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Parent Appalled Over Essay Asking 8th Graders If They'd Rather Be Slaves Or Factory Workers

NOVI (WWJ) - A Detroit-area mother is fuming over an essay question that asked middle school students if they would rather be slaves or factory workers.

Tina James, whose 13-year-old daughter attends Novi Middle School, told WWJ's Vickie Thomas that she almost couldn't believe an 8th grade American History assignment that asked students: "Which would you rather be: A slave or a factory worker during the Industrial Revolution?"

"The first thing I though was how can you even compare the two," James said. "As far as I'm concerned, they are diametrically opposing circumstances. You have on one end, a slave that is not free, who has no free will. And on the other end, you have a factory worker and although it was in the Industrial Revolution, they still had a free choice and they had a choice to walk away if they wanted to."

Tina James - novi
Tina James (Credit: Vickie Thomas/WWJ Newsradio 950)

The essay was assigned to be completed in class, and the teacher stated that he did not want any parental involvement.

Steve Matthews, Superintendent of the Novi Community School District, said the essay was based on a Michigan Content Expectation, in which 8th grade students were asked to be able to explain the differences in the lives of free blacks -- including those who escaped from slavery -- with the lives of free whites and enslaved people.

James, who independently takes time to teach her children about African American history, said her daughter came home from school very upset, offended and nearly in tears -- not only because she knew some of the tragic events that occurred during slavery times, but because of the response of her peers.

"The majority of the class felt that they would rather be a slave than to be a factory worker. And she was just extremely confused by that, knowing what slaves went through, she couldn't understand why anyone would choose that," James said. "The rationale by those students to choose slaves was that they had free housing, they had free food and they had free protection. But the argument that she and I put forth was that those things were not free."

After talking with several other people who shared her concerns, James decided to take up the issue with the Novi Community Schools Board.

"I have four kids that are in that school system and I have had issues in the past from a racial standpoint, and I've always addressed it. I feel that it was an unfair question to begin with and I didn't want anyone to have to endure the pain that my daughter had to endure when she was asked to write this essay," she said. "We have children that have impressionable minds and I want to make sure that the impressions that we leave on them are accurate and truthful and honest."

James had a meeting with the school's principal, Stephanie Schriner, but didn't feel like her concerns were addressed.

"When we're educating students, we need to make sure that we're educating all the students and not just the majority. We need to understand how the minority feels," James said. "No one should have to be asked a question as to whether you would want to be free or not free. As far as I'm concerned, there's a simple response and that's you'd rather be free. Yet, the students were saying they would rather be slaves and to me, whatever the school was trying to extract out of this assignment, they're not there yet."

James even asked Schriner if she thought the question would still stand, say, if it were applied to the Jewish Holocaust. However, Schriner dismissed the assertion, saying their focus is on America History.

So, James went one step further and contacted Matthews, who told WWJ Newsradio 950 that he agreed to pull the question after speaking with her.

"The parent rightly pointed out that this was a question that really seemed to diminish the horrific effects of slavery, and I agreed," Matthews said. "I think it was an attempt by the teachers at our middle school to try to have students understand the differences between free factory workers and slaves in the pre-Civil War era. But it clearly is a question that I don't think helps students understand the depths of the suffering that the slaves endured back in the 1800's. So, I decided that we needed to pull that question and try to approach that content expectation in another way."

Matthews called the whole thing an experience they can learn from, adding that the teacher responsible for issuing the assignment won't be punished.

"Helping [teachers] understand why a person could view this in a way that would clearly offend them, I think is the course of action that I'll take," he said. "This can certainly be a learning situation, both for the teachers and for the students. I think that we need to reevaluate potentially how we teach slavery. You know, do we truly communicate the horrific nature of that institution and the harm it caused to many hundreds of thousands of lives? And if we're not doing a good job of communicating that message, then this is an opportunity for us to review that and to make sure that we do communicate clearly why that was such a horrible, horrific institution."

James said she's glad the situation was resolved, but is still concerned that the question was even asked in the first place.

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