An English teacher at a high school in the metropolitan Nashville Public School system has been placed on administrative leave after assigning homework assignments to students that asked them to critically analyze a racial slur. Both students and parents have risen in support as the assignment was within the curriculum.
Steven Small, a white male, had assigned this homework assignment to 30 students at the Cane Ridge High School. The assignment was in reference to the 1987 Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Fences” by August Wilson and explores themes of racial rifts in the time of the civil war. The assignment expected students to write a one-page essay on the frequent use of the ‘n-word’ in the play, along with how it was racist, and its deployment in the play.
The play centers around the struggles of a black man as he strives to provide for his family and his encounters with racism in the 1950s.
Students were expected to explain how the protagonist used the slur in a negative connotation as a statement of self-empowerment and derogatory at the same time. The aim was to make the students ask intelligent questions about race and racism, but this was not understood by one parent.
The anonymous parent claimed to be hurt by the assignment and felt that the conversation around race should happen at home. She wanted to raise awareness about the issues involved and expected a prior notification of an assignment like this.
Dr. Adienne Battle, the director of the MNPS system said that the assignment had been ruled offensive and inappropriate. She issued an apology to all those who may have been negatively affected by it.
Small has continued to receive support from students at the school, with hundreds of them staging a walk-out to show their view. A video found on social media shows the students chanting his name.
The Vanderbilt professor of Education, Richard Milner has spoken out about the issue saying that the assignment may have seemed inappropriate, but the questions around it were used to engage positively with the youth of the nation. He called interactions on such topics essential to the learning process.
One student, Kathleen Madu, has started an online petition in support of the teacher that has now gained over 1,100 signatures. She is an African American student who felt that Small should not be punished for discussing the origins of a racial slur used in a district-approved text.
Parents are coming together with students to show support for Small, indicating the discord between the youth and the administration that dictates what they study.