Archive for Tuesday, February 19, 2013

District orders changes to 8th grade slavery lesson

February 19, 2013


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.”

Mixed feedback

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.


Alpenglow 5 years, 2 months ago

While i agree with the modification, I can't help but believe this is a total over-reaction and typical of today's world where everyone is offended by everything. Pick your battles, parents. I don't think this is one of them. And I say this with the utmost respect for Mr. Harrell.

KSManimal 5 years, 2 months ago

The best learning happens outside one's comfort zone. It's too bad the district is more concerned with sheltering kids (and parents) from discomfort than they are with having them learn things.

Amy Albright 5 years, 2 months ago

Students at Central are lucky to have Mr. Wormsley. He is one of the best. It's too bad people can't understand why students love his class so much, and would rather make kids sit at desks and fill out worksheets. Kids learn through role playing. That's what this lesson was about, nothing more and nothing less. My kids adore Mr. Wormsley and still cite things they learned from his class — they visit him at Central whenever they can. This controversy is ridiculous. This teacher is a model for what teachers should be.

Paul R Getto 5 years, 2 months ago

Reality sucks, doesn't it? Cannot have that modelled in class. Sounds like Texas outlawing critical thinking.

Alyosha 5 years, 2 months ago


So given a choice between government social safety nets and 19th century slavery, where you had zero rights, could be brutally tortured and murdered at some other person's whim, could never marry, and had to see your children sold and your family destroyed, you yourself, P76, would choose 19th century American slavery?

That's what you're saying?

Maddy Griffin 5 years, 2 months ago

Educate yourself. There are currently more whites on the "government dole" than any other group.

mdlund0 5 years, 2 months ago

I see a lot of stuff trolling this website, but I'm actually staring in disbelief at this comment. Stunned... I'm literally stunned.

Paul Wilson 5 years, 2 months ago

The real flaw in your statement is that "blacks" (or any race for that matter) need to be "taken care" of at all.

Liberty275 5 years, 2 months ago

How much freedom is food worth? I'm OK trading 8 hours a day for food and other necessities. If you want all 24, bring friends. You will need them.

TecmoSuperBowlChristianOkoye 5 years, 2 months ago

Safety? You would do well to educate yourself on the realities of slavery or gtfo with your racist crap.

werekoala 5 years, 2 months ago

This comment was removed by the site staff for violation of the usage agreement.

Matthew Herbert 5 years, 2 months ago

Wow. Thanks for mandating that nothing but worksheets happen in social studies classrooms. God forbid personal ties to the curriculum be created. I mean, after all, so long as a kid can bubble-in the correct answer they've done all the learning they need, right?

Marianne Reed 5 years, 2 months ago

I agree with dougnamy that Mike Wormsley is one of the finest teachers in the district. He is able to make Social Studies come alive for these kids. My two kids still talk about Mr. Wormsley's class and how it made them THINK about things that would have never occurred to them otherwise. The shackles bring home in a very visceral way what slavery was like to kids who will never experience it for themselves. The way that Mike teaches lets his students learn not just what slavery was like in a historical sense, but what it felt like to be a slave.

Given that the students have been given boundaries about appropriate behavior during this lesson--and the fact that the parents have a chance to have their student opt-out--I would urge the school district to reconsider this decision.

lily 5 years, 2 months ago

I thought this was a wonderful lesson to have our children experience on some level what it may have been like. It was all done very appropriately I thought. If we want our children to be aware, learn, and have an honest sense of history, projects like this are the best. I think the students appreciate this more than parents.

