It’s not always easy teaching fourth-graders to really get math. Word problems, in those situation, can be especially useful because they give children easily imagined, real-life examples that make numbers and equations come to life. Remember these?:
“If Susie had four cookies and John had two cookies and they put all their cookies on a plate, how many cookies would be on the plate?”
“Jane carried six book. She gave one to Bella and two to Tom; how many books was Jane still carrying?”
Very effective but so old-school! How about these more contemporary equations used recently in a New York public school:
“In a slave ship, there can be 3,799 slaves. One day, the slaves took over the ship. 1,897 are dead. How many slaves are alive?”
“One slave got whipped five times a day. How many times did he get whipped in a month (31 days)? Another slave got whipped nine times a day. How many times did he get whipped in a month? How many times did the two slaves get whipped together in one month?”
If your chin hasn’t dropped by now perhaps you think I’m kidding. I’m not. In a stunning story reported by Salon.com, a public school in New York was discovered to be teaching fourth-graders math using these unbelievably insensitive word problems. The “lesson plan” was discovered when a student teacher, Aziza Harding, was asked by the regular teacher (identified in The New York Daily News as Jacqueline Vitucci) to make copies of worksheets to be used in the class. When Ms. Harding took a look at the word problems on the sheet, she was appalled by what she read. She took the initiative to copy a different assignment, left a note for Ms. Vitucci expressing her discomfort with the original questions, and reported the situation to her professor at NYU, Charlton McIlwain. McIlwain, stunned, then took the story to NY1. From Salon:
“This is really inappropriate … It shouldn’t be a homework assignment,” says Harding, “and I did not want to make copies of this.” Since the story broke, Chairman of the New York City Education Sub-Committee, state Sen. Simcha Felder, has called the materials “reprehensible and irresponsible” and called for the immediate removal of the teachers. And the city’s Department of Education released a statement Thursday saying that “This is obviously unacceptable and we will take appropriate disciplinary action against these teachers. The Chancellor spoke to the principal, and she has already taken steps to ensure this does not happen again.” The school’s principal, meanwhile, had a terser response. As she told reporters Thursday, “I am appalled by this.”
But as appalled as the principal was, it turns out this wasn’t the first time these undeniably racist questions were used as an assignment at the same school. According to The New York Daily News, the exact same set of questions had gone home with another set of fourth-graders earlier in the year, in a class taught by a teacher identified as Jane Youn. Apparently Ms. Youn had guided the children to integrate their social studies lessons (clearly on the topic of slavery) with their math lessons and the “dead slave” and “slave whipping” equations are what the kids came up with. Shocking, certainly, but an opportunity for a good teacher to raise awareness.
But for some unfathomable reason, Ms. Youn ignored the “learning opportunity” presented by the scenario, along with the possibility of teaching them something meaningful about racial and cultural sensitivity, giving them a better understanding of how that painful chapter of American history – which they’d been studying – could be more sensitively viewed. Instead, she ran with adding and subtracting whipped and dead slaves.
It should, perhaps, be noted at this point that the school, Public School No. 59, has a racial demographic that is atypical for New York city: 60% white and only 5% African-American. Draw your own conclusions.
From The Daily News:
Parents at the well-off school were shocked by the flap. “I don’t think that’s reflective at all of what the school is about,” said one parent who asked not be named.
Principal Adele Schroeter said she was “appalled” by the incident and ordered sensitivity training for the entire staff.
That seems a good place to start. Both Youn and Vitucci will also face disciplinary action.
One would hope a misguided tale of this kind would be a singularly unique event, but unfortunately a story was reported last year when third-grade class in in Gwinnett County, GA, included a lesson plan with disturbingly similar equations. From Addicting Info:
If good intentions truly pave the road to hell, the Devil is undoubtedly down in Georgia tonight as the parents of third grade students in Gwinnett County, GA found themselves horrified by a series of math questions involving slavery, beatings and picking cotton.
“Each tree had 56 oranges. If 8 slaves pick them equally, then how much would each slave pick?”
“If Frederick got two beatings per day, how many beatings did he get in 1 week? 2 weeks?”
A third question asked how much cotton could be picked.
Not all the “historical” questions were about slavery, at least one of them referred to Susan B. Anthony being fined for voting for the President of the United States.
Like their New York counterparts, the teachers were said to have no overt racial animus, they were just “trying to do a cross-curricular activity.” But the bigger issue remains: HOW ON EARTH DO TEACHERS IN THE 21ST CENTURY THINK THIS KIND OF EQUATION – WHATEVER THE REASON – IS A GOOD IDEA?
Apparently Public School No. 59 is considered a “progressive” school and ideals such as class integration and student participation in designing lessons are all part of the teaching model. The problem with this appears to be that, without proper guidance and critical context being taught as well (and it seems clear in either case it wasn’t), young children who lack maturity and wisdom might just come up with something like “slave equations,” unaware and unschooled in the deeper meaning of their history lessons. It’s then up to smart, attentive, and culturally savvy teachers to guide them to that awareness, toward a more appropriate way to understand and blend their studies.
At PS 59, the teachers were either stunningly obtuse or grossly negligent. Either way, they failed miserably. Opportunities are everywhere to teach our children compassion, tolerance, and understanding of our cultural history; it is incumbent upon every mentor – parent, teacher, counselor, etc. – to use those opportunities wisely. PS 59 needs to redefine the word “progressive” to bring it beyond alternative teaching methods and into a higher level of social awareness.