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Teachers learn about slavery at Lee’s birthplace

Courtland Milloy/The Washington Post | 8/9/2018, 6 a.m.
At Stratford Hall in Virginia, birthplace of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, a group of K-12 teachers gathered recently to ...
Stratford Hall Barb Ballard freeimages.com

STRATFORD, Va.

At Stratford Hall in Virginia, birthplace of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, a group of K-12 teachers gathered recently to talk about slavery and how to teach it.

How do you convey the horror without horrifying the kids? How do you help them see the inhumanity of the past and its effect on the present? How do you explain the unexplainable to a child when many adults can hardly bear to look?

It’s a challenge. But remarkably, the Lee family plantation proved to be a place where teachers could dig deeper into the subject than, say, some academics tend to do when giving talks at progressive think tanks in Washington.

A white fourth-grade teacher from Arlington, with 10 years of classroom experience, explained her approach to teaching the transatlantic slave trade: She said she made her students sit closely together on the classroom floor to simulate how Africans were tightly packed into slave ships.

That did not sit well with some of the other teachers, especially African-American female educators. “If you want to illustrate how a packed slave ship looked, use a can of sardines, not our children,’’ one of them said sternly.

Antoinette Dempsey-Waters, a black social studies teacher at Wakefield High School in Arlington, said that using children for slave simulations can be “traumatic and hurtful.’’ She recommended using age-appropriate books, especially autobiographies of black people who triumphed over slavery, such as Frederick Douglass.

The exchange between the teachers occurred during a presentation by Lauranett Lee, a professor at the University of Richmond, who was explaining how teaching about slavery can be used to develop empathy in younger students.

The fourth-grade teacher had apparently been trying to do just that. But the approach, however well-intentioned, was misguided.

That could be corrected.

“That’s why we’re here,’’ Dr. Lee said, “to learn how to teach that hard history.’’

The teacher took the critique in stride. She said she would no longer use slave simulations and would find more appropriate teaching tools.

An important lesson had come out of the spirited dialogue, said educational psychologist John L. Johnson. He had come to Stratford Hall’s annual Summer Teacher Institute, something of a three-day boarding school for educators, to talk to teachers about the psychological consequences of slavery.

“What we are dealing with is so vital and volatile that if people are going to teach it, they have to work through their own emotions first,’’ he said. In other words, teachers might want to know what kinds of comments about slavery will probably anger adults, preferably before broaching the subject with a classroom of anxious or insensitive kids.

Teachers from throughout the country usually attend the institute. But because this year’s topic was more localized – teaching about slavery in Tidewater Virginia – most of the 25 teachers were from Virginia and Maryland.

They immersed themselves in study, attended lectures, participated in discussion groups and developed strategies for dealing with the many themes that flow from U.S. slavery’s 250-year history. Interest in slavery, especially in the D.C. area, appears to have picked up considerably in recent years. Controversies over Confederate statues and symbols, a deadly white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, prominent universities such as Georgetown coming to grips with past profiting from the slave trade, the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture on the Mall — teachers say such events have students wanting to know more about the origins of racial conflict in the country.