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.


redburd 1 year, 1 month 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."


jayhawks222 1 year, 1 month 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.


teacherspet2 1 year, 1 month 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.


mfey_ 1 year, 1 month 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.


nomorebobsplease 1 year, 1 month 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.


formerfarmer 1 year, 1 month 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.


Bob Forer 1 year, 1 month 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. .


sherryemerson 1 year, 1 month 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.


jimincountry 1 year, 1 month ago

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


mom_of_three 1 year, 1 month 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?


P76 1 year, 1 month ago

Race jokes are still funny on MSNBC. So training by this teacher may still be needed.


Liberty275 1 year, 1 month 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?


Eleven 1 year, 1 month 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.


friendlyjhawk 1 year, 1 month 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.


sleepy33 1 year, 1 month 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.


vanessaliobanewton 1 year, 1 month 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.


reality_check79 1 year, 1 month 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 1 year, 1 month 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.


Deb Engstrom 1 year, 1 month 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.


lily 1 year, 1 month 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.


Stacy Napier 1 year, 1 month ago

As I read the article I don't see where any parent has complained. They said one parent this year had a concern and it was handled. Parents are notified first and allowed to opt out.

I see a problem here. You have a great teacher that can move and inspire children. You have parents with a choice in their childs eduation. In comes the leaders in the governing body to step in and take all that away. They are making the decsision in what is good for our children taking that away from the teachers and parents.


redburd 1 year, 1 month 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.


Matthew Herbert 1 year, 1 month 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?


Paul R Getto 1 year, 1 month ago

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


Amy Albright 1 year, 1 month 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.


KSManimal 1 year, 1 month 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.


Alpenglow 1 year, 1 month 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.


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