Mrs. Bernstein, you really thought this was okay?

Really, Mrs. Bernstein? Mrs. Bernstein, you really thought this was okay?

For the lazy, an excerpt:

On Nov. 18, [teacher] Bernstein was discussing the conditions under which African captives were taken to America in slave ships. She bound the two [black] students’ hands and feet with tape and had them crawl under a desk to simulate the experience, [superintendent] Monahan and [parent] Shand said. Monahan said the girls were not the only blacks in the class.

In case this is not clear, a white teacher bound the hands and feet of two black children and had them crawl under a desk to demonstrate the conditions under which slaves were transported.


“There are other ways to demonstrate slavery,” Christine Shand said Friday. “It doesn’t matter the color of the kids, it’s just not right to tie them up. My daughter is still upset, still embarrassed. She didn’t go to school today.”

I actually disagree that this is not about the color of the kids. Teachers need to be sensitive that some “lessons” are more emotional and traumatizing for some kids rather than other kids. I remember learning this lesson when I was in sixth grade – my teacher was Jewish, and when she taught us about the Holocaust, she and other Jewish kids in the class cried. The lesson had a special meaning to them – I understood this at 11. How inappropriate would it have been if two of them were chosen to wear Stars of David on their shirts to demonstrate the labelling of Jews? I think it’s more inappropriate than had the children been chosen at random, or better yet, had the teacher asked for volunteers (which the article is not clear how she did choose them, although I assume the child that was so upset would not have volunteered had she known the content of the demonstration.) I’m not sure that the actual content of the lesson is necessarily insensitive to me, although I do think tying up kids at any time is just not a smart thing to do.

People are so f-ing ignorant. And I’m sick of it. I WISH a teacher would tie up MY child to demonstrate slavery. PhD or not….

Updated to add: my hubby makes a good point – what was the point of the lesson? If it was to demonstrate the conditions of slavery, then tie up ALL the kids, so they could ALL feel what it may have been like. But this sounds like this teacher took two black kids to add some “reality” to the demonstration, like “this is what black people looked like on a slave boat…” Again, the color of the kids absolutely does matter…

6 thoughts on “Mrs. Bernstein, you really thought this was okay?

  1. Your husband’s point is actually worse. If some injustice occurs to two people, does it make sense to force MORE people to experience it just to somehow make things fair? Absurd.


  2. What a crazy story. I wish we’d get back to just teaching kids the Three Rs. How about instead of engaging in silly “visual example” exercises, have the kids read Frederick Douglass’s autobiography. This way the students would learn about slavery (and other things) while at the same time, developing their reading and comprehension skills. Plus, it’s a damn good book.


  3. tsfiles – it depends on the point of the exercise – if we want kids to understand the “experience” of slavery, then yes – tie them all up, otherwise some kids are missing out on that experience. Of course, the better solution is to tie up no one. The point is is that is seems like this teacher didn’t think AT ALL about the point of the exercise, because whatever her point, it could have been done differently.


  4. Well I think what the teacher did was terrible and the most terrible part was singling out the Black girls. Tying up all the kids would be not good — and I agree it was overall a bad idea — but singling out the Black kids was by far worse than tying up all the kids would have been. My reaction. It’s already hard enough to be a very small minority in a predominantly-White class, and this will make it much, much worse in the relations among the children.

    (Libertynow’s comment is just scary, enough said.)

    If you don’t mind, I’d appreciate your reactions to a different story that seems more subtle and hard and must happen all the time. First grade, class is predominantly White, the teacher (White) was explaining MLK day and how there used to be segregation and Black people had to ride on the back of the bus, etc. As I understood the story, the teacher did not single out the Black child at all, just told the MLK Day story. But the Black child was upset anyway and came home crying to his mother, worrying that he would have to ride on the back of the bus. One thing complicates the story, the mother was white (adopted Black child) and I think was not as well prepared as a Black mother to talk about race. But still, what struck me was how hard it is with little children to tell the truth about history so the White kids learn it without hurting (or risking hurting) the Black kids if they are a small minority. I wonder if there are effective teaching strategies for this kind of context. It seems to me to be a hard thing to get right, and I can imagine myself screwing it up. It is so much easier to teach college students.


  5. First, a note – I deleted libertynow’s comment because while I am against censoring on what are, or should be, fields in which all opinions should be welcomed, my blog is not such a field…We can disagree, and I won’t remove a post that just disagrees, but hatefulness will not be tolerated.

    Two, I don’t think tying up all the kids would be a good thing to do, but at least there would be some kind of justification behind it. It would make logical sense, if not practical sense.

    OW, I’ve heard this story before, a friend of mine with a 6 year old just had a similar experience, although he was the only black child in the classroom when the lesson was taught. My first reaction is that perhaps this is not an appropriate lesson for 6 year olds. Just like we are selective about the things we tell our kids about sex depending on age, why can’t we do the same with these types of lessons? I have a great book about MLK for little one’s that talk more about how words can move people and the importance of not being complicit when something bad is happening to someone else. It also talks about church and the community that can be found in churches, etc. My kids are still too little for it, but I think it’s an appropriate introduction to the topic.

    But, for older kids, I do think that history needs to be taught, even if it is particularly traumatizing for some kids. I think teachers should probably let parents know about the lesson beforehand, so the parent can be prepared to deal with the aftermath. My friend’s biggest complaint was the lack of forethought on the part of the teacher, like she never even thought about the fact that this lesson could be particularly traumatic for the only black child in the classroom. And, the child didn’t understand, and it looks like in your story too, that we are talking about past events that will not happen again. I think that is key for little kids – they have to know, even when teaching the not-so-good things about history, that they are safe and valued. A large part of the lesson should also be about how to not repeat history – talk about why Jim Crow didn’t make sense based on what we know about people, show pictures where there are Whites also marching so White kids know that there were some on the “good” side… I don’t know, it just seems like a little forethought and empathy would go a long way…


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