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February 1, 2023
Vol. 80
No. 5
Classroom Conversations

Learning From “Viral” Teaching Moments

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Let’s do more than sit back and be outraged.

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Learning From “Viral” Teaching Moments
Credit: PATHDOC / SHUTTERSTOCK
Viral classroom controversies flood the news regularly enough for us to set our clocks by them. Every Halloween, for instance, a high school will go viral when some of its students attend a party and are photographed wearing racist costumes. A few weeks later, a teacher will go viral for giving students face paint and construction-paper headbands to wear during a Thanksgiving celebration. If they are fully committed to the shtick—as one teacher was in 2021—they might even get filmed performing a wildly inconsiderate "native dance" (CNN). During the winter holidays, the country will twist itself into its usual knots when schools either under-acknowledge or over-celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, or Kwanzaa. Then, a few weeks later, in a Black History Month just like this one, teachers will go viral for asking students to (a) discuss some version of the question, "Is slavery always bad?" or (b) role-play as enslaved people (Associated Press, 2020; Reneau, 2021). I am writing this in November 2022 but depending on when in February 2023 you are reading this column (and assuming Twitter still exists), you may have already encountered this year's viral outrage.
These latter two controversies—the "Is slavery always bad?" debate and the role-play—mostly take on a similar rhythm. The inciting incident is captured either on a clandestine cell phone video or a quickly snapped picture of an assignment sheet. The video or image immediately takes off on social media, causing the traditional media to reach out to the district for comment. The shocked district will say that the assignment or activity was "inappropriate" and that it does not reflect the school's values (Graham & Vella, 2021). They will also assure the community that the offending teacher has been placed on administrative leave. (Most of us will infer that this teacher is about to either get fired or end up in whatever version of "teacher jail" exists in that particular district. Many do get fired.)
District leadership might promise to bring in someone to train educators in cultural competency (Bellamy, 2019). By then, however, many of us will have said our piece—mostly about how this one incident isn't really an outlier and "imagine if that student didn't have a camera," etc.—and moved on to the next big thing. The students in the room, of course, do not have that luxury.
I wonder, What lesson are other teachers in the building learning from this kind of catastrophe? Too often, I fear that the only clear lesson is "Well, I am never going to do that." But I worry there is not much clarity on what "that" means. "That" might mean leading discussions about race. "That" might mean engaging students in academic role play. "That" might generally refer to asking tough questions that any loud segment of the adult world finds uncomfortable. Or "that" might specifically mean trusting students to have cell phones—with those pesky cameras—in class. What is being fixed? And is it what was broken in the first place?

"Lazy" Prompts and Role-Play

Let's consider the first common February dustup, the "Is slavery always bad?" prompt. All incidents are not identical. But if we were to closely examine a fairly recent one, a viral image first shared in 2016, we'd see what seems to be a student presenting a slide of slavery pros and cons (Reneau, 2021). Two of the four "pros" list the economic boon that slavery could be for some elite and wannabe elite white folks: "Slaves would be beneficial for some companies due to faster work performance," and "Slavery can be viewed as an opportunity to pay off debt." The other two "pros" are common ways that these economic classes of white people insincerely and erroneously "justified" enslaving other humans: "Not all slaves are treated with neglect," and "Most have food, shelter, and clothing." Meanwhile, the "cons" list is straight truth, pointing out that enslaved people were beaten; that they had no freedom; that their families were separated; and that, as a whole, the slave system violated human rights.
When I look at this student's slide, I am fairly confident that the "Is slavery always bad?" prompt, whether the wording came directly from the teacher or was just the kid's inarticulate interpretation of the wording, did not capture what the teacher actually meant for students to think about. Kids were likely meant to wrestle with the myriad ways that America's meteoric rise cannot be separated from its original sin, both on individual and systemic levels. Instead of lazily asking (or allowing the kids to present on) "Is slavery always bad?" this teacher could have asked, "What are some of the ways that America's early development depended on forced labor? What are the ways that white Americans justified this cruelty? How was each of these reasons insincere and/or erroneous?" At least in this particular example, it's the lazy prompting (not the deeper topic) that educators need to earnestly reflect upon and avoid in their own practice.
Now let's take the most common viral February faux pas—a slavery role-play. (Seriously, just Google it.) Here, the issue is not semantics. It is too often a misapplication of the otherwise powerful teaching tool of drama. Teachers think they can use use reenactments to make antebellum slavery—made distant because of time—relatable to modern students. They might, as an Indiana teacher planned to do, cut out the lights and make students kneel or lie down on the classroom floor with cable ties wrapped around their wrists to simulate a slave ship in the Middle Passage (Herron, 2019).
These teachers figure that no primary source reading can replace the kinesthetic feel of an activity like this. They are probably right. But they are also wrong in thinking that this makes the role-play activity worth it. These slavery role-plays are not broken because they make students uncomfortable. Much good learning does. Slavery role-plays are broken because they risk making students unsafe. That's the problem at the heart of this example. The freedom of role-play—so useful in other lessons—introduces too many variables. We should never put students' well-being and psychological safety at the mercy of each other's acting decisions. There are other reasons, but this risk alone makes classroom slavery role-plays in all but the most unique circumstances out of bounds.

The Aftermath

This February, let's try our best to remember to support the teachers who will be there after the noise of any viral incident dies down. And should we find ourselves personally leading teachers through the aftermath of such an incident, let us ask ourselves the tough questions that lead them toward fixing what was actually broken.
References

Associated Press (Eds.). (2020, September 18). “Teacher on leave for ‘pretend you are a slave’ assignment.”

Bellamy, C. (2019, March 12). “School apologizes after teaching students Black history with ‘escaping slavery’ game.” Fayetteville Observer.

CNN (Eds.). (2021, October 22). “Teacher put on leave after video surfaces of her dance in class.” [Video].

Graham, K., & Vella, V. (2021, March 26). “Philly teacher under scrutiny after giving an assignment asking students to imagine they were enslaved people.” The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Herron, A. (2019, September 10). “Indiana middle school cancels ‘slave ship’ role-play lesson after parents raise concerns.” USA Today.

Reneau, A. (2021, September 29). “A class presentation listing ‘pros’ and ‘cons’ of slavery is why we need racism education.” Upworthy.

Matthew R. Kay teaches students English at Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia and is the author of Not Light, But Fire: How to Lead Meaningful Race Conversations in the Classroom (Stenhouse, 2018).


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