Cobb teacher under siege for class "slavery game" shares her side

Last week Cobb County fifth-grade teacher Hope Largent hoped to make a class on slavery engaging when she used a teacher-created simulation of the Underground Railroad.

Georgia standards require fifth graders learn about how state's rights and slavery fueled the growing tensions between the north and south. "It is very hard to bring that down to a 10-year-old's level," said Largent, a Georgia Southern graduate in her second year at Cheatham Hill Elementary School.  "I wanted to find something interactive, engaging and memorable."

That 25-minute classroom activity found on a teacher site proved to be highly memorable -- landing Largent in newspapers worldwide and under attack for her "racist slavery game."

Among the headlines: "Teacher facing discipline after only black student forced to play slave," and "Back to the Plantation: Outrage after teacher plays slavery game in class with one black student."

While media reports contend Largent faces disciplinary action, the teacher said she's unaware of any forthcoming sanctions, and the principal sent a letter home today assuring parents she supports teachers "thinking outside the box."

Largent told me she believed students enjoyed and learned from the activity in which they rolled dice to face different conditions in a simulated Underground Railroad journey. But Delores Bunch-Keemer, whose granddaughter was in the class, came to school the next morning upset over what she considered the inappropriateness of the exercise and its negative impact on her granddaughter.

Dissatisfied with both the teacher's and school's response, Bunch-Keemer took her complaint to the media. After the story went viral the facts became murkier with each retelling.

For example, newspapers reported Bunch-Keemer's granddaughter was the only black child in the class; the girl was one of four African-Americans out of a diverse class of 23 that includes Hispanic children. Reports stated the girl somehow ended up back at the plantation six times in the simulation-- implying some nefarious plot that kept routing her back there. But the journals students filled out on their journey around the room showed the child, like every other student, visited almost every station and was among the half of the class who found freedom.

I reached out to Bunch-Keemer who has been public in her ongoing concerns, posting on Facebook her letter to the principal, but I haven't heard back from her yet. Until I talk to her, here is one of her Facebook posts on this issue:

I am sure we are aware the institution of slavery is barbaric, is indentured servitude with little chance of obtaining freedom and cannot be assimilated with work for which some type of compensation is earned. I pray that the severity of slavery and its effects on African-Americans is not belittled and compared to a career where you could "be beaten if you don't like your work."

Until her interview with me today, Largent declined to talk to the press, but the wildfire spread of misinformation pushed her to speak.

Did Bunch-Keemer's granddaughter seem upset during the simulation?  Largent said the child appeared to be enjoying the activity with her classmates. When Largent asked the child after her grandmother's visit why she didn't report that it bothered her, the girl said, "It wasn't the game. It was slavery."

Slavery is a tough topic, said Largent, but the state has made it part of the standards and she has to teach it. "I am going to continue to do my job," she said. But she has shelved the simulation.

Frustrated with the media accounts, Fay McLaughlin has reached 16 other parents in Largent's room thus far willing to go on record on the teacher's behalf.  Many sent letters of support to the principal.

In talking to several Cobb parents today, they all said the same thing: Their kids love Largent.

"She is making a difference in our children's lives because she is teaching them in a way where they are not just reading the book and taking a test, but so they understand what they are learning," said McLaughlin. Her daughter never liked to write, but was eager to sit down after the Underground Railroad activity and write about her experiences. Now, her daughter is crying in fear her teacher will be fired, said McLaughlin.

Parent Jennifer Fisher said her daughter thought the simulation "was a great way to learn, because now she better understands what people went through during that time. Personally, I appreciate how much my children can learn from an activity such as this, and I feel hands-on-learning is a very important part of our educational system today. Our family feels strongly about teaching our kids to put themselves into someone else’s shoes and see/understand how blessed they are because of the country we live in. I fully support Ms. Largent’s activity, and would support any activity like this that portrays what life was like in a previous era."

Parent Alex May said his son calls Largent his favorite teacher ever. "She is vibrant and enthusiastic," said May.

In a statement late today, teachers on the fifth-grade team at Cheatham Hill blasted what they called "a slanderous assault in the news and on social media" and praised their young colleague.