Deb Engstrom 5 years, 2 months ago

Education should be designed to elicit emotional reactions to things being learned. I do respect Kevin Harrell and the fact that he had an emotional reaction to the shackles means the lesson is effective. So sorry this happened to a very good teacher.

mom_of_three 5 years, 2 months ago

So you all above are saying that you can't learn about something or how horrific it was without experiencing it? What if he was teaching about the holocaust? Would you want him to do a fake gas chamber? What if he was teaching about Reconstruction and had kids show up in white masks while discussing the KKK's participation.
While I applaud him for taking a great deal of effort to not offend anyone by allowing students to opt out and using materials to make it as light as possible and while it seems he has done a good job at it which I highly commend him for going outside of the box, I can't believe those that are condemning the school board because it is "overreacting" and "discomfort."
It's a little more than that.
I took an undergraduate history class where we had to role play being for and against slavery. It's very tough taking a role for slavery, trying to justify and explain it, even as an adult.
Once again, I applaud his methods and if no one complained about it then fine, but to call people overreacting is a little insensitive.

kuguardgrl13 5 years, 2 months ago

You need to watch "The Freedom Writers" with Hillary Swank. Those students learned how the Holocaust related to their lives in Los Angeles in the 1990s. They read Anne Frank, talked with Holocaust survivors, visited a museum much like the one in DC, and even met Miep Gies, the secretary who helped hide the Franks. Simply reading about events or listening to lectures about them is not the way to learn or understand history. Role-playing and talking to those who lived through events is much more effective. My high school AP European History class had mock trials for the French and Russian Revolutions. We dressed up, wrote scripts, and had students act as lawyers, witnesses, and the accused. And yes, we came up with rather creative punishments. These are projects that have been done for years. Our principal occasionally comes to watch the proceedings. We learned way more about the important players by acting them out than we would have by just reading about them.

Anthony Mall 5 years, 2 months ago

Kids need a helmet to do anything these days!!! I see nothing wrong with kids learning the truth through experience versus read about it in some book... The district and the parents are wrong on this one!!! This country is raising a generation of weak minded, spoiled, over-protected, over medicated kids that have no idea what a "day outside" is!!! Pathetic!!!

mom_of_three 5 years, 2 months ago

"over protected kids?" seriously. There are ways to learn about slavery without actual acting it out.

werekoala 5 years, 2 months ago

Fair warning, I'm a white dude, so not exactly the most informed to comment on the issue. BUT:

It's all well and good to learn that 3.5 million slaves worked on Alabama plantations in 1845. Memorize the crap out of that number, ace the quiz and BAM! Learning!

Right? Wrong. There is a WORLD of difference between knowing the path and walking the path. As Stalin said, "One death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic." Sounds like Mr. Wormsley is doing his best to turn dry statistics into raw tragedy, in a responsible and respectful way.

That's a damn good educator. Especially because he has to know that he's playing with fire. He could just hand out some worksheets, pass out a multiple choice test, and go home to his family. But he's willing to risk a lot professionally because he has a passion for inspiring young minds.

I've never met the man, bu I'm impressed. What he's doing, in 21st century takes brass ones. Especially when he's not doing it for fame or money. He's doing it because he wants to make sure the kids in his care actually learn and see for themselves how horrific the idea of treating other humans as property actually is. In a world of Jersey Shore Teen Moms, he's doing his best to keep the flame of reason alive.

Like I said, I've never met the man, but I'd be proud to shake his hand and buy him a beer.

vanessaliobanewton 5 years, 2 months ago

This reminds me a lot of Zimbardo's Stanford Prison Experiment without taking it as far as Zimbardo did in the 70s. It is a powerful lesson.

sleepy33 5 years, 2 months ago

Whether you're black or white, the concept of putting someone else in chains and making them your slave is supposed to evoke an emotional response. It's supposed to make you uncomfortable. That's the entire point.

friendlyjhawk 5 years, 2 months ago

"not appropriate for school ?" There were plenty of "school aged children" that lived this kind of life. And now the schools are dumbing this extra piece of teaching down so the truthful experience is lessened and cleaned up so we can forget it happened. Good job Mr. Teacher. After traveling with young people in Europe and visiting a Dachau with teenagers that didn't know anything WWII and the killing of the Jews I realize the value of what the teacher was trying to do. Shame on you school administrators and parents who decided this wasn't appropriate. We are never very far from the barbaric side of life.

