Tag Archives: Frederick Douglass

Slaves, Oranges and Arithmetic: The Dangers of Too Much Content Integration

In that ever-growing list of educational untouchables, the enslavement of African Americans is among the most sensitive and nerve-rattling.

So why in Hell would a teacher build a set of math problems based on slavery? The misguided belief that social studies can—and should—be integrated into everything.

One of the offending questions, courtesy of ABC News

If ever there was proof that social studies deserves to remain a separate and distinct subject, it is the recent “slave math” controversy. Luis Rivera, a third grade teacher in the Atlanta suburb of Gwinnett County, Georgia resigned when he assigned math homework that included problems involving slavery and beatings. Samples of the controversial work include:

“Each tree had 56 oranges. If eight 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 one week?”

The story made headlines across all the news outlets and provided prime fodder for the early morning gabfests. Many clearly found the incident offensive, and others thought one careless act shouldn’t mar an entire career in education…and so on, and so on.

Bullshit. The guy should’ve known better: both as a tolerant American and as a teacher of sound pedagogical practice. Rivera gets an “F” on both accounts.

The use of such a sensitive topic is appalling in it of itself. As a teacher, however, it is the casual, even careless use of history that is most repulsive. The teacher claimed they were attempting a “cross-curricular” activity, supposedly integrating social studies and math.

If this is what passes for “integration” or “multidisciplinary”, then here come the division problems using cattle cars and European Jews (prepare to use high numbers), probability questions involving Christians thrown to lions (advantage: lions), and fractions involving Crusaders slaughtering Muslims in the Holy Land (i.e. “What fraction of a merchant in Jerusalem is left after Sir Godfrey cleaves him to pieces with a broadsword?”).

Not only are these examples equally disgusting, but teach absolutely nothing about the content being used.

As much as it twists in my gut like a rusty bayonet, districts will still be pushing for integrating social studies and science into reading and mathematics. Understandably, each content area fits better with a certain skill set: social studies is basically just focused reading and writing, scientific analysis rarely doesn’t involve at least basic math skills.

Yet when the subjects are reversed, the integration can be a little tricky—and no more so than with social studies and math. The Georgia example, to be honest, was more of an example of lazy, slipshod integration than any real malice. It was probably based on the notion that the content itself doesn’t matter so long as the skills taught are understood.

Thus, in Rivera’s mind, the slaves being beaten and picking cotton and oranges could have been anything and anyone, so long as the math algorithms were internalized.

This in not integration. It is the hijacking of one subject to further another.

If true integration is the goal, the student materials, assessments and lessons should:

1. Align with content material or units that are either being taught at the time or previously covered. According to the Georgia Performance Standards in Social studies for 3rd Grade, students should be covering the impact of various important Americans. Even if the American in question was a slave (i.e. Frederick Douglass) the content was inappropriate and didn’t really tie into the curriculum at all. The content you use has to make sense to the students in some way; otherwise both your math and your social studies objectives will be lost.

2. Utilize settings, actors and scenarios appropriate to the historical period or unit. This sounds a lot easier than it is. Many times, problems are created that in no way resemble the reality of the time. Even amongst the offending problems, the second one makes no historical sense: if Frederick needed two beatings a day in order to work, he would have probably been sold. A little research into primary sources can go a long way in justifying your use of historical content.

3. Enhance understanding of BOTH the skills/standards and the content area. Okay teachers and administrators, I’ll say it: social studies and science are not your personal call girls designed to fleece students for their respective pimps, reading and math. If you create a division problem involving the supplies of a pioneer family, students should learn a thing or two about the hardships of frontier life in the process. That reading assignment about volcanoes should not only enforce main idea, author’s purpose, etc. but also the scientific concepts of volcanic eruption and its role in land formation on Earth.

Since the remorseless monolith of integration is with us for the foreseeable future, educators have to learn to effective join content and skills together for mutual benefit. With so much time in the school day devoted to reading and math—plus that ever-growing period of test prep—many find it hard-pressed to even find time for social studies and science. Thus, integration often becomes the only way content is taught in many classrooms.

