Teachers on Leave After 'Profoundly Thoughtless' Slavery Lesson

Wisconsin school district is apologizing after assignment asked: 'How will you punish this slave?'
By Jenn Gidman,  Newser Staff
Posted Feb 4, 2021 7:19 AM CST
School Under Fire for Lesson: 'How Will You Punish This Slave?'
A Wisconsin school is staying tight-lipped over a slavery-themed assignment.   (Getty Images/taka4332)

On the first day of Black History Month, a Wisconsin middle school marked the moment with an assignment on ancient Mesopotamia. That lesson now has multiple teachers on leave, while the school district involved is staying tight-lipped on how it came to be in the first place. The Wisconsin State Journal reports on an eyebrow-raising question in the assignment, part of a larger lesson on the Code of Hammurabi—a legal standard created by the Babylonian king and allegedly used to dole out punishments—at Sun Prairie's Patrick Marsh Middle School. The question, as seen in a screenshot: "A slave stands before you. This slave has disrespected his master by telling him, 'You are not my master!' How will you punish this slave?" The mom of one sixth-grader tells WMTV that her son came to her with a "weird look on his face" while doing the assignment. "I can see how they’re learning about this era, but the wording of the question and the statement—it was just wrong," she notes.

The biggest red flags in the lesson, experts say: that it asked students to mull over how they would harm another person; that it used the word "slave" ("enslaved person" is preferable, as it indicates being a slave isn't a choice); and that it asked students to consider the situation from the POV of the slave owner. "To talk about the history of slavery from the point of view of an enslaver is always the wrong way to talk about slavery," a UW-Madison professor tells the State Journal, adding that the lesson was "profoundly thoughtless, hurtful, [and] lacking in empathy." The lesson appears to have come from the activities-sharing site Teachers Pay Teachers, which has now yanked it from its site. "Racist or offensive material is strictly prohibited on TpT," the group tells NBC News. The school district, which calls the incident a "grave error in judgment," says the teachers apologized and were placed on leave, and that an investigation and review of teaching practices is ongoing, per WMTV. (Read more slavery stories.)

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