Eleven 5 years, 2 months ago

My daughter is a student in Mr. Wormsley's class this year. My impression is that the students respond well to his use of participant role-acting to learn about our history. Recently they had a unit on western expansion of the U.S. in which the students were randomly assigned different roles to help enact western expansion history. (My kid's character became ill and did not survive the difficult wagon journey.) Many aspects of our history are painful to remember, but it is important that we learn to care. Wormsley's methods often produce compelling and memorable lessons for the kids.

Liberty275 5 years, 2 months ago

Really? You want to show our little kids how it feels to be slaves? That's pretty sick. We are several generations past that garbage and it time to stop rubbing our kid's noses in it.

Worse, would you actually put any kind of chain around a black kid's wrist? That's beyond disgusting.

Teachers come up with these ideas and then you wonder why we don't trust you with our kids and don't like you in general?

voevoda 5 years, 2 months ago

So you're saying, Liberty275, that there's no point in studying history because we're past all that?

Of course, your own visceral reaction--that slavery is "pretty sick," "garbage" and "beyond disgusting" testifies to the fact that somewhere, sometime (maybe in school??) you learned enough about it to know that slavery is horrific. But then there is P76 who posted above, who thinks that slavery was a fine form of welfare. That indicates that there is still great need to teach about slavery, Liberty275.

Liberty275 5 years, 2 months ago

I can learn about space flight without going to the moon.

"you learned enough about it to know that slavery is horrific"

That is so true. I also learned that if you touch the wires from a 220 volt source to your tongue, it going to burn you. I didn't need to personally experience either to come up with a pretty good idea of what each is like.

"That indicates that there is still great need to teach about slavery, "

Property owners cared more about their stuff than the government cares about humans inner city humans? Wow, you really need to do need to teach that poor boy how to think.

Tell me Voevoda, if you owned a man, how would you treat him?

voevoda 5 years, 2 months ago

The answer, Liberty275, is that I wouldn't own a man. I'd free him. You can treat people well, provide for their needs, and direct their labor to advance your business interests without enslaving them. In fact, it's much better not to enslave them, because people often feel that they are entitled to do whatever they want with their stuff, including smash it to smithereens just because they feel like it. You assume that slaveowners would treat their property well because it is economically beneficial to the slaveowners to do so. But when it was economically beneficial to the slaveowners to kill off or sell off their "surplus," they did that, too. Not to mention when they acted out of emotion rather than rationality, and nobody had any right to stop them. The old adage "Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely" applies to the institution of slavery, where the slaveowner has absolute power and the slave has none. Our post-civil war American system of civil rights is much superior to pre-civil war slavery, Liberty275. And as for the government caring about "humans inner city humans," yes, I am certain that President Obama does. And that is why you and so many of the radical right-wingers who post here hate him so much--because he prioritizes helping the poor instead of leaving them to die on the streets. There are things about the current welfare system that don't work well and can and should be improved. But of all possible fixes, slavery would be the worst. I would think that anybody who chose the moniker "Liberty" wouldn't need me to explain that.

Liberty275 5 years, 2 months ago

"The answer, Liberty275, is that I wouldn't own a man. I'd free him."

That answer skirts the issue, but that is OK. You wouldn't enslave a man, I wouldn't enslave a man, and I'm guessing few Americans would. Of course, only the government can enslave a man in America and then only for a crime.

So we are good people and it's illegal to enslave a person. Then why do we need to expose our children to play-slavery? Is that supposed to teach them a lesson they don't need?

Liberty275 5 years, 2 months ago

I've never driven a 700 HP corvette, but I imagine it would sit you back in the seat. Mine only has about 400, so it isn't really the sort of car that sits you back in the seat that hard. Plus I have the wrong converter.

I don't have kids, so if you people with kids think it this slavery thing is appropriate, I won't argue with you any more. .

IrishRacer 5 years, 2 months ago

Little kids, really? They're eighth graders, at central, they experience a lot there. It's not sick to give the students experiences from life that happened to people their age not too long ago. By stopping rubbing kid's noses in "it" does that mean we should not learn anything about history? The role play just adds to the learning and makes it memorable to students. The way your logic sounds, it sounds like any learning of history that does not make the country look good, that then it is garbage and teachers should not rub their pupils' noses in it.

