A teacher had her 8th graders write 'funny' captions under slavery-era photos. Seriously, WTF.

Sometimes you hear a story that's so absurd that your first response is, "No freaking way." Then you read more details, realize that the absurd thing actually did happen, and alternate between outright outrage and a resigned "Well, of course."

I've lost count of how many times that scenario has played out in recent years. It's pretty much daily at this point. I feel like every media outlet should have a WTF section. Good times, fellow humans.

So, in today's WTF news, a middle school teacher at J.W. Dodd Middle School in Freeport, NY allegedly handed out historical slavery-era photographs and asked her eighth grade students to caption them. She then implored students to make the captions "funny" because she didn't want to be bored.


The assignment was shared by a grandmother of one of the students on Facebook:

The school district superintendent has issued two statements on the incident. The first stated that "a faculty member is reported to have used directions to describe an assignment that were very upsetting to some students and families" and indicated that the matter was under investigation. The second included more detail:

As you may know, we have been conducting an investigation regarding an assignment given to students by a J.W. Dodd Middle School teacher last Thursday.

The teacher's directions to the students concerned the writing of captions for Reconstruction Era photos. The Reconstruction Era is the roughly fourteen years following the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 and end of the Civil War in 1865.

The District's investigation began last Friday after several parents contacted the school principal to share their concerns. The teacher was removed from the classroom while the investigation proceeded.

Let me be perfectly clear: Our investigation has determined that this lesson was poorly conceived and executed. The teacher instructed three separate classes of students to develop captions for photos of post-war sharecroppers. We understand from our investigation that she told students to 'make it funny' and 'don't bore me.'

Aside from the fact that this is a poor lesson, it is an insensitive trivialization of a deeply painful era for African Americans in this country, and it is unacceptable.

The teacher has delivered an apology which I will share with you this evening:

"It is with the deepest sense of respect that I apologize to the students, families and larger Freeport community for my insensitive words and actions last week. As a teacher and fellow member of this school community, it is my responsibility to exercise the highest degree of care and thought in all of my student and staff interactions. I failed to do so last week, and I fully accept that I must work hard to rebuild trust from my students, colleagues and the community."

We are currently finalizing an agreement with the teacher and her union representatives.

On behalf of the Board of Education, I want to thank the Freeport community for its patience through this investigation, and reaffirm our schools as places of tolerance and understanding.

Okay, so let's talk "Reconstruction Era photos." Theoretically, one could argue, these photos may not have been of enslaved people, but of newly freed black Americans. Except that a brief cursory of history shows that little changed for many black people during Reconstruction. The Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 only applied to the non-Union southern states — you know, the ones who were willing to fight to the death to keep the institution of slavery alive. Slavery didn't officially end nationwide until the passage of the 13th amendment in December of 1865. And after that, sharecropping and Black Codes resulted in black people still not being truly free. There's nothing funny about Reconstruction Era photos.

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So yeah. This is what happened:

A teacher tasked with educating the minds of the upcoming generation thought it somehow okay to shine a humorous light on the violent history of racism in America.

A person professionally trained to teach children put time and thought into creating an assignment that compelled students to callously trivialize human atrocity and then passed that assignment onto her students.

A white woman responsible for helping kids understand the history of race in the U.S. told students that she would be bored if images of slavery-era black Americans weren't accompanied by the students' hilarious captions.

This was not a slip of the tongue or an unfortunate typo. This was not a problematic act from decades ago that someone dredged up. This was blatant racism. This is blatant racism, and it happened right here, in the U.S., last week.

Writer and speaker Ally Henny shared the story and commentary on Facebook, making an important point about "trauma laughter."

I don't know what's worse, the fact that this was an assignment or the fact that students participated in it. I don't even know how I would have responded to such an assignment as an eighth grader.

Let's think about what this lesson reinforces for the white kids who participated in it. Let's think about the social pressure that the black kids might've felt.

I bet you anything that the black kids had the funniest jokes because trauma laughter is a thing. We laugh to keep from crying, but we also laugh in order to disarm our oppressors so we can fit in and survive.

I know some people like to claim that the word "racism" is overused these days, but there's no ambiguity here. Laughing at the enslavement and suffering of black people is racism, full stop.

