expressed concern about the assignment, and that parent’s concerns were quickly resolved.
“With a little more information they felt comfortable with the assignment,” Harkin said. “Certainly it puts me in a position where I want input from parents and hear their concerns because I know it is something that is, I guess reading the cover of the book, it sounds like, ‘What’s this about?’ My experience right now, and what I’ve heard is, as people get more information about the intent, they’re more comfortable with it.”
While the shackles will not be used this year, and a few other details of the project will change, assistant superintendent Holden said he still believes in the value of the project overall.
“We felt there was real merit behind the fact that you’ve got a teacher here who really wants to be able to connect a challenging issue with the kids, and we certainly appreciated that,” Holden said. “But there were a couple of specific elements within the assignment that we asked to be removed because we felt that they were too sensitive.”
In addition to meeting with the Equity Leadership Council, Holden said Wormsley had also agreed to meet with African-American and other minority leaders in the community to discuss ways in which the project can be improved in the future.