Learning together: district commits to cultural responsiveness after controversial online learning assignment

It was 9:15 on the morning of September 23rd, and eighth grade Portage North Middle School student Pablo Fraga was ready to return to a new kind of normal with his online history assignment. The content that awaited him, however, was anything but. 

“I read the questions through and they disgusted me,” he said. 

Many students have been frustrated in the online learning environment, but Pablo’s disgust was unrelated to technological hurdles: he was deeply bothered by what the assignment meant and what it asked him and what it asked 14 year old students like him to do.

The assignment, which was given to all eighth grade students in the district as a part of the Learning Together initiative to continue learning through the end of the school year, featured numerous charts and records of slaves, including their name, age, definition of their forced labor, their monetary “value” in 1848, and their adjusted “value” in modern times. 

After students read the table, they were asked to answer a series of questions, such as:

“Looking at the inventory above, which slave definition seems to be worth the most money? Why do you think this is?”

“Mr. Roman had 20 total house slaves, How much money in 1848 did Mr. Roman had wrapped up into his slaves?”

“Looking at the amount that one individual had tied into slavery (just in people, not in profit or anything else), does it make sense why the South was so intent on keeping the plantation system?”

At a rate of 2 points per question, students were asked not only to assign a value to human life, but to justify doing so.

As Pablo scrolled through the assignment, he had a growing feeling that he had a significant decision to make.

“I felt I could not stay quiet, and I felt it was just me, but I don’t need others to tell me what’s right. I felt it in my heart and knew I needed to do it,” he said, ultimately refusing to do the assignment. “It wasn’t a difficult decision to make. I knew it was immoral to put a price tag on life or diminish the life value of anyone.”

Once Pablo made his decision, he brought the issue to the attention of his mother, Paige Fraga. “Pablo approached me in our kitchen when I was making breakfast. He told me that he received a social studies assignment that he felt was unethical and told me he was not willing to answer questions that placed a monetary value on human life,” she explained. “At first, I was curious, because while I know and believe that he’s an amazing kid with a good heart, I had never seen him react this way to a school project. When I read the assignment, I was horrified and I instantly understood and agreed with his position.”

Paige tried to consider all angles of the situation before deciding how to approach the issue with the district. “We recognize that our teachers and school have had a mountain to climb this year in creating curriculum for the online environment. We also believe that difficult times in our history should be taught to kids so they are not repeated,” she said. “However, there is a right way and a wrong way to teach history. We wouldn’t praise the Nazis in teaching children the history of WWII. This was similar equivalent on the teaching of slavery and it was hurtful.”

Hours later, Paige emailed her son’s teacher. The next day, she emailed district administration. The day after that, she took to Facebook to express her frustration in a post that eventually garnered over 60 comments.

Along with her post, Paige posted her own answers to the assignment, which included, “This is an unethical question. You are asking many of your students to calculate the sale value of their ancestors. This is unreal and SICK,” and “All human life is worth the same. PERIOD!”

Paige and Pablo weren’t alone in their feelings towards the assignment, and its impact reached far beyond the 8th grade. “I found out about the assignment through a friend’s sister who is an 8th grade student at Portage West Middle,” said NHS sophomore Kennedy Campbell, who is involved in both Empowered Club and the Black History Month assembly. The assignment overall made me feel almost shocked that not one adult figure saw that it was insensitive.”

At NHS, 72% of Campbell’s peers are white, and she says that this often leads to shared moments of discomfort for students of color.

“For almost as long as I can remember, whenever slavery is brought up in a class, it seems like everyones eyes, including the teacher’s, drift towards me or any students of color,” she shared. “It just makes me very uncomfortable. I don’t know if it’s a guilt thing or just making sure that they don’t say the wrong thing, but it doesn’t make me feel any better when I get stared at any time slavery or civil rights is talked about.”

The assignment came on the heels of another cultural event in the district: earlier in the spring, a Portage Central student’s SnapChat video that appeared to be depicting racial violence made state and national news.

Campbell believes that the connection between that video and this assignment is irrefutable. “Portage does have a problem. Things like this are kinda just covered up or pushed rather than really addressed. To be honest, the problem is the ignorance with the issue,” she said. “Not saying that it’s anyone’s fault because in order to understand the problem you need to be willing to see it, but when it doesn’t affect the majority or most of the people in charge, nothing will be done.”

NHS junior Maya Daniels remembered the assignment from her time at NMS. “I looked it up in my google docs and I found an assignment that I did in 8th grade that is just like that,” she shared. “I remember feeling uncomfortable and thinking it was a weird project to do, especially due to the fact it was presented to me in a class by my white teacher in a classroom where almost all of the students didn’t look like me.”

Daniels went on to share: “I remember it so much because it was one of the most uncomfortable things I’ve experienced at school. It’s weird to think let alone see how much I could’ve been valued at as property and not as a person. Just thinking about how I would have been valued as more compared to my darker family members is very unpleasant. I regret not saying anything.” 

Fraga updated her Facebook post after addressing the issue with the district. “Portage Public Schools are a learning place, where students learn from teachers, but also where teachers and administrators can learn from their students,” she said.

Paige and Pablo didn’t know it at the time, but they were first to confront the problem head on with administrators. “We met with several members of the PPS administration and we were extremely pleased and thankful for their response,” Paige said. “They owned the issue, provided a heartfelt and sincere apology and were willing to work alongside us to make it right now and for the future curriculum.”

Going public did not come without a cost, however: “Our son and our family have unfortunately been the targets of threats and harassment since we made this issue public,” Fraga stated. “We have brought those instances to the district leadership, they have communicated they are working to protect our son and our family from those retaliatory behaviors and we trust they will do so.”

Despite the fallout, Paige stands behind her decision to advocate against the assignment. “We were in no way attacking the reputation of Portage Public Schools. We simply stood up to an injustice and we believe this conversation and continued conversations like this will make the school system a better place for the entire student collective,” she clarified. “It is important to correct those you love if they are doing something that hurts themselves or others. This is the same for organizations. The grace that PPS has shown thus far in addressing this and their willingness to evolve have only furthered our pride to be part of this outstanding school system.”

In addition to communicating with Paige directly, the district communicated the issue to all of its shareholders as well.

Middle school principals across the district and the team of social studies instructors who vetted the assignment sent the following email to all eighth grade families in the district:

In addition, Portage Public Schools Superintendent Mark Bielang shared a press release of his own and also made himself readily available for comment. I recognize that issuing an apology for this situation is only a necessary first step and am committed to having the difficult…and necessary…conversations that must follow if we want to make lasting changes in the district. It’s through these conversations and continued learning…personal and professional…that we will come out as better people, better educators, a better school system, and a better community.”

The media release shared by Superintendent Bielang after meeting with Fraga and other district leadership.

After the Fraga family expressed their concerns, the assignment was pulled from the Learning at Home website and students were given credit for the weekly work regardless of whether they had completed it or not. In the days that followed, Paige updated her original post to reflect her satisfaction with how the district had responded to the issue.

“They did an excellent job of taking ownership, they were extremely apologetic and open to feedback. This assignment will immediately be pulled from the curriculum and they will revisit the other curriculum to ensure items are presented appropriately,” she explained. “As we requested of them, they will be engaging in some internal discrimination training, Pablo will be moved to a new teacher for the remainder of the year, and they have assured us that they will not tolerate any retaliation against Pablo or the rest of our family for bringing this issue to light.” 

At the close of her post, Paige emerged relieved and thankful for the long process, “We are so grateful and relieved that the school district took this seriously and appropriately addressed it in a timely manner. My confidence in Portage Public Schools (and in humanity) has been firmly restored,” she said, proudly declaring: “Today was a win for good and equality.” 

Further progress toward a more inclusive PPS is in the making. “Even before this incident, in fact during the fall of 2019, the District entered into an agreement with the Great Lakes Equity Center to address issues related to diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI),” Superintendent Bielang explained. “Thus far, several members of our administration DEI team attended two training sessions earlier this year.”

That work was halted by the global pandemic and the quick shift to emergency online learning.  “Another session scheduled for next week was cancelled due to the COVID crisis,” Bielang continued. “However, we continue to meet with GLEC in addressing the goals of our plan. GLEC is an excellent resource and partner in this work and I expect will be able to help guide us through our next steps.” 

Bielang is confident in the future ahead, and has definite goals in mind to ensure that the district is a safe space for all learners. “I want to make sure that whatever we end up doing includes students, staff and the community. I would like to see building-based equity teams established that would include students, staff, and parents. These teams could, with the proper make-up, training, and professional development, serve as an objective group to, among other things, review our curriculum materials. I envision these teams interfacing with a larger, district-level team that would be a vehicle through which issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion could be vetted,” he shared. 

His commitment to making sure that all subjects are taught in a culturally-responsive way resonates at NHS. “These topics are so important for us all to understand and keep discussing and learning about,” said NHS history department co-chairs Kim Palmer and Greathen Derenne in a joint statement. “The high school is not responsible for teaching the topic slavery but we teach the broader issues of civil rights and feel like we take the time to address topics that celebrate diveristy and address ways our nation has not lived up to its core values. It is some of the most important work we do.” 

Campbell believes there is another important step forward: diversifying the teaching staff. “Most of the staff in Portage haven’t been in the position of a student of color, especially one in a predominantly white school system,” she said. “It’s also a lot harder trying to relate to teachers with such a lack of diversity. There are certain feelings that I can’t express to a white staff member because they don’t experience it and that’s just the truth. Now that doesn’t mean they don’t acknowledge or aren’t educated on the subject, but it’s not the same.”

There have since been 2 more online learning assignments since the day that brought the Fraga family into the spotlight, and though they’re moving on, Paige is still moved by her son’s decision. “I am proud that he is willing to speak truth to power, an attribute too often lacking these days. I am inspired that he is willing to stand apart and even alone if he needs to, in order to stand up for others who may not feel they have a voice,” she said. 

Despite the fact that it put him at the center of a controversy, Pablo shares that he wouldn’t have it done it any differently. “I believe when figures of authority do something wrong, we must hold them accountable. It’s the only thing that will create change,” he professed. “If we don’t do what our conscience tells us, we will end up living in a world that doesn’t match our hearts.”