A charter school teacher found herself in hot water for using a cotton plant in a lesson about slavery, as San Francisco has its own mini-scandal amidst the national Critical Race Theory frenzy.
People of a certain age will remember a bizarre high school curriculum lesson where they would make us carry an egg around for a week as some sort of weird exercise that purported to prepare us for parenthood. This has largely fallen out of fashion. But another interactive eighth-grade lesson at a San Francisco charter school has created a weeks-long controversy at that school, as the Chronicle reports the use of a cotton plant in a slavery lesson generated an outcry among parents, and earned that teacher an apparent five-week leave.
The incident took place at Creative Arts Charter School, which is a charter school, and not part of the SFUSD. (Though it will surely be depicted as connected to the city school district, as the right-wing media loves piling on our school district, and stories where they can shout “Even in liberal San Francisco…”) Per the Chron, “The social studies teacher at San Francisco’s Creative Arts Charter School brought in cotton plants, or bolls, to class on March 3 so her eighth-grade students could feel the sharp edges that had pierced hands while picking cotton and pulling out the seeds. The lesson was about the cotton gin and the impact it had on slavery and the Industrial Revolution.”
The school launched an investigation within 24 hours. Black and Jewish parent Rebecca Archer told the Chronicle that putting that cotton in students’ hands would “evoke so many deeply hurtful things about this country,” and, “There are a lot of people who don’t understand why it’s hurtful or offensive.”
The teacher herself, who remains unnamed, was put on leave for five weeks (unclear if it was paid or unpaid), and sent an apology to parent on her mid-April return.
“Prior to spring break, I taught a tactile lesson involving raw cotton in an effort to get the students to understand the difficulty of manually processing cotton prior to the invention of Eli Whitney’s Cotton Gin,” that letter said, according to the Chronicle. “While this lesson was sourced from reliable sources, after conferring with the administration and hearing many of the students reflections, I realize that this lesson was not culturally responsive and had the potential to cause harm.”
This has not historically been considered a controversial lesson until recently, though the Chon reports the Smithsonian Learning Lab has in recent years removed it. And while it is reported here as simply students handling a cotton plant to realize how its edges were sharp, there is probably more to this story than we currently realize.
Because this same lesson has been implemented very badly in some other U.S. schools. After all, the Chronicle additionally reports that “In 2020, New Jersey officials investigated a teacher who had students lie on the floor picking and cleaning cotton amid whipping sounds,” and that “In 2021, in Spokane, Wash., a class that included two Black girls was instructed on how to clean cotton and challenged to see who could clean it the fastest.”