By Gloria Lloyd
A Mehlville School District teacher got international attention for an assignment asking students to “set your price for a slave,” but the parent who objected does not want to see her fired.
A fifth-grade teacher at Blades Elementary in Oakville is on paid administrative leave after giving students an assignment the week of Dec. 2 that was supposed to be an interactive project to examine westward expansion through a free-market lens, with students assigned a role and a product to sell or contribute to the colonial marketplace.
But the assignment featured human beings as a commodity to be sold alongside more mundane products like lumber or oil.
“You own a plantation or farm and therefore need more workers. You begin to get involved in the slave trade industry and have slaves work on your farm. Your product to trade is slaves,” the assignment read. “Set your price for a slave. ____ These could be worth a lot. You may trade for any items you’d like.”
Mother ‘shocked’ by assignment
Angela Walker, a teacher in St. Louis Public Schools whose son attends fifth grade at Blades, said she was shocked when her son came home with the assignment in his folder for the weekend. He is biracial.
“Honestly I was shocked, I really was, to see something like that where he had to set his own price,” Walker said.
Like the teacher asked, her son had set his price for a slave — $5 for two.
“Five dollars for two slaves — it just crushed us,” Walker said.
Seeing the price in black and white on the page jumped out at her as an injustice, and she’s not sure why the teacher didn’t see it the same way.
“I don’t know how it didn’t register to her that there was just something not right,” Walker said.
Walker’s husband, who is black, had an even stronger reaction. He said to their son, “What are we doing here, bud? Do you understand there’s no value on a life?”
As a teacher in St. Louis city schools, Walker said her school district does a lot of professional-development training on “trauma-informed cultural sensitivity,” and she hopes Mehlville will do the same: “We have to be more culturally sensitive.”
But even though she’s not sure how the teacher could miss the problem with the question, she does not want to see the teacher fired. She’s one of his favorite teachers, and Walker expects that to continue “when she returns.”
“Mistakes can happen, we’re human. Like so many children, my son loves her and that doesn’t change,” Walker said. “I don’t want to see her get fired. It does nothing — let her stay, teach her children and get the right training to understand how to go about situations like this in a more sensitive way so it doesn’t happen again.”
Walker also did not intend for the story to go viral like it did, everywhere from Arizona to Toronto. After her son came home with the assignment on a Friday night, she typed out an email to the teacher and Blades Principal Jeremy Booker to mention that the question might not be the most effective way to teach the lesson. She slept on it that night and sent the email Saturday morning.
Booker responded right away, which she said is typical for him. He said some of the things he’d later say in his official statement, and he promised he’d get back to her first thing Monday morning.
In the meantime, she had texted a photo of the assignment to a mentor teacher who had worked at several different schools and districts to see if her first impression of the assignment was wrong. The mentor texted her back that the assignment was not acceptable. The mentor also asked if she could post it to her personal Facebook page so her friends could see it.
The post went viral, and the district launched an investigation that weekend.
“Never did I think that this was going to explode like it did, but I also think with it doing that, it shows how big of a deal that it is,” Walker said.
And although the publicity isn’t what Walker said she intended, she hopes that it can make Mehlville an example of how to adapt to a changing world.
“My hope is that the teacher, Blades, Mehlville, can be this example for everyone — let’s get some training in there, let’s train our teachers to be trauma-informed, cultural sensitivity needs to be done,” Walker said. “That’s more what I want to see come out of all this, and firing her is not going to do that. Instead let’s focus on training of the teachers to where things like this don’t happen to people who might just not know that you know what, this might upset someone. It all goes back to not being sensitive to every group of diverse students, and maybe you just don’t know. If there had been training in this area I feel we wouldn’t be here right now.”
Superintendent Chris Gaines apologized Dec. 10 for the assignment.
“Asking a student to participate in a simulated activity that puts a price on a person is not acceptable,” he said in a statement. “Racism of any kind, even inadvertently stemming from cultural bias, is wrong and is not who we aspire to be as a school district. I am sorry and disappointed that this happened in our school.”
To prevent it from ever happening again, the district will be “devoting significant time and resources to train our staff on issues related to cultural competency, implicit bias and equity,” Gaines continued, although he noted, “There is no quick fix for cultural bias.”
Booker sent an email to the school’s parents Dec. 9 calling the class assignment “culturally insensitive.”
Booker said he met with the teacher Dec. 9 to talk about the purpose of the assignment, how it affected students and how the teacher interpreted curriculum standards.
“The teacher has expressed significant remorse,” Booker said.
“We are working together to ensure all students and families feel valued and respected at Blades Elementary,” he said, giving his phone number so that parents could call him if they have any questions.
The district was set to meet with John Bowman, the president of the St. Louis County NAACP, and a member of the organization’s education committee Monday. But school was canceled due to a snow day.
Bowman said that the assignment was “sad and unacceptable” and wouldn’t have happened in North County districts.
Teacher wrote assignment
The teacher teaches social studies to all Blades fifth graders. She is not tenured, since tenure does not start until a teacher’s sixth year in Mehlville. She has taught at Blades for four years.
She wrote the worksheet herself and had used it at least one other year. The marketplace is part of a teacher textbook, but the teacher developed the assignment herself.
That is common in Mehlville schools, and the assignment was not reviewed in advance by any administrator either at the school or Central Office.
Gaines said it would be impossible for Central Office to review all class assignments since the district has more than 700 teachers.
Walker did not believe the class had delved deeply into slavery as a separate topic. Gaines said it was in the workbook, but he wasn’t sure if it had been taught.