The best way to find great material for integrating social studies content into your lessons is to amass a vast library of primary source materials. Many of the websites featured here have incredible databases and clearinghouses of newspapers, diaries, account books, ledgers, captains’ logs, ship manifests—all with enough numerical data to torture your students for months.

Use common sense, fit them into your lesson plans where appropriate, and if you’re in any doubt as to whether you’ve crossed the “Rivera Line”, as we’ll now call it, ask a colleague.

Ideally, these subjects should stand alone. Certain things can only be taught in the isolation of a period devoted to social studies or science. Yet the NCLB monster squeezes the day to the point that integration has become a necessary evil in our everyday lessons.

Just use your head, unlike poor Luis Rivera. The only job he’ll be doing now is picking oranges and cotton for slave wages.

(…pun was completely intended.)

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Summer Reading for Teachers: Forbidden Love: The Hidden History of Mixed Race America

Frederick Douglass, himself of mixed race, with his second wife Helen Pitt Douglass, and their neice Eva.

The strength and flaw of an immigrant society is its heterogeneity.

The societies that sprouted across the American continent were not one-note masses of people, but rather a chorus of different voices that, for good or ill, must learn to live together.  For the most part, this mix of people has been a boon to the economic, social and cultural progress of our country.

Unfortunately, in the United States, the concept of races—and their “inherent” differences—has led to an uneasy existence.  Different people can work together, live side-by-side, play together.  Yet romantic relationships and racial “mixing” was far too often considered taboo.

Yet according to Gary Nash, history professor at UCLA and a friend here at the Neighborhood, mixed-race relationships have a long history in America—and just as long a history of fighting for acceptance in a society preoccupied with racial purity.

Like a previous book of his I reviewed, Professor Nash’s Forbidden Love: The Hidden History of Mixed-Race America offers a window into a world most Americans know little about.  In this case, it is the often submerged undercurrent of multiracial family relationships.  Nash paints a wide swath, starting with Pocohantas and ending in the multiracial heritage of our current President.  Along the way, by identifying the lives of extraordinary mixed-race Americans, he shows the currents of race and racial identity that have prevailed in this country.

Nash writes that the early history of the United States showed great promise for an interracial society, or at least one where race was less relevant than it would become centuries later.  Yet due to the settler nature of North America—as opposed to the conquistador/exploitation model of Central and South America—the United States would populate itself with whole families who saw survival, especially ethnic/racial purity, as paramount to their existence.

This obsession with racial purity would prevail well into the first half of the 20th century.  It dictated how white America would deal with millions of Africans, once enslaved and later as free persons.  It also determined the relationship between European settlement and Native Americans who predated them on this continent.  Finally, the need for racial purity would affect how America received millions of immigrants from Europe, Asia and Latin America.

Nash’s choice of subjects covers many ethnic groups and various periods of American history.  He starts with Pocohantas’ marriage to the Virginia planter John Rolfe, and also includes maritime entrepreneur Paul Cuffe, the Healy family (also discussed in a previous post), Elizabeth Hulme, Peggy Rusk, and of course Eldrick “Tiger” Woods.  In each, their lives are juxtaposed with the rising and ebbing tide of racial rigidity and consciousness in this country, culminating in the election of a multiracial President in 2008.

One particular area that Nash sheds light on is the 18th century Mexican paintings known as “casta” paintings, and how they reflect racial mixture and hierarchy in Spanish America.  These didactic paintings demonstrate the nomenclature of the union of persons of different racial makeup, i.e. a Spaniard and a black woman make a mulatto; a Spaniard and a native woman make a mestizo, etc.  I remember seeing something similar in a textbook on a visit to Ecuador, yet I was astonished at the bewildering permutations—and labels—that categorized the racial makeup of colonial Mexico.

