San Francisco Teacher Suspended After Using a Cotton Plant to Teach About Slavery

An eight-grade teacher at a charter school in San Francisco sparked controversy after bringing a cotton plant to class for a slavery lesson.

The social studies teacher at San Francisco's Creative Arts Charter School, who has not been identified, was reportedly absent from the school for five weeks after the controversial lesion following an investigation, as reported by The San Francisco Chronicle. However, The report says that the school would not confirm if the teacher's absence was due to a suspension.

Teacher Wanted Students to Feel the Sharp Edges of the Plant

Creative Arts Charter School
Creative Arts Charter School (left) and a cotton plant. Facebook/Pixabay

The unnamed teacher brought in cotton plants, or bolls, to her class on March 3 for a lesson on the cotton gin (a machine that separates the cotton seeds from cotton fibre) and its impact on slavery and the Industrial Revolution, the publication reported.

The teacher wanted her eighth-grade students to feel the sharp edges that used to pierce the hands of slaves while picking cotton and pulling out the seeds. However, one day after the lesson, the school launched an investigation and sent out an apology letter to families for the "unacceptable, harmful" and "inappropriate" teaching that did not reflect the school's "anti-racist, progressive-minded curriculum."

Outrage Among Parents

The incident sparked furore from parents of the students. One parent, Rebecca Archer, who is Black and Jewish, said the cotton boll lesson was out of line for the progressive San Francisco school. Archer believes putting raw cotton in children's hands can "evoke so many deeply hurtful things about this country."

"There are people who think this lesson plan promotes empathy; I've heard that and understand that," Archer added. "There are a lot of people who don't understand why it's hurtful or offensive."

Teacher Issued Apology to Students, Parents

Once the teacher returned on April 15, she issued a formal apology to students and families.

"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," she said. "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."

"In teaching U.S. history, there are many challenging and sensitive topics to learn about," she continued, "and I look forward to continuing to improve my approach to addressing these, with support from the administration.

Creative Arts Charter School's director, Fernando Aguilar, told The Chronicle, "We didn't feel like the lesson fit into our mission and our vision," adding that school leadership is following collective bargaining procedures in regard to the teacher. "We don't take things lightly that affect the well-being of our students."

The incident comes as many states are enacting rules against "critical race theory," which is becoming a catch-all phrase for Black history or any conversation that makes white students feel uncomfortable or guilty.