An internal discussion in Maplewood and South Orange around a 5th grade unit on Colonial America that resulted in slave posters being displayed at South Mountain School has grown beyond the towns to garner international attention.
The issue came to light locally, when a parent, James H. Davis III, took his concerns to a closed Facebook group for discussing race in South Orange and Maplewood. Davis told Village Green that he had “sent an email to the Superintendent and the principal back in January (both of my 5th graders had the assignment). I was concerned that the project had the potential to be offensive and I wanted to know what the overall goal that a ‘slave auction’ poster would accomplish. I was assured by Dr. Ramos that the project was reviewed for potential bias.”
“When I saw the posters last week on display,” Davis said, “it was clear to me that that my concerns were completely ignored.”
“When families were in South Mountain for their parent teacher conferences, some noticed examples of the completed projects displayed on bulletin boards and were shocked to see among them children’s artwork depicting slaves,” explained Ramos. “We completely understand how disturbing these images are, and why parents were upset. This was exacerbated by the fact that the displays did not include an explanation of the assignment or its learning objectives.”
“The outrage over these displays is prompting reflection, for SOMSD staff and our community,” Ramos continued. “Some families are supportive of the example of a slave auction poster included in the assignment, because they see it as an important opportunity to examine this shameful and too-often ignored chapter of American history. Others are disturbed that elementary students were being asked to put themselves in the virtual shoes of people who subjugated others.”
As the district re-examines the Colonia America unit, South Mountain parent Stephanie Lawson-Muhammad was supportive of the curriculum overall, saying she wanted to ensure that the district did not shy away from teaching slavery. “Justice (our 10 year old) CHOSE (on her own) to make a Slave Wanted poster for her assignment. In fact she made a very graphic poster. But at the end of the day, if we aren’t teaching this we’re in the same space as the state of Texas that has worked diligently to strip slavery from the textbooks that will begin to permeate districts across this country. Slavery is the legacy of this nation…. I want my kids along with the kids of my white neighbors to clearly understand the burden of that truth and the price that is owed today.”
(It should be noted that Lawson-Muhammad, who is a member of the Board of Education, spoke for this article as a parent and not as a representative of the Board.)
Davis responded, “Let me be clear that I am not against teaching slavery in school, but I felt that ‘slave auction’ and ‘wanted posters’ was in no way a beneficial learning tool for 5th graders about the subject.”
Ramos and Board of Education President Elizabeth Baker followed up with a letter on Sunday night, March 12, stating that the district is dedicated to the goal of embracing diversity and encouraging the community to come together.
“This is the most important work of our time,” read the letter. “It is also the hardest. As we work with all of our hearts and energies, we know that there will be mistakes along the way, and there will be times that we stumble as we take risks in curriculum, instructional practices and other pertinent areas. That does not take away from the fact that we are in this endeavor, together, to be successful and to make good on our promise to give our children the support and tools they need to create a better future. We do not ask for you to be patient with us. We ask for you to partner with us.”
See the full letter here and below.
Dear South Orange Maplewood School Community,
South Orange Maplewood School District and our two towns pride ourselves on our diversity and commitment to inclusion. In an increasingly divided America, we have consciously chosen SOMA as the community to foster our children’s social and educational growth. In doing so, we must embrace all the opportunities and challenges inherent in striving for an inclusive and equitable community.
As issues of intolerance and exclusion continue to plague our country, the reality is that schools are a microcosm of society, and are not immune to what goes on around us.
We are writing this letter together to reinforce that we are committed to realizing the goals of equity which are foundational to South Orange and Maplewood. Our communities and district have not, cannot, and will not abide bias or intolerance of any kind.
Our Board of Education has repeatedly and unequivocally articulated the district’s commitment to ensuring that the dignity and rights of every member of our school community are respected. We understand that celebrating diversity is not the same as embracing it, and that the adoption of policies is only one step. We all acknowledge that there are significant hurdles and historic inequities that are embedded in institutions at every level. We have much more, intensely difficult and self-reflective, work to do as we examine and correct decades of individual and institutional, explicit and implicit bias. As a community, we must not only recognize the resulting manifestations and harm, but work together with honesty and diligence towards solutions.
There is considerable work taking place in our schools on school climate, anti-bias education, culturally responsive teaching and restorative practices. The District is committed to this work and is planning to expand all these efforts in the coming year – despite the constraints on our resources. This is a top priority. Hate, bias and intimidation have no place in our inclusive school community.
This is the most important work of our time. It is also the hardest. As we work with all of our hearts and energies, we know that there will be mistakes along the way, and there will be times that we stumble as we take risks in curriculum, instructional practices and other pertinent areas. That does not take away from the fact that we are in this endeavor, together, to be successful and to make good on our promise to give our children the support and tools they need to create a better future. We do not ask for you to be patient with us. We ask for you to partner with us.
As we have discussed in the past, we must be intentional in our work to avoid the “us” versus “them” mindset which can take hold. This is particularly important when children err – committing acts that seem to fly in the face of our community’s values and causing harm. While we of course address these choices appropriately, we must also remember that every child is a valued member of our school community, and deserves our support and guidance, even when they err. As our school communities respond, it is important to focus on the fact that everyone is committed to empowering our students within an atmosphere of equity, excellence, and respect.
We are on the same side.
In the next few weeks, we will be holding a town hall meeting and we hope you will join us in a healthy and productive dialogue to help us move forward. We will provide a detailed overview of policy implementation, professional development, curriculum revisions, and programs currently underway. Then, as a community, we will discuss current issues facing our schools. We hope to work together to optimally serve your children, our children, the students of South Orange and Maplewood.
Elizabeth A. Baker – President of the Board of Education
John J. Ramos, Sr. Ed.D. – Superintendent of Schools