Counting the Wrong Thing

Written by LIE co-editor Julia

Probably most of you have heard by now about the Georgia elementary school that distributed math worksheets featuring word problems involving slavery to their mostly minority students.

As Salon summarizes:

In the most misguided attempt at social understanding since Kirk Lazarus donned blackface, Beaver Ridge Elementary School decided earlier this term to shoehorn a little of the antebellum into its math worksheets. “Each tree had 56 oranges. If eight slaves pick them equally, then how much would each slave pick?” asks one. Another posits, “If Frederick got two beatings per day, how many beatings did he get in one week?” Let’s see … Divide by eight, multiply by seven … got it. The answer is, “Oh my God are you people crazy?”

The Salon article characterizes the questions as “the dumbest third-grade assignment ever” and concludes that the teachers were “just being stunningly insensitive.”  The school has offered the unsatisfying explanation that the questions were meant to be part of a “cross-curricular activity” integrating social studies and math.

Yet it is hard for me to see this assignment as anything less than explicitly racist. And I’m concerned by any media coverage that says anything less. This worksheet is not just dumb, not just insensitive, and not just the product of people who had taken temporary leave of their senses—it is cruel and horrifying and utterly indefensible. Did it occur to none of these teachers that slave owners and overseers no doubt made exactly such inhumane calculations all the time?? The idea of black students receiving this worksheet positively turns my stomach.

And I take particular exception to this paragraph from the Salon article:

Using social studies as a springboard for math is actually a great idea. And making classroom lessons dynamic with real-world context is a time-tested device to teach children the ways numbers are applied in life. Let’s hope this failure doesn’t stop smart and more sensitive teachers from coming up with creative approaches that, you know, don’t involve beatings. Sadly, too, the whole screw-up reinforces the stereotype of what a poster at the New York Daily News referred to as “the New South [that] still has people who loved the Old South.”

Really, is this the time to worry about teachers being put off from pursuing cross-disciplinary approaches in the classroom? Or whether or not this incident reinforces stereotypes about Southerners?  I really could not care less. I am worried about the children of color in those classrooms. I am worried about what this will do to their future pursuit of education, their sense of self, their sense of safety in the world. THAT is what we should be calculating.

More coverage here.

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