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What were students supposed to take from this assignment? What was the purpose? Was the teacher aware of how incredibly wrong it was? I have these questions, but honestly, the answers don't even matter. The impact is what counts.

And more questions remain: How many times do things like this happen without any publicity? How often does racism slip by without having a spotlight shone on it, allowing unaffected people to believe that racism is no longer an abiding concern?

This is why racism needs to be talked about more, not less. This is why it needs to be pointed out and called out, every time.

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Images courtesy of Letters of Love
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When Grace Berbig was 7 years old, her mom was diagnosed with leukemia, a cancer of the body’s blood-forming tissues. Being so young, Grace didn’t know what cancer was or why her mother was suddenly living in the hospital. But she did know this: that while her mom was in the hospital, she would always be assured that her family was thinking of her, supporting her and loving her every step of her journey.

Nearly every day, Grace and her two younger sisters would hand-make cards and fill them with drawings and messages of love, which their mother would hang all over the walls of her hospital room. These cherished letters brought immeasurable peace and joy to their mom during her sickness. Sadly, when Grace was just 10 years old, her mother lost her battle with cancer.“

Image courtesy of Letters of Love

Losing my mom put the world in a completely different perspective for me,” Grace says. “I realized that you never know when someone could leave you, so you have to love the people you love with your whole heart, every day.”

Grace’s father was instrumental in helping in the healing process of his daughters. “I distinctly remember my dad constantly reminding my two little sisters, Bella and Sophie, and I that happiness is a choice, and it was now our job to turn this heartbreaking event in our life into something positive.”

When she got to high school, Grace became involved in the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society and a handful of other organizations. But she never felt like she was doing enough.

“I wanted to create an opportunity for people to help beyond donating money, and one that anyone could be a part of, no matter their financial status.”

In October 2018, Grace started Letters of Love, a club at her high school in Long Lake, Minnesota, to emotionally support children battling cancer and other serious illnesses through letter-writing and craft-making.


Image courtesy of Letters of Love

Much to her surprise, more than 100 students showed up for the first club meeting. From then on, Letters of Love grew so fast that during her senior year in high school, Grace had to start a GoFundMe to help cover the cost of card-making materials.

Speaking about her nonprofit today, Grace says, “I can’t find enough words to explain how blessed I feel to have this organization. Beyond the amount of kids and families we are able to support, it allows me to feel so much closer and more connected to my mom.”

Since its inception, Letters of Love has grown to more than 25 clubs with more than 1,000 members providing emotional support to more than 60,000 patients in children’s hospitals around the world. And in the process it has become a full-time job for Grace.

“I do everything from training volunteers and club ambassadors, paying bills, designing merchandise, preparing financial predictions and overviews, applying for grants, to going through each and every card ensuring they are appropriate to send out to hospitals.”

Image courtesy of Letters of Love

In addition to running Letters of Love, Grace and her small team must also contend with the emotions inherent in their line of work.

“There have been many, many tears cried,” she says. “Working to support children who are battling cancer and other serious and sometimes chronic illnesses can absolutely be extremely difficult mentally. I feel so blessed to be an organization that focuses solely on bringing joy to these children, though. We do everything we can to simply put a smile on their face, and ensure they know that they are so loved, so strong, and so supported by people all around the world.”

Image courtesy of Letters of Love

Letters of Love has been particularly instrumental in offering emotional support to children who have been unable to see friends and family due to COVID-19. A video campaign in the summer of 2021 even saw members of the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings and the NHL’s Minnesota Wild offer short videos of hope and encouragement to affected children.

Grace is currently taking a gap year before she starts college so she can focus on growing Letters of Love as well as to work on various related projects, including the publication of a children’s book.

“The goal of the book is to teach children the immense impact that small acts of kindness can have, how to treat their peers who may be diagnosed with disabilities or illness, and how they are never too young to change the world,” she says.

Since she was 10, Grace has kept memories of her mother close to her, as a source of love and inspiration in her life and in the work she does with Letters of Love.

Image courtesy of Grace Berbig

“When I lost my mom, I felt like a section of my heart went with her, so ever since, I have been filling that piece with love and compassion towards others. Her smile and joy were infectious, and I try to mirror that in myself and touch people’s hearts as she did.”

For more information visit Letters of Love.

Please donate to Grace’s GoFundMe and help Letters of Love to expand, publish a children’s book and continue to reach more children in hospitals around the world.

