Education

South Orange Maplewood School District Superintendent Addresses Parent Concerns About Fifth Grade Slave Auction Poster Assignment

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SOUTH ORANGE, NJ - South Orange Maplewood School District (SOMSD) Superintendent John J. Ramos Sr. sent an email to the South Mountain Elementary School community on Wednesday, addressing parent concerns about a recent project in which some students created posters depicting slave auctions as part of the fifth grade study of Colonial America.

The email from Superintendent Ramos is below:

Dear SOMSD Community,

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For the past decade, South Mountain 5th grade classes culminated a unit on Colonial America with a 3-part project. The assignment asked students to select a colony to research, and then create “primary source type documents that reflect one of the colonies and time period of Colonial America.” 

Students then were given a “menu” of tasks from which to choose, which is considered best practice in differentiated instruction.  Specifically:

Appetizer

Choose 1 Task Below

Main Course

You MUST do this task

Dessert

Choose 1 task below

Journal – The journal will include at least 4 journal entries from the point of view of someone living in your chosen region. You should include feelings and reactions to your experiences.

Brochure – A brochure attracting people to your colony. The brochure should include the information about the economy, land, town structure, government and importance of religion.

Friendly Letter – A letter to someone explaining your typical day. This letter needs to be in proper friendly letter format (see All Write book pg. 139) and include at least 3 paragraphs.

News Article – A news article about a significant event from your colony that is at least 3 paragraphs long and is historically correct. The article should include the 5 W’s and H. (See All Write book pages 162-165 for guidelines)

Advertisement – A colorful advertising an event that might occur during your time period and colony. Examples include a poster for a lecture or a speech, protest or slave auction. Posters can be no larger than 18x11.

After the assignment was sent home this year, concerns were raised about the appropriateness of the slave auction poster example. Administrators discussed the assignment and the concerns internally and also consulted with several experts in the field of anti-bias education. 

One of the anti-bias experts highlighted the fact that schools all over our country often skip over the more painful aspects of American History, and that we need to do a better job of acknowledging the uglier parts of our past, so that children learn the full story.

When families were in South Mountain for their parent teacher conferences, some noticed examples of the completed projects displayed on bulletin boards and were shocked to see among them children’s artwork depicting slaves. We completely understand how disturbing these images are, and why parents were upset. This was exacerbated by the fact that the displays did not include an explanation of the assignment or its learning objectives. 

The outrage over these displays is prompting reflection, for SOMSD staff and our community. Some families are supportive of the example of a slave auction poster included in the assignment, because they see it as an important opportunity to examine this shameful and too-often ignored chapter of American history. Others are disturbed that elementary students were being asked to put themselves in the virtual shoes of people who subjugated others. 

SOMSD is committed to infus[ing] cultural competency in every aspect of our learning community. As part of this never-ending process, it is important that we reflect on the unintended effects of our curriculum, instruction, and interactions. Having reflected on the concerns shared with us, we have decided to remove the slave auction posters from South Mountain hallways, and we apologize for any unintended offense or hardship this activity has caused.  

It is essential that we continue to have conversations in our classrooms, our community and our homes which acknowledge all aspects of our history, and explore the impact that past still has on us today. We are planning a Town Hall meeting so that we can continue this important dialogue together.  

Sincerely,

Dr. John J. Ramos, Sr.

Superintendent

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