PROVO, Utah – The eighth-grade history department at Centennial Middle School reached out to parents in an email about a Civil War-era project on March 23, with students being asked to “investigate the impact of the Civil War on different occupations and individuals.”
As of Tuesday, Provo City School District spokesperson Caleb Price said the school had received two complaints about the project revolving around the possibility of students being assigned certain roles. After receiving further information, on Wednesday, Price said that initial plans were changed to alleviate parental concerns and a revamped project instituted.
“Following the parent complaint, the department did not move forward with that assignment,” Price said Wednesday. “They have worked with the parent that made the original complaint and they have created a new assignment that they are just now starting to do.”
According to the original email, which the district provided to the Daily Herald, students were supposed to be randomly assigned a fictional person to research, determining how their life would have been impacted by the significant events that occurred during this time period.
Individuals to be assigned as a part of the project were to include characters representing the North and the South, with enslaved people, freedmen, people who escaped from slavery, plantation owners, farmers, factory workers, and more.
Along with the characters listed, male-only options included factory owners, soldiers and officers, while female-only characters included field nurses and females pretending to be soldiers.
“Students will be encouraged, after class discussions and independent inquiry, to reach their own conclusions regarding the issues,” the email said.
Price said the project was to strictly be about researching different roles and the daily life from the era, and was not to involve role-playing.
“The assignment was not to role play, their assignment was not to become one of those roles, it was not to pretend you are one of those roles, it was to research the daily life of that particular person and talk about what life was like for them in that time period,” Price said.
The project was to involve discussions in class, research by students on their own, and then coming together to learn what life looked like in that era.
If parents or students were uncomfortable with their assigned person, the email stated that they could contact their teacher for an adjustment. Along with that, an optional alternative assignment was offered which involved students reading the book “Across Five Aprils.” Price said he did not know how many students opted for the optional assignment.
“It does discuss the time period from a white perspective,” Price said of the book. “While the teacher was not looking to specifically only provide a book from a white perspective, that’s an area where we can try to find a little bit more diverse options moving forward. That way materials being used in a situation like this are a little bit more diverse.”
Price added that diversifying perspectives from this era is important. He said that while the Civil War is a part of America’s history, it is important to be sensitive to what that means for all groups of people and to not make certain individuals feel uncomfortable or left out.
That is something Price said the district never wants to do.
As for the part of the email mentioning students being asked to reach their own conclusions on the issues, Price said that the project intended to have students realize how harmful the Civil War era was for certain groups of people.
“I think that was really the intent of this lesson, for students to really be able to see what it was like in that time period, to kind of learn what happened, and how the world progressed from there to where we are now,” Price said. “So understanding all of that is very important, and I think that the email specifically saying to reach their own conclusions is meant more in the context of what the intent of the assignment really was. It was reaching their own conclusions on what a day in the life was like, not necessarily whether someone was right or wrong, or if it led to this or that. It’s important to understand what the intent of the assignment was, and for students to be able to learn those things from history and understand what has come because of that.”