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Data - Context = Misleading Lessons, or: How to Avoid Trivializing Tragedy

During the last weekend of August, I opened my Twitter feed and noticed a disturbing phrase pop up a few times: "Slave Tetris."

I clicked a few of the tweets and, like others, was disgusted by what I saw. Steam Games was promoting Playing History: Slave Trade 2, a game that allows students to pretend they're a part of the trans-Atlantic slave trade as seen largely from the view of the slave traders.

Liz Dwyer does a great wrap-up and take-down of the game in her TakePart article. There are plenty of issues with the game, and Rafranz Davis notes, "Gamifying slavery trivializes a serious time in history that shouldn't be fun. Kids should think, discuss, and be uncomfortable."

I can see the trail of misguided logic that led to this (and so can everyone else, thanks to the Internet). I can see a creator in a pitch room, somewhere, thinking, Kids love games! All the numbers show us that! We should use games for this!

The thing that Steam Games missed is that there is a difference between teaching students to know facts and teaching them to truly understand and empathize with history. While someone assumed "slave Tetris" would show the "scope" of inhumanity at that time, that weight is undercut when it's turned into a game. We shouldn't put students into the driver's seat of inhumanity; it is far better taught if we give them stories and context that allow us to see the humanity of those oppressed.

When only data is presented, stripped of stories and context, the "scope" shown ultimately dehumanizes the actual history we wanted students to understand. Data is important, but without context it will never tell a complete story. 

Unfortunately, things like this only give ed tech a bad name. Technology can actually do quite a bit to give students a chance to engage with difficult topics like slavery in a powerful way. If interested, here are some important things to remember:

  • Include the voices of those involved whenever possible. As Rafranz Davis says in the TakePart piece, "primary source documents, critical discussion, and [looking] at the economic impact on our country" are critical. If possible, send students out to investigate. My school asks our 9th graders to interview residents who were alive during Pearl Harbor and edit the interviews to share. This hands-on engagement with history allows students to have deep, emotional responses often missing from many virtual history assignments that focus solely on facts and figures.

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  • Give students a new perspective. The thing about power is that it has a way of pulling everything into its orbit. As Walter Benjamin said, "History is written by the victors." It's important to not just look at events through the eyes of those in power, but those oppressed by power as well. When we read Under the Blood Red Sun, it allows students to understand WWII not just through the eyes of mainstream America, but also through those of Japanese residents who were affected at that time.
  • Prepare our students (and ourselves) for difficult conversations. The most overlooked and under-valued part of discussions around race, culture, and privilege is that it is supposed to be uncomfortable. We shouldn't be comfortable with the inequities still present in our society. We shouldn't throw students into these activities and discussions without acknowledging and validating the range of emotions that might come up. These conversations can set up a strong foundation of trust and respect in the classroom that only benefits us in the long run.

Sadly, many of us missed this kind of engagement in our own education. That same weekend, I was also fortunate enough to see this piece from The Atlantic (also below) about the Whitney Plantation:

At 1:17 in the video, my partner saw the names on the wall and said something profound: "I've never seen slaves' names on a wall like we do with veterans, but their stories are even more tragic." 

I hadn't either. As Cummings notes in the video, many of us are too afraid to talk about "the It": slavery, racism, discrimination. Until we face these topics head-on, we will never be able to really understand and move forward.

Photo: A group of ninth-graders from University Laboratory School interacting with history at 'Iolani Palace. (Image from author)


Find Christina online:
twitter.jpg : @biblio_phile
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