New Jersey fifth-graders were asked to create posters advertising slave auctions and escaped slaves. The superintendent apologized for the history assignment.

Simulating slavery in the classroom is meant to engage students and foster empathy, writes Education Week‘s Sarah Schwartz. It usually backfires.

. . . a 5th grade teacher in New York told several black students to play slaves, and pretended to auction them off to their majority-white classmates.

. . . a 4th grade teacher in North Carolina had students play a Monopoly-like game about the Underground Railroad. Too many wrong turns, and students would “be severely punished and sent back to the plantation,” according to their worksheets.

Two years ago, teachers at a high school in Cerritos, Calif., bound students’ hands and told them to lie close together on the floor to reenact the forced transport of enslaved Africans across the Atlantic.

Simulations “gamify” slavery, reducing the horror, said Maureen Costello, the director of Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center. A realistic simulation would traumatize students, she said.

Karen McKinney, an associate professor of biblical studies at Bethel University, a Christian college in St. Paul, Minn., studied an “outdoor simulation of escape on the Underground Railroad that took high schoolers through a three-mile course in the woods,” writes Schwartz. Participants were “students of color”and the facilitator was black.

In a debrief after the exercise, some black students who had participated reported feeling fear and strongly disliking parts of the experience, including when facilitators had pretended to sell members of the group at a slave auction, McKinney wrote in her dissertation. But these students also said they felt like they had a better understanding of black history after the simulation.

One way to teach students slavery, said Costello, is to  introduce primary sources, such as the Lost Friends messages, personal ads placed by freed slaves seeking lost loved ones after the Civil War.

A history teacher at my daughter’s high school staged re-enactments of historical events. When students dressed as Nazis found the hide-out of Anne Frank and her family, some students were distressed. The Black Plague re-enactment was accused of introducing religious belief.  It ends with the “Grim Reaper” warning “of the modern plagues of drugs and alcohol,” reports Palo Alto Online. Some saw the Reaper as Satan punishing sinners.