Utah school district says it will revise project where students were assigned to be fictional slaves and plantation owners

Centennial Middle School in Provo faced pushback from parents.

(Centennial Middle School via Facebook) Centennial Middle School as seen on the school's Facebook page. The school will revise an assignment where students were told to be slaves after pushback from parents.

Students in an eighth grade class in Provo were randomly assigned to be slaves and slave masters for a project about the Civil War. And when they finished, they were supposed to “reach their own conclusions regarding the issues.”

The assignment out of Centennial Middle School came last month and was scrapped after pushback from several parents with students of color in the class.

One father asked that his Black kid be given another assignment. He was instead told by the teacher that she would make sure the student got the North side of the war instead of the South.

When more raised concerns, those who declined to participate were given a packet and a book to read: “Across Five Aprils,” written by a white author about a white family’s experiences during the Civil War.

“It’s troubling on so many fronts,” said Adrienne Andrews, the chief diversity officer at Weber State University.

The Salt Lake Tribune received a copy of the assignment from a parent, who was sent an email with the instructions on March 23. The parent asked not to be identified for fear that their kid in the class may face repercussions. They have been involved with a group calling on Provo City School District to drop the assignment.

District spokesman Caleb Price said administrators have been “working with parents to resolve the issues.”

“There was some miscommunication, misunderstanding involved with it,” he said. “The assignment was never asking students to become a slave. It wasn’t a role-playing thing. It was a research assignment.”

Parents with kids in the class said that’s not what was asked of the students in completing the assignment. They said students were told to take on their fictional identities and make arguments for them, including some in support of slave masters.

Price said the school is going to adjust the project for next year. He did not say how; as that is currently being determined.

The email about the assignment says that students will be “involved in a project which investigates the impact of the Civil War on different occupations and individuals.”

It continues, “Each student will randomly be assigned a fictional person to follow in determining how their life would have been impacted during these significant events.”

The list of people includes at the top: “enslaved,” “freedman,” “escaped from slavery” and “plantation owner.”

(Screenshot) Pictured is the email that teachers at Centennial Middle School sent out about a Civil War assignment.

There are also a few spots for farmers and factory workers. Girls in the class were limited to the roles of slaves, nurses or women pretending to be male soldiers. Boys could also be factory owners, soldiers and officers, as well as slave masters.

The email notes, “Students will be encouraged, after class discussions and independent inquiry, to reach their own conclusions regarding the issues.” Anyone who is “uncomfortable with their assigned person” was told to contact their teacher “for an adjustment.”

Price said that is where the alternative assignment came in with the book, “Across Five Aprils.”

“It is a very common book regarding this time period,” he said. “It’s not like the teacher sought out the white perspective on it. But this is an area where we can find books and articles that are more diverse. Going forward, that is something the district recognizes we can work to improve.”

Andrews, who is currently completing a doctorate in education, culture and society and whose job at Weber State includes improving education in the state by focusing on inclusivity, said the project is not the best way to teach about the Civil War.

“These sorts of assignments are not acceptable,” she said. “There are other ways to teach the Civil War and American history that do not require us to put people into these experiences that could be harmful mentally, emotionally and even physically.”

Students, she added, should not be asked to reenact power differentials, especially any that reinforce negative ideas about a person’s immutable characteristics, such as skin color. That can be particularly damaging for any student in the classroom that is part of a marginalized community.

Andrews noted that for some taking on that identity for an assignment may be temporary. But, as a Black woman, she said, or for Black students in the classroom: “We don’t get to leave that. It never ends. These are our bodies when we go home.”

She urges everyone — especially those within the district — not to brush off the assignment by saying that wasn’t the intent. Even if that’s the case, there was still a painful impact that should have been considered.

She said that Provo City School District should look at providing access to counselors and psychologists, especially from communities of color, to talk to students who were hurt by the assignment, help them heal and move forward. Price said the district has more social workers than any other district in the state and have access to that.

The district and others in the state should also reexamine any assignments that may cause harm, Andrews said, and seek to really understand and listen when students say they don’t feel safe.

The project comes shortly after another school in Utah — Maria Montessori Academy in North Ogden — originally allowed parents to opt their students out of learning about Black History Month. The charter later reversed its decision after a public outcry.

Andrews said assignments and waivers like those continue to pop up in the state and need to be called out and addressed each time.

Students need to learn — in age-appropriate ways — about the complexity of race as part of the founding of America, she added, including ways the country is and isn’t different today. That should be done with humanity, though, and by teachers who are trained in cultural competency.

“We need to use this as a teachable moment,” Andrews said. “People need to be paying more attention and taking more intention as they develop these classroom exercises. We need to be using these things as teaching tools that empower and do not disenfranchise or oppress or exclude our students.”

For one thing, she recommends that Centennial Middle School not assign students to any identities from the Civil War moving forward.

She also says that they should focus on real persons, particularly the accounts of slaves, instead of fiction. There are some written narratives from slaves that could be studied at length to talk about their experiences — including the fact that having those accounts is rare because many were oppressed by not being taught to read or write.

“We don’t need someone to pretend to be a slave or a slave master,” she said. “Why are we not leveraging that primary historical documentation to teach the history? I think that that transforms our understanding of slavery in the United States from an abstract idea to a lived reality. It was a lived experience.”

Andrews also noted there should be no debating whether that was right or wrong.