They wrote:

What Hope's critics have failed to realize is that in the digital age, children learn and understand concepts quite differently than a generation ago. To meet students where they are technologically, teachers must use interactive learning activities. That's why we search for all types of activities that provide the most effective way to present information to our students. Hope Largent did exactly what we all try to do –– find ways to make learning meaningful and lasting. We support that with enthusiasm.

Lost in all the slander is the truth that Hope is a wonderful teacher. Watching her engage students with her interactive journals and lessons is exciting and inspiring.  Instead of relying on boring lessons straight out of textbooks, she looks for effective ways to keep her students interested. The Civil War and the role of slavery are important and sensitive topics. Not teaching them is not an option. What is optional is the energy and intelligence that a teacher can bring to those topics in pursuit of student understanding. Hope brings both in abundance.

In our interview, Largent spread out the simulation materials and detailed the process; students roll dice and move among stations in the classroom that simulate conditions slaves might encounter when they attempted to escape southern plantations to reach freedom in the north. The stations -- marked by sheets of paper -- are the northern border, the woods, a cabin, meet a stranger, an abolitionist's house, working on the plantation and on the road. At each station, they roll again for their next stop.

Largent used the same project last year, and felt it helped her students understand the issues and "retain them for state testing in April."

One of Bunch-Keemer's accusations is that Largent told her granddaughter slaves were beaten when they were forced back to the plantation, but the teacher said, "I never talked about beatings. Never."

However, the written introduction to the game does mention punishment: "Runaways often walked at night. Sometimes, they hid in carts driven by members of the Underground Railroad. Escaping took great courage. Runaways who were caught would be punished and returned to slavery."

Overall, the activity struck me as a straightforward and sanitized way to teach young kids how the Underground Railroad worked and how hard it was for slaves to gain their freedom. The real question is whether it was the best way to teach those lessons.

Many experts caution against classroom simulations, although most of the discussion focuses on more sophisticated role-playing.  The Anti-Defamantion League has questioned Holocaust simulations in classrooms, including this one described on the group's website:

A  Holocaust simulation activity at a Florida Middle School upset students, parents and community members by selecting children to be exposed to "persecution." Without announcing or explaining the specific purpose of the activity in advance, eighth-grade students whose last names started with the letters L-Z were given yellow five-pointed stars and designated the "persecuted", while their peers received "privileged" treatment. Throughout the activity the star-wearing students were subjected to enforced rules which ranged from forcing them to stand at the back of the class or the end of long lunch lines, to barring them from using some bathrooms and preventing them from using school drinking fountains. At the end of the day, many children were distressed, and one child even went home crying, telling his parents, "The only thing I found out today is that I don't want to be Jewish."

In its advice to teachers, the Southern Poverty Law Center says allowing students to assume the roles of other people and act out scenarios enables them gain deeper insight into historical events, but there are risks and dangers:

At any give time, simulations may be playing out in thousands of pre-K through 12 and college classrooms throughout the country. Topics are virtually unlimited, from slave ship experiences to the stock market before the Crash of 1929 to life under authoritarian regimes. Not all topics are controversial — the signing of the Declaration of Independence, for example. But other simulations are laden with inherent emotion and conflict, especially as they relate to race and ethnic identity...Educators who oppose the use of simulations for emotionally vulnerable subjects generally point to three main concerns: the effects of simulations on children's psychological development, the ability of simulations to oversimplify history and oppression, and the fact that few teachers possess the appropriate training to facilitate simulations successfully.

I had a Twitter exchange with a teacher tonight who felt simulations or game-like approaches to slavery were wrong. "I've taught my own kids about slavery & didn't need games. There are children's' books & movies," she said.  It is not, she said, appropriate to make slavery or the Holocaust fun.

But teaching about slavery or the Holocaust through interactive activities isn't about making these horrific historical facts "fun." It's about making them relatable to students. I never had an interactive activity in school; I just sat with the other 39 kids in my class, hands folded and listened. As the Cheatham Hill teachers said, I am not sure that works anymore.