Nature's Classroom: Reenacting Slavery as a Learning Tool?

Exploring How One Massachusetts Program Misses the Mark

Picture being a parent, signing off on a permission slip enabling your child access to what you think will be an once-in-a-lifetime educational experience that’ll enhance what they're already learning at school. Now imagine, later, discovering that the ‘experience’ you permitted your son or daughter to participate in included them being chased at night, through the woods, while being assailed with racial epithets and insults during a slavery reenactment. Definitely not the type of educational team building any parent would knowingly sign off on without some trepidation, I'm sure.

Apparently, one Hartford school decided to treat its middle-school students to a history lesson many of them wouldn't forget. Last fall seventh graders from the Hartford Magnet Trinity College Academy attended a 4-day outing at an environmental education facility called Nature’s Classroom; which boasts thirteen sites in New York and New England and promises that students will come away from their experience having developed a “sense of community, confidence in themselves, and an appreciation for others that will carry over to the school community.” However, that’s not the warm feeling some left the program with after participating in an Underground Railroad slavery vignette which allegedly included: pretending to be up for sale at a slave auction, pretending to be on a slave ship, cotton picking, and the like.  

And since James and Sandra Baker (of Farmington, CT) seem like the type of parents who would never knowingly agree to have their child subjected to that kind of mental mind fuck exercise, they removed her from the school and filed a human rights complaint with the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities and with the Department of Education (on behalf of their daughter) against the Hartford school system, after learning the details of the trip. 

According to the Hartford Courant
Sandra Baker said Thursday that her daughter, who is African American, and fellow classmates at Hartford Magnet Trinity College Academy were essentially "terrorized" during the nighttime Underground Railroad exercise that was part of a field trip to Nature's Classroom in Charlton, Mass.    
Parents were not informed that students would be part of a slavery re-enactment, said Baker, a social worker. Baker learned of the exercise from her child, who was 12 and in seventh grade."I said, 'How was your trip?' Baker recalled. She started telling me what happened. I was like, 'What?' I was stunned. ... We crossed all our t's and dotted all our i's. This, I didn't see coming."
Baker and her husband had been embroiled in a 10-month-long fight with the Hartford School District before finally taking their grievance to the Hartford School Board. In a statement to the Board, James Baker said his daughter and her classmates had learned about the controversial reenactment only 30 minutes beforehand, and while encouraged to participate, were given the option not to.  

WFSB 3 Connecticut

At a Board hearing, Mr. Baker recounted what his daughter told him... 
The instructor told [his daughter] if [she] were to run, they would whip [her] until [she] bled on the floor and then either cut [her] Achilles so [she] couldn't run again, or hang [her]. [Students] pretended to be on a slave ship, pretended to pick cotton, and instructors were their masters.
Nature’s Classroom has been doing the Underground Railroad reenactment for 20 years, although the crux of their program is supposedly structured around ecological issues. This also isn't the first time they've come under fire for this particular leg of their program; children as young as 10-years-old have been through its rigors. Program Director John G. Santos, who doesn't seem to grasp why aspects of the slavery activity are problematic, and who defended his staff against accusations that they used racial epithets said... 
"I could absolutely not expect the N-word, because we’re so afraid of even saying it, that it would be acceptable in any terminology here at Nature’s Classroom. I think the activity itself has current, as well as historical, relevance. We chose to do that. It is play-acting, but it’s very cautionary play-acting.” 
Santos also said he had no idea any of the Hartford students who participated that day had any issues, and he only recently found out about the complaints filed by the Bakers. He also reportedly likened slavery to present-day bullying-- (a parallel I find to be a bit of a stretch)-- "[T]hese are kids, sorry to say, that will be given cars in four more years." 

Santos also opined that middle-school aged students acting out the horrors of slavery somehow raises “awareness of physical and emotional and cultural supremacy over another,” and that the exercise prompts a “very, very heartfelt understanding of an underclassed group ... a personal reaction to the historical event, bringing it to bear on day-to-day living."

However, the Hartford school system is predominantly comprised of black and Hispanic students, all of whom would be the likeliest ones at the short end of ‘cultural supremacy,’ so I’m not clear on whether or not Santos believes students of color are the primary ones who need to glean how white supremacy works to oppress black and brown folks. Santos, teachers, and former students who tout the program may consider the outrage unfounded, but I think they miscalculate how upsetting it could be for young black students being launched into such an activity ill-prepared, without a full grasp of slavery's impact or of their own marginalization.  

Although slavery was legally abolished in America 150 years ago, young black men and women are coming-of-age under the school to prison pipeline, institutional oppression, resource hoarding, stop-and-frisk laws, and are being killed due to the fear and disdain their ‘blackness’ still rouses in people who harbor anti-black bias; so perhaps it would behoove Nature’s Classroom, and other educators operating from behind the lens of privilege, to be less haphazard in how they raise awareness about the issue of slavery, since its legacy still endures. It’s important to put the history of American slavery in perspective, explain it with nuance, and encourage meaningful dialogue among students. Humiliation doesn't strike me as an effective way to instill humility, community, or understanding in young people. 

I'd also be remiss if I didn't note (while perusing online commentary and Twitter) that most of the former students and parents who enjoyed the program and who don't "see what the fuss is about," appear to be white or non-black people of color, so wouldn't understand why some might find the exercise a bit unnerving. They also fail to realize that just because some students had a great time and Santos believes it to be an invaluable lesson, it doesn't invalidate what happened to the Bakers' daughter and the feelings of those (black) students who didn't find it particularly uplifting. 

A follow-up report by a Hartford Magnet Trinity College Academy social worker from April 19, 2013, outlined some of the feedback from students who participated in the program; and some expressed that they were unable to discern whether or not group leaders were being serious in their roles as slave masters, and so came away from the experience feeling discomfited.

John Santos may believe he’s helping cultivate thoughtful discourse on the Underground Railroad and on marginalized groups, and he has the luxury of shrugging off parents’ concerns, however, encouraging black students to pretend to be slaves and having them run through the woods while their white team leaders (playing the role of ‘masters’) berate them, does very little to dismantle racial hierarchies... not to mention, these reenactments are being carried out at the expense of students’ emotional well-being. As CNN's Brook Baldwin noted in the above clip, there's a difference between young people reliving the history of the Underground Railroad and learning about it. 

The Dept. of Ed. met with leaders from Nature's Classroom after the Bakers filed their complaints and determined that there were "no clear instructions for staff regarding appropriate or inappropriate language or actions, or caution around possible emotional and/or psychological effects; particularly when students of color participate." Santos admitted that the program doesn't have adequate funding that would properly prepare participating students for the program's slavery reenactment and debrief them afterward.... And therein lies the problem and risks involved with using this type of mental exercise as a teaching tool sans the proper resources, yet deciding to half-ass it anyway. 

I understand that historical reenactments will likely continue to be used by educators as a way to illustrate harrowing moments in history, but it's important to fine-tune the curriculum (this includes writing those grants to get the proper funding) before jumping in willy-nilly and scaring the shit out of young students. John Santos could stand to at least mull over some of the criticism his reenactment has been receiving, lest his Underground Railroad exercise comes across as nothing more than a glorified ‘Scared Straight!’ hazing program.

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