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Slavery used to teach Math in NYC Schools

Slavery Examples Raise Insensitivity to new Highs (or lows)

It’s not always easy teaching fourth-graders to really get math. Word problems can be especially useful because they give children easily imagined, real-life examples that make numbers and equations come to life. Remember these from your childhood?

“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 books. She gave one to Bella and two to Tom; how many books was Jane still carrying?”

Very effective but so old-school! Now we find out about the crassest way I’ve ever heard to teach math to grade students. I’m referring to the inappropriate questions asked by Jane Youn, a New York City teacher, who had asked fourth-graders to write homework questions that blended math and social studies, education officials said. Last month, the fourth-grade teacher sent pupils home with math problems that were based on slavery as submitted by the pupils themselves.

The teacher used the students' questions, including the slave-related ones, as homework for the class. Another teacher, Jacqueline Vitucci, had copied the offensive questions and was going to assign them before common sense somehow intervened.

Question 1 on the sheet, entitled “Slavery Word Problems Homework,” was written as a matter-of-fact subtraction problem. The question asked: “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?”

Another question said a slave was whipped five times a day and asked students to calculate how many times a month he was whipped. The school principal said she's "appalled" by a homework assignment that used scenarios about killing and whipping slaves to teach math. Adele Schroeter, the principal of P.S. 59, a well-thought-of elementary school that draws students from Midtown and the area around the United Nations, told the Daily News that she has ordered sensitivity training for all of the staff. The school is 60 percent white and five percent African American.

The NYC Department of Education said the situation was "obviously unacceptable." It said "appropriate disciplinary action" would be taken.

Parents of students at the school called the lesson inappropriate and offensive. "I don't understand how teachers aren't aware that would be offensive. Why aren't they aware? Why aren't they in touch? Why aren't they concerned with these issues of minorities in America nowadays?" parent Tim Tate told CBS New York. "It's a little unnerving, a little unsettling."

This issue goes beyond insensitivity into the realm of abject stupidity. The NYC Department of Education should fire the teacher, fire the principal, and send a formal apology letter to all parents and students, black or white. There is no place in our society for such an egregious offense.

The Emancipation Proclamation was issued on September 22, 1862. It has been over 150 years since the passage of that incredibly important piece of legislation in the development of our nation as a civilized society. To learn that a fourth grade teacher uses slavery to teach math is nothing short of shocking and disheartening.

As an educator I always look for ways to use inappropriate statements by students as a teaching tool. The only way the assignment could have been salvaged once students were asked to submit the questions would have been for the teacher to use the questions submitted about slavery as a teachable moment so students could learn why it is inappropriate to use such examples given the sensitivity we all share about such an application in a classroom. It could have been used as a teachable moment about choices, respect, civility and character development. The fact that it wasn’t just adds fuel to the insensitivity fire started by the NYC teacher.

What I don’t understand is the lack of coverage in the media of this travesty. I can only wonder what the uproar would have been, and rightly so, if the question had said: A concentration camp occupant was gassed five times a day and asked students to calculate how many times a month he was gassed.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on February 25, 2013