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Decommissioned planes are often stripped and sold for parts, with the remains finding a new home in what is sometimes referred to as an "airplane boneyard" or "graveyard." Around the world, these graveyards exist; they're made up of large, empty lots and tons of scrap metal.

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The day was scorching hot, but the weather wasn’t going to stop a Star Wars Stormtrooper from handing out school supplies to a long line of eager children. “You guys don’t have anything illegal back there - any droids or anything?” the Stormtrooper asks, making sure he was safe from enemies before handing over a colorful backpack to a smiling boy.

The man inside the costume is Yuri Williams, founder of AFutureSuperhero And Friends, a Los Angeles nonprofit that uplifts and inspires marginalized people with small acts of kindness.

Yuri’s organization is one of four inaugural grant winners from the Upworthy Kindness Fund, a joint initiative between Upworthy and GoFundMe that celebrates kindness and everyday actions inspired by the best of humanity. This year, the Upworthy Kindness Fund is giving $100,000 to grassroots changemakers across the world.

To apply, campaign organizers simply tell Upworthy how their kindness project is making a difference. Between now and the end of 2021, each accepted individual or organization will receive $500 towards an existing GoFundMe and a shout-out on Upworthy.

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1: Balance Dance Project: This studio aims to bring accessible dance to all in the Sacramento, CA area. Lead fundraiser Miranda Macias says many dancers spend hours a day at Balance practicing contemporary, lyrical, hip-hop, and ballet. Balance started a GoFundMe to raise money to cover tuition for dancers from low-income communities, buy dance team uniforms, and update its facility. The $500 contribution from the Kindness Fund nudged Balance closer to its $5,000 goal.

2: Citizens of the World Mar Vista Robotics Team: In Los Angeles, middle school teacher James Pike is introducing his students to the field of robotics via a Lego-building team dedicated to solving real-world problems.

James started a GoFundMe to crowdfund supplies for his students’ team ahead of the First Lego League, a school-against-school matchup that includes robotics competitions. The team, James explained, needed help to cover half the cost of the pricey $4,000 robotics kit. Thanks to help from the Upworthy Kindness Fund and the generosity of the Citizens of the World Middle School community, the team exceeded its initial fundraising goal.

Citizens of the World Mar Vista Robotics Team video update youtu.be

3: Black Fluidity Tattoo Club: Kiara Mills and Tann Parker want to fix a big problem in the tattoo industry: there are too few Black tattoo artists. To tackle the issue, the duo founded the Black Fluidity Tattoo Club to inspire and support Black tattooers. While the Brooklyn organization is open to any Black person, Kiara and Tann specifically want to encourage dark-skinned artists to train in an affirming space among people with similar identities.

To make room for newcomers, the club recently moved into a larger studio with a third station for apprentices or guest artists. Unlike a traditional fundraiser that supports the organization exclusively, Black Fluidity Tattoo Club will distribute proceeds from GoFundMe directly to emerging Black tattoo artists who are starting their own businesses. The small grants, supported in part with a $500 contribution from the Upworthy Kindness Fund, will go towards artists’ equipment, supplies, furnishings, and other start-up costs.

4: AFutureSuperhero And Friends’ “Hope For The Holidays”: Founder Yuri Williams is fundraising for a holiday trip to spread cheer to people in need across all fifty states.

Along with collaborator Rodney Smith Jr., Yuri will be handing out gifts to children, adults, and animals dressed as a Star Wars’ Stormtrooper, Spiderman, Deadpool, and other movie or comic book characters. Starting this month, the crew will be visiting children with disabilities or serious illnesses, bringing leashes and toys to animal shelters for people taking home a new pet, and spreading blessings to unhoused people—all while in superhero costume. This will be the third time Yuri and his nonprofit have taken this journey.

AFutureSuperhero started a GoFundMe in July to cover the cost of gifts as well as travel expenses like hotels and rental cars. To help the nonprofit reach its $15,000 goal, the Upworthy Kindness Fund contributed $500 towards this good cause.

Think you qualify for the fund? Tell us how you’re bringing kindness to your community. Grants will be awarded on a rolling basis from now through the end of 2021. For questions and more information, please check out our FAQ's and the Kindness Toolkit for resources on how to start your own kindness fundraiser.

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