The chains are a learning experience and they help add to the experience. None of today's kids have actually experienced the reality of being a slave, it's not disgusting that he is teaching ALL of the kids what it was like regardless of the colour of their skin. It would be wrong if he said "you're African-American therefore you do not need to participate in this because it could be taken that I'm a racist teacher making the African-American students participate in a simulation that EVERYONE is doing," that would be disgusting.

This is a wonderful teaching method that he has had for years and you as a parent have the opportunity to force your child to opt out of a learning experience. I for one am very glad that he uses an out-of-the-box teaching method, it helps students to learn so much better.

Wormsley is an amazing teacher, and I have actually retained what I learned in that class compared to everything other history class I've ever taken and that is because he uses many simulations that actually make history interesting and more memorable in a students mind. Honestly, if having a history class out of book sounds like a better idea to you, then why don't you go and "teach" it, or should I say, you sit at a desk on the ljworld forums while your students sit and read a textbook all day every day then you give them tests and give almost all of your students failing grades. I wouldn't trust you to teach children.

Armored_One 5 years, 2 months ago

Would you like a power drill and a paint stirrer to whip that up a bit faster, Liberty? LOL I mean, honestly... I rarely put much stock in your more outlandish comments, but this one was a billboard of purposely egging a reaction.

At least I hope to God you are being snide.

mom_of_three 5 years, 2 months ago

I learned a lot about slavery as a kid in school and my teacher never had to "act" it out.
Sounds like he did it the right way, but is it really necessary?
again, would you approve if he was teaching the holocaust with a fake gas chamber or about Reconstruction and the KKK with white masks?
where would you draw the line?

gatekeeper 5 years, 2 months ago

If you really want to make an impact with kids and have them really understand our history (good and bad), what this teacher did is spot on. You can lecture kids, have them read the inadequate text books, give tests, etc... What this teacher did was make these kids really think about slavery and the impact it had on our history. He made these kids "walk a mile in someone else's shoes". I'm sure it was an experience that none of these kids will ever forget, unlike many regular lessons over the years that we've all forgotten, because nothing memorable makes them stand out.

I am an ex-teacher, so I do have a clue what I'm talking about. The teacher in this article I will guarantee makes an impact on these kids that won't be forgotten and I bet years later, these kids respect him for what he taught them.

Not all history is pretty, but it needs to be learned to make sure we create a better society. If any parents were concerned, they could have had their kids opt out. Sounds like the parents were intelligent and let their kids experience something that would change their way of looking at the world. Most kids these days are so spoiled and have so much freedom. This lesson taught them more than just what slavery was like, but hopefully taught them to appreciate the lives and freedoms they have.

kuguardgrl13 5 years, 2 months ago

You've never been to the Holocaust Museum, have you? You don't need to be gassed to understand what it was like to be a european Jew in the 1930s-40s.

jayhawks222 5 years, 2 months ago

Being "gassed" is completely different from participating in a great learning simulation. This simulation has no chance of hurting any student. The line moves slow enough that every student is safe and there is no chance of being harmed.

Deb Engstrom 5 years, 2 months ago

I think both of your suggestions are great!!! That's what learning is all about.

Armored_One 5 years, 1 month ago

Don't play with fire because you might get burned...

Don't stick a penny in the light socket...

Don't tug on the cat's tail...

A lot of kids got these warnings as a kid, but until you got burned, or shocked or scratched, did the lesson TRULY sink in?

james bush 5 years, 2 months ago

Victimhood class may be added to the school social studies curriculum. How about a social justice whining class.

Sherry Emerson 5 years, 2 months ago

In life people have choices to participate or observe, just like in this class. If students were uncomfortable or didn't need this powerful lesson to really grasp the concept, then they could opt out. But for those who learn better by doing and feeling, how inspiring they were given the choice. Some students are difficult to reach and require more than a textbook or video. It's sad that the elicitation of an emotional response in students who need that extra stimuli in order to learn is becoming less of an option. And we wonder why so many public school teachers eventually just give up.