However, this open demonstration of racial mingling did not mean racial equality.  The lack of Spanish females, larger populations of native and black persons, coupled with a Catholic Church that had a more permissive view of interracial marriage meant a more fluid mixing of peoples.  Yet according to Nash, this mixing would not mean the end of racism:

“The offspring of mixed-race marriages could expect a life of discrimination and thwarted ambition.  And those with African ancestry faced more limited chances than those with Indian bloodlines.  Above all, Spanish blood counted the most.” ~ Gary Nash, in Forbidden Love, Revised Edition, page 48.

Unlike his last book we reviewed, The Unknown American Revolution, Forbidden Love makes a remarkably seamless addition to a high school classroom syllabus.  This is largely due to its imprimatur, the National Center for History in the Schools, of which Professor Nash is director.  NCHS works to connect academic scholarship in history with classroom instruction at all grade levels. 

In the case of Forbidden Love, the book was revised from its original 1999 version to both add a modern prospective and to make it more suitable for the classroom.  Although the book bursts with the hefty research worthy of an academic tome, its tone, vocabulary and short length make this material easily accessible to high schoolers.  Even more impressive are the discussion questions located near the end.  Each chapter contains these useful questions to continue discussion and to offer differentiation for various student groups. 

In the multi-racial populations of students in America, research and biographies like those found in Forbidden Love are more crucial than ever.  Many cities have populations where racial intermingling has been the norm for centuries, and are now coming into contact with American populations where interracial acceptance has been halting, at best. 

People like Barack Obama, Tiger Woods, etc. are demystifying what it means to be multiracial in America.  As Professor Nash shows, Americans have been mixing together long before they gained acceptance in the wider society.  Race, says Nash, is an artificial categorization that has no basis in science.  It should, therefore, be natural for humans to accept when races mix and procreate.

It’s a shame it took so long to reach that acceptance.

NOTE: Any teachers and students wishing to read the newest edition of Forbidden Love can order a copy by contacting Marian Olivas, Program Coordinator at the National Center for History in the Schools at UCLA — molivas@ucla.edu

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Spoofing History: Don Cheadle as Frederick Douglass

As your finishing your last-minute paperwork before summer, the Neighborhood revisits an old theme with a new installment sure to “inform” and entertain.

The Drunk History franchise, seen on Funny or Die on HBO Comedy, has featured Alexander Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, and even Nikola Tesla.  This most recent installment, whereas the cast acts out the drunk narration of a plastered host, features Don Cheadle as Frederick Douglass and Will Ferrell as Abraham Lincoln.  It’s probably too expletive-laden for the classroom, but fun to share with the faculty as you get those records in order.

Enjoy the video–hopefully it’ll kill enough time before vacation.

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Mr. D’s History Bookshelf # 1 – Cause: Reconstruction America 1863-1877

cause-tonya-bolden1As a social studies teacher, I am often asked to provide resources on particular subjects.  More often than not, these resources were needed yesterday. 

While I am open to any questions concerning resources, I wanted to avoid the rush that often comes with such requests (“Please Mr. D, I need any suggestions about the Third Punic War and its effects on Middle Eastern relations, NOW!”)  To that end, we are starting a new series, Mr. D’s History Bookshelf.  On this Bookshelf will reside books that I have read, found interesting and insightful, and offer some usefulness in the classroom.

The first book on our shelf–the first of many–is Tonya Bolden’s Cause: Reconstruction America 1863-1877Reconstruction is the great spinoff drama to the Emmy-winning series that is the U.S. Civil War.  Like other spinoffs, it has been given little attention and even less importance.  Yet Reconstruction is not some hyphen that ties our history together.  The years following the Civil War were a whirlwind of confusion, controversy, conflict and ultimately compromise, the results of which still resonate today.

Even with Reconstruction’s importance, it is definitely the lounge act to its bloodier antecedent.  The dearth of scholarship bears this out.  Even as historians currently give the period some much needed scholarly respect, the amount of published material is still reams behind Civil War scholarship.  Recent works worth reading include those of Eric Foner, who has been instrumental in bringing the period into public focus.  Try his Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution 1863-1877 as a start. 

