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Patrick Marsh Middle School. Photo: WISC
Patrick Marsh Middle School. Photo: WISC

How not to teach slavery, courtesy of Patrick Marsh Middle School in Wisconsin

Students were asked in an assignment about ancient Mesopotamia how they would “punish” a slave. The correct answer was “put to death.”

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A group of teachers at Patrick Marsh Middle School in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin are currently on administrative leave following an unapproved, racially insensitive lesson that upset both students and their families. 

Sixth grade students received an assignment about ancient Mesopotamia that asked a question about how slaves should be treated, the school’s principals explained in a letter to all students on Monday, Feb. 1.

The assignment read: “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 correct answer for this question was “put to death.” The answer was related to the Code of Hammurabi, a code of law that set punishments and fines in the ancient region of Mesopotamia. 

Dazarrea Ervins, a concerned parent, posted a photo of the assignment on her Facebook page, and wrote: “First day of Black History Month and this was issued to my 6th grader at Patrick Marsh Middle School.” 

Ervin’s son, Zavion Hopkins, showed his mom the question, not knowing what to do. 

“I showed it to my mom, and I said, ‘I don't know how to answer this,’” he told CNN affiliate WKOW. “My mind was blown. I just stared at it for a second.” 

Ervins feels that the lesson could have easily been framed more appropriately. She said it could have been posed in a way that made students reflect on the time in history when these events took place.

"'How does this make you feel? Is this right or wrong?'" she told WKOW. "But to pose the question as, 'How would you punish this slave?' I mean, come on." 

In response to the backlash, the Sun Prairie Area School District sent out an apology letter to all families in the district on Monday, Feb. 1. 

“We are writing today to apologize for a grave error in judgment that occurred during sixth-grade social studies instruction at Patrick Marsh Middle School,” the letter said. “A small group of our teachers developed and used an activity that was neither racially conscious nor aligned to our district mission, vision, values, curriculum, or district equity statement.” 

The letter also stated that the lesson was not a part of the district curriculum, and that no student should participate in or complete the assignment. The wording of the assignment matches a $4 lesson from Teachers Pay Teachers (TpT), a website where educators can buy and sell education materials. 

A spokesperson for the organization has reported that the lesson was removed as soon as they were made aware of the situation. 

“This resource was unacceptable, inappropriate, and antithetical to TpT’s values,” the spokesperson said. 

In a statement released on Thursday, Feb. 3, the company explained that racist or offensive material is prohibited on their website and that they plan to make improvements to ensure nothing like this will happen again.

The district said a review committee will examine the teaching practices of the department under a “lens of racial trauma and curriculum violence,” and work to improve its staff professional development. 

The student services team will be checking in with students who may need help processing the incident or need to talk it out. Leaders at the middle school have also pledged to work with Black community leaders to “work toward community healing.”

This controversy comes just days after Arkansas, Iowa and Mississippi put forth proposals to prohibit schools from using the 1619 Project, a New York Times project focusing on slavery’s legacy. The 1619 Project was published in 2019, the 400th anniversary of the first arrival of enslaved Africans. 

A pending measure in Arkansas’s legislature denounces the project as a “racially divisive and revisionist account of history that threatens the integrity of the Union by denying the true principles on which it was founded.” 

Republican Rep. Mark Lowery, who sponsored the measure, did refer to slavery’s legacy as a “dark stain,” but cited criticism from some historians about parts of it, and maintained that the project diminishes the Founding Fathers. 

A lesson such as the one that was assigned to middle school students in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin is beyond unacceptable in 2021, especially during Black History Month. 

If students are not taught about slavery in an accurate and sensitive manner, their education as well as their personal development will not be complete. 

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