Bob Forer 5 years, 2 months ago

Given that the parents seem okay with Mr. Wormsley's methods, perhaps district administrators are overreacting a bit. Nonetheless, the corrective action taken appears to have been accomplished diplomatically and professionally, with little to no acrimony. I especially applaud Mr. Wormsley's decision to not speak with the press. Looks like he is too busy doing his job, and doing it quite well. .

formerfarmer 5 years, 2 months ago

"So far this year, Harkin (school principle) said, only one parent had expressed concern about the assignment, and that parent’s concerns were quickly resolved."

“My parents grew up in Mississippi, said Kevin Harrell, the district’s special education director, “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.”

So, one black administrator has an "emotional response", one parent has questions that were quickly resolved, and Adam Holden, Lawrence’s assistant superintendent for teaching and learning, says the lesson "MIGHT" lead to problems, though none have been reported, so they throw it out.

nomorebobsplease 5 years, 2 months ago

Liberty275. We may be past shackles and chains on our slaves (at least in public), but unfortunately we as a society are not yet past slavery. There continues to be what is now called "human trafficking". It's slavery, plain and simple, and it is going on right now, all over the world - including the USA.
So yes, our children need to learn this.

mfey_ 5 years, 2 months ago

I had Mr. Wormsley as my social studies teacher a few years ago, and he was by far, the BEST history teacher I ever had. The slave simulation, as well asa few other reenactments (mock trials and such) really helped me process the information given. I have never enjoyed a history class more, and he made me feel interested in the material he taught! He was a fantastic educator, and the slave simulation was a fantastic project. To this day, i know more about US history than i ever have before, because of his class.

teacherspet2 5 years, 2 months ago

Mr. Wormsley is one of the best and does not deserve to have this meaningful lesson or any other lesson he has created, called into question. The fact that he has taught in the district for MANY years with few complaints should speak to the effectiveness of his teaching. Our district administration is very quick to snuff out any lesson, book, or teacher that might raise any controversy. It is so sad that the district administration talks "Courageously" but when they are given opportunities to "walk the talk" they turn tail and run. Disrespect should be given to the district administration until they can stand up and be "courageous" for the teachers that work hard daily and create lessons that are creative and meaningful.

jayhawks222 5 years, 2 months ago

As student at Central, I participated in the slavery simulation, and loved the experience. I still remember it now, in 10th grade. I learned a lot from the simulation and I enjoyed it. The fact that this lesson is being called into question now, after many years of Mr. Wormsley teaching it, makes me wonder why all of a sudden there seems to be a problem with it. It makes me so angry that one administrator has a problem with it and now they're considering forcing Mr. Wormsley to ax the simulation. As far as I know, all of my classmates enjoyed the lesson too. We all learned so much and it helped us understand what slavery what actually like in the Civil War era. I think Mr. Wormsley is one of the best history teachers I've had, if not the best.

Marianne Reed 5 years, 2 months ago

I asked my daughter, currently an eight grader at Central, what she thought of this decision. After reading the article and the comments, she told me, "I think this whole thing is ridiculous. When Mr. Wormsley started talking about the simulation, way back in December (including the part about the shackles), people were excited; everyone couldn’t wait to start the project. I know many students will be disappointed that we can’t use the shackles, because it drove home the idea behind the slavery unit; how horrible slavery was. I think it’s too bad that one person felt uncomfortable about using shackles, but the point is that it should make you uncomfortable. It should make you feel something to be a slave, and to “own” another person, that’s the whole point of the simulation. Another thing I don’t understand is why it’s a problem all of a sudden. Mr. Wormsley has been doing this for years, and there have never been any problems with shackles; I think this is just another way of “bubble-wrapping” kids, and to prevent the slightest possibility of someone being offended. And finally, to all those people saying “How can you possibly ask African-American students to participate in this?” How can we not? If you exclude a person based solely on color, and how you fear they will react to something, that’s racism in and of itself. I sincerely hope they reconsider this decision."

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