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S.F. teacher used a cotton plant to teach about slavery. The fallout has divided parents

San Francisco Chronicle 4/23/2022 By Jill Tucker

Amid a national conservative push to remove lessons about racism from school curricula, a San Francisco teacher’s use of a cotton plant to illustrate the hardships of slavery has left parents divided over the teaching method itself, given the sensitive subject, and the backlash that followed.

The social studies teacher at San Francisco’s Creative Arts Charter School brought in cotton plants, or bolls, to class on March 3 so her eighth-grade students could feel the sharp edges that had pierced hands while picking cotton and pulling out the seeds. The lesson was about the cotton gin and the impact it had on slavery and the Industrial Revolution.

Within 24 hours, the leadership at the school had launched an investigation into the classroom exercise — what some described as an inappropriate simulation of slavery.

On March 4, the school’s director apologized in a letter to families for the “unacceptable, harmful” and “inappropriate” teaching that did not reflect the school’s “anti-racist, progressive-minded curriculum.”

The teacher was not at the school for five weeks after the controversial class. The school declined to confirm whether or how she was placed on leave or disciplined during the investigation, but parents attributed her absence to disciplinary action. When the teacher returned on April 15, she issued a written apology to families.

The teacher declined to be interviewed for this story and is not being named by The Chronicle.

The K-8 charter school, which operates outside the purview of the San Francisco Unified School District, has 435 students identified as 219 white, 47 Black, 22 Asian, 84 Hispanic or Latino, and the rest Filipino, Native American or two or more races.

The situation there has divided the school’s largely liberal community at a time when states like Texas and Florida are banning classroom discussion of America’s racist past altogether.

“Teachers — like most Americans — struggle to have open and honest conversations about race,” according to a 2018 report by the nonprofit Southern Poverty Law Center. “How do they talk about slavery’s legacy of racial violence in their classrooms without making their black students feel singled out? How do they discuss it without engendering feelings of guilt, anger or defensiveness among their white students?”

Teaching about the past, and specifically the history of races in America, can be difficult and uncomfortable and the two things you don’t want to do are “trivialize the subject” or “traumatize the children,” said Hasan Kwame Jeffries, Ohio State University history professor.

“You just can’t, despite your best efforts actually recreate what slavery was like,” he said. “Any kind of simulation, any kind of re-creation, any kind of that hands-on kind of teaching, just pushes you into the area of re-trauma, traumatizing children and there are better ways to go about it.”

Creative Arts parent Rebecca Archer, who is Black and Jewish, said the cotton boll lesson was out of line and that she was shocked to see it happening at a progressive school in San Francisco.

Putting raw cotton in the hands of children, including students of color like her biracial son, re-creates conditions that “evoke so many deeply hurtful things about this country,” she said.

“There are people who think this lesson plan promotes empathy; I’ve heard that and understand that,” she said. “There are a lot of people who don’t understand why it’s hurtful or offensive.”

Students don’t need to have firsthand experiences with slave labor to have empathy for slaves, she said.

Another parent, whose child considers the teacher one of his three favorite people in the world, said it’s “unbearably cruel” what the teacher has endured.


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“I think it’s insane they would treat a teacher like this and basically discard a teacher that has been so inspiring and dedicated,” said the parent, who requested anonymity to protect her child. “It feels like it was a lesson in sensitivity and empathy. That’s why my mind is so blown and I can’t stop being angry about it.”

The parent observed that in other states, where conversations about discrimination, racism or white supremacy are banned because they can make white students feel guilty, the lesson here appeared to have been condemned for opposite reasons.

Upon her return to her classes on April 15, the teacher sent a note to the school’s families.

“Prior to spring break, I taught a tactile lesson involving raw cotton in an effort to get the students to understand the difficulty of manually processing cotton prior to the invention of Eli Whitney’s Cotton Gin,” she said. “While this lesson was sourced from reliable sources, after conferring with the administration and hearing many of the students reflections, I realize that this lesson was not culturally responsive and had the potential to cause harm.

“In teaching U.S. history, there are many challenging and sensitive topics to learn about and I look forward to continuing to improve my approach to addressing these, with support from the administration.”

Jeffries, faculty director for the K12 Teacher Institute on American Slavery, said that’s the right approach to an imperfect situation. Teachers are going to make mistakes when teaching about slavery and other topics, he added.

“Making the mistake does not mean we shouldn’t teach it. It just means we should teach it better.”

The school’s director, Fernando Aguilar, declined to comment on any disciplinary action taken against the teacher, citing personnel privacy issues.

“We didn’t feel like the lesson fit into our mission and our vision,” he said, adding the leadership is following collective bargaining procedures in regard to the teacher. “We don’t take things lightly that affect the well-being of our students.”

It’s a balancing act to teach uncomfortable subjects, said Zeus Leonardo, professor in UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Education.

“Being uncomfortable is part of learning,” he said. “And part of the learning is in the discomfort.”

That said, you have to teach with an eye on the appropriateness and execution of the information.

“It could be producing harm for the very students the teacher thinks they’re speaking up for, whose history they’re trying to unveil.”

The lesson plan involving the cotton is widely available online, although some sites, including the Smithsonian Learning Lab, have deleted it. But this isn’t the first time that the so-called cotton-picking activity has raised concerns in schools.

In 2019, a parent in Flint, Mich., questioned why her children were made to re-enact the oppression of their ancestors by cleaning or picking cotton. The middle school eventually removed the lesson from its curriculum.

In 2020, New Jersey officials investigated a teacher who had students lie on the floor picking and cleaning cotton amid whipping sounds. The teacher was cleared of improper behavior.

In 2021, in Spokane, Wash., a class that included two Black girls was instructed on how to clean cotton and challenged to see who could clean it the fastest.

After their mother complained, the school offered to remove the girls from the classroom. The mother requested a formal apology and the removal of the principal.

Gilda Bloom-Leiva, a professor in the San Francisco State Department of Secondary Education, said teacher education has changed drastically over the years.

The teaching of race and racism, for example, is “tied to generational trauma” and student teachers are taught to consider what challenges or harm lesson plans could create for the children in the classroom.

“We’ve come a long way in how we train teachers,” she said. “It’s more beneficial for the teacher, rather than just being suspended, to take a course on curriculum instruction on how to teach Social Studies in 2022.”

More than anything, the cotton-picking lesson plan should be a learning experience, Jeffries said.

“Polls show that most parents want their children to learn history the way it happened. They want them to learn the difficult aspects of America’s past so they can understand America’s present and be on a course to make America’s future better than anything we’ve seen before,” he said. “There has to be a little grace given, especially in this moment where teachers are being beat up for the wrong reasons. We have to teach this. We just have to do it better.”

Jill Tucker is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: jtucker@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @Jilltucker

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