Harming Students with “Slave” Assignments

In my first few years of teaching I learned, the hard way, about making mistakes with classroom assignments I was creating. We had our standard textbooks with ancillary materials that we could use but I also learned that the objectives of a lesson didn’t always match up to what those provided us. For instance, the first 4–5 questions after a chapter in our textbook were simply recall questions. They asked students to repeat facts about what they’d just read.

The money questions were always after that. They were deeper, reflective, and asked students to dig deeper on the Bloom’s Taxonomy pyramid. After a while, I’d forego the first questions and jump right to evaluation, application, and analysis portions. That’s where the meaty conversations happened in the classroom.

As I considered my early mistakes while reading about an assignment from a teacher in New York I wondered if I had ever made such egregious judgments in my assignments. After digging into what was wrong with this assignment, as posted on Twitter by the parent of a student who got it, I realized that I had never done the harm this one did.

Photo credit to Malik (@Meeky_Meek09)

Those warm, muggy days in the afternoon classes were, as I recall, fraught with tension and irritability so the thought of adding on a harmful assignment towards Black students is rather unconsionable. The Port Chester School District in Westchester, NY has been called out for this assignment as shared by Malik, the father of the student who brought it home.

After it was shared online I rolled my eyes because this is the umpteenth assignment I have seen shared like this. Normally it would illicit a “wow” or “not again” as I retweeted it but I decided to break down the specific harm for students in the hope that this kind of classroom project would cease.

First, I pointed out that the “8” in 2018 looks drawn in as if this assignment had been given before and, as a shortcut to printing it out again, the teacher simply wrote it in before copying them for distribution. There appears to be handwriting on the project as well but I’m unsure if it was by the student or teacher. This isn’t uncommon in schools when you’ve printed 120 copies of assignments for your students and realize you left something out.

Now, let’s take a deep dive into the harm of this project:

Setting up our classrooms in ways that continue to center and normalize white students is, in effect, white supremacy. It asks students to continue the traditions of this country in ways that leave out every other racial group as constructed by the founders and writers of our Consititution as well as the revisionist history our schools are complicit in when they don’t seek diverse voices for curriculum councils. While this is a mess from top to bottom as an assignment there are fully a dozen examples of this every school year and, thankfully, we see them on social media and share them in ways that force teachers and districts to consider the damage these thoughtless parts of our teaching create.

Make no mistake: these are white-dominated systems operating for all children. The gatekeepers are administrators, teachers, lawmakers, parents and curriculum experts who are continuing to allow harm in a multiplicity of ways that oppress students. It’s not uncalled for to ask us to consider our complicity in this system and, in fact, it’s the only way anything will change. I encourage all of us to demand to see assignments, curriculum, assessments, and projects that are being taught. Criticize it heavily. Ask who benefits and is affirmed in texts and who is privileged in our textbooks. Question who is centered, who is missing, and who is continuing to be marginalized with what we present to students.

The system isn’t going to change itself.

There are a number of us seeking that shift and, if teachers are going to send these kinds of assignments out that will be consumed by the masses who disagree with them then we’re going to demand that they do something they often require of their students: show your work.

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