Greenfield schools probe lesson critics say was racially insensitive

  • Greenfield Middle School. Staff File Photo/PAUL FRANZ

Staff Writer
Published: 2/19/2021 4:14:44 PM

GREENFIELD — An incident alleged to have happened while a Greenfield Middle School educator was virtually teaching her students a unit on Black History Month has prompted a student’s grandmother and a local group to write letters to school officials asking that Greenfield schools focus more on social justice and anti-racism and to respond to the incident.

Assistant Superintendent Judy Houle said the incident, which occurred in early February, involves a personnel matter so she cannot talk about it at this time. She said, “We are aware of the situation and are conducting an active investigation of the matter.”

Houle said she has seen the two letters — one from Elizandra Espada, the grandmother of one of the boys involved, and the second from Musica Franklin, where that boy and another boy who was impacted have been taking music classes for several years.

Espada and Musica Franklin sent their letters to the Greenfield Recorder as well as the teacher, who has not been identified, the Greenfield Middle School principal and the superintendent. The letters have been printed on the Opinion page.

Espada, who could not be reached for comment by press time, said in her letter that she is “extremely disappointed.” She alleges that the teacher used the first day of Black History Month to play the old childhood game, Hangman, virtually with her class. She claims the teacher called on her grandson, using him as an example by calling on him to read the words “Black Lives Matter.”

“This is something that should not be played in schools or anywhere else,” Espada wrote.

She claims the teacher also made a comment about why there isn’t a White History Month.

“You teachers have a lot of power over students, and to have a young Black or Brown child play that racist game of Hangman is unconscionable,” she wrote in the letter. “You knew exactly what you were doing when you played that game and chose my grandson as an example. The other students knew what you were doing, as well, and reported it to their parents because they were very upset.”

Gloria Matlock, who teaches drumming, singing, dancing and social justice at Musica Franklin, said both boys, who are Black and are 11 and 12 years old, attend Greenfield Middle School. She has known both boys since they were 7 and 8 years old.

Matlock said she also teaches them in a program she created outside of Musica Franklin called Twice As Smart, which teaches children of color about their heritage.

“I know their families and they both contacted me,” Matlock said. “One of the children — the one called on — was very mad. The other child turned off his computer when it happened, went to his room and turned off the light and lay in bed. They were humiliated and have been sad ever since.”

Espada wrote she needs to be able to trust that her grandson is getting an education he deserves and not be harmed by racist connotations. She acknowledges that many played the spelling game as children, as it seemed “innocent” enough then, but a clearer look finds an “innocuous sketch of a lynching.”

Espada’s letter, which was received shortly after the incident, was followed by another letter from Musica Franklin more than a week after hers. It was signed by its staff and board and starts, “Recently, a teacher at the Greenfield Middle School led a classroom in the game of Hangman. The words to be spelled under the image of a lynching were ‘Black Lives Matter.’ The teacher called on a child of color to read the words. The shaming, humiliation and threatening of children of color in their classroom is unacceptable.”

Those who signed the Musica Franklin letter claim the teacher went on to deny the validity of Black History Month, asking why there is not White History Month.

“The answer, of course, is every month is White History Month,” the letter reads. “To be blind to the racism embedded in Hangman displays a lack of sensitivity and awareness. To be blind to the importance of Black History Month, when white privilege is embedded in our society and school curriculum, when we see the expression of that privilege manifest in the news cycle over and over, is shocking.”

The letter states that if the Greenfield School Department wishes to serve all students, it needs to do better by its students of color.

“We call on the Greenfield Education Department to sponsor anti-racism trainings for all staff to understand how they can best support all their students by identifying and challenging cultural assumptions based on racist practices,” the letter reads. “They need to take a close look at the curriculum, to see who it validates and see who it excludes, with the goal of offering a curriculum that validates and supports all children.”

Musica Franklin works with the two boys four days a week after school.

“They are smart, motivated, respectful and considerate,” the letter reads. “Their teacher would do well to follow their example.”

Matlock said the children have been quieter than normal since the incident, saying their “lights aren’t shining as brightly.” She said she doesn’t understand why anyone would play Hangman with students of color.

“It’s important that teachers who teach students of color receive anti-racist training,” she said. “They need to think about some of the things people have said for years but are offensive to others. There are things that can be done, and I hope Greenfield schools do them.”

Matlock said she worries about the boys.

“These are the things that happen, and then children close down and get in trouble, and people wonder why there are problems,” Matlock said. “It affects them strongly. It affects their parents and grandparents.

“These boys are working hard to do good in life,” she continued. “They’re really nice boys. They deserve better.”

Reach Anita Fritz at 413-772-9591 or afritz@recorder.com.


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