What is even worse is the lack of classroom material for grades 4 and up.  There are precious few books for students about this period, and Bolden makes an important contribution with her 2005 work.  Cause is not meant to be a scholarly tome, nor should it be.  Bolden deftly takes the sweeping events of the postwar period and creates an amazingly cohesive narrative, utilizing grade-appropriate language and a clear, direct style.  The book is the perfect summary of Reconstruction for history students in upper elementary and secondary grades.

As you read Cause–and it was hard for me to put down–you get a sense that Reconstruction was mostly about just that, a cause.  Was there a cause for the actions of whites, blacks, Democrats, Republicans, ex-army officers, CSA veterans, the poor, the rich, women, Native Americans, etc.?  Reconstruction becomes less about the values of states’ rights, white supremacy, racial equality or universal suffrage and instead more about the cold, political motivations of various actors at a tumultuous time.  Though there were many politicians who acted on principle, many more acted out of self-preservation, opportunity, and convenience.

In the end, everyone in power tired of the whole business, meaning that the white South won out at the end of Reconstruction to a large degree.  The machinations of power grabbing and maneuvering placed high-minded principles at the bottom of the pile.   In the waning years of Reconstruction, any excuse was found to find some sense of normalcy.  By 1876 a “corrupt bargain” would place Rutherford B. Hayes in the White House, the army out of the South, and blacks–out of power, out of the ballot box, and out of luck–reduced to second-class citizenry for almost a century.

Bolden demonstrates many examples of these machinations throughout the book.  One celebrated example is General William Tecumseh Sherman’s Special Field Order No. 15, which was later rescinded by President Andrew Johnson.  Sherman ordered  400,000 acres of coastal land along the Carolinas, Georgia and Florida to be confiscated and subdivided amongst freed slaves and black refugees, 40 acres to each household.  Though it is not mentioned in the order explicitly, it is reported that the U.S. Army also allotted excess mules to the households, thus the infamous false promise of “40 acres and a mule.”  Sherman’s act was not one of beneficence–far from it, as Sherman is known to have harbored his own prejudices towards blacks.  Rather, he needed a way to keep refugees from hampering his column as it marched northward toward Virginia.  The infamous promise of a fresh start was in fact strictly a military measure–one that Sherman himself did not defend once Johnson revoked the order.

An even more startling example involves a sacred cow in Frederick Douglass.  As the call for universal male suffrage increased in the late 1860′s, suffragists such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony wondered aloud whether female enfranchisement would soon follow.  When asked by Stanton about the suffrage of black women, Douglass responded that it was indeed a priority, “not because they are women, but because they are black.”  This from the same Frederick Douglass that attended the 1848 Seneca Falls convention that began the women’s suffrage movement.  It can be perceived from Douglass’ response that his priorities did not necessarily include women.  In hindsight, his attendance at Seneca Falls may have been simply to drum up support for abolition from like-minded people. 

Bolden’s book establishes a complex web of personalities, all in a Machiavellian quest for stability, power and some semblance of a status quo.  Andrew Johnson wanted to maintain white supremacy and play nice with the South again.  Radical Republicans in Congress wanted revenge on the South, as well as to knock Johnson down a few pegs.  Southern whites wanted to make sure blacks had no role in government.  Northern businessmen wanted to resume trade as quickly as possible.  New black politicians struggled for their voices to be heard–sometimes for less than honorable reasons.  Women screamed to be heard above the din.  Immigrants–whom black leaders warned about to Johnson–were coming seeking opportunities in a growing America.  Finally, Native Americans were making a futile case to keep America where it was, even if it meant flying in the face of migration and technological expansion. 

What is courageous about this book is that it avoids the victimization crutch to a large degree.  As with Native Americans, post-Civil War blacks were often portrayed as helpless victims in the abyss–even by the most well-intentioned.  Frederick Douglass, Hiram Revels, P.B.S. Pinchback and other black leaders are seen as courageous sacrificial lambs to the inevitable restoration of white supