San Francisco teacher under fire after reportedly using cotton plants to teach about slavery 

The unidentified Creative Arts Charter School teacher was out of her classroom for five weeks after the controversial lesson; parents are divided.

An eighth-grade teacher at San Francisco’s Creative Arts Charter School brought cotton plants in to show her class the sharp edges of the shrubs while teaching about slavery in the U.S., as well as the cotton gin and its impact on enslavement and the Industrial Revolution. 

The social studies teacher, who is not being named by The San Francisco Chronicle, was not at school for five weeks after the controversial lesson, which was investigated within 24 hours of the incident. The report says that the school would not confirm if the teacher’s absence was due to a suspension. 

A teacher at San Francisco’s Creative Arts Charter School brought cotton plants in to show her class the sharp edges of the plant while teaching about slavery in the U.S. (Photo: AdobeStock)

The school, a charter campus that does not operate under the San Francisco Unified School District, is considered a progressive institution. It has only 435 students, more than half of whom are white. 

A Creative Arts parent, Rebecca Archer, who is Black and Jewish, was concerned about the lesson for her mixed-race children. She expressed fears that the lesson, which put the raw cotton in the children’s hands, could “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,” said Archer. “There are a lot of people who don’t understand why it’s hurtful or offensive.”

Another parent told The Chronicle they felt the teacher was being treated in a way that she called “unbearably cruel.” The parent, who chose to remain anonymous, said that her child considers the teacher one of his favorites.

“I think it’s insane they would treat a teacher like this and basically discard a teacher that has been so inspiring and dedicated,” said the parent, who requested anonymity to protect her child. “It feels like it was a lesson in sensitivity and empathy. That’s why my mind is so blown, and I can’t stop being angry about it.”

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. The anonymous parent added that this lesson was designed for the opposite reason. 

The unnamed teacher wrote a letter to families when she returned to her classes on April 15. It read, in part, “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. 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,” the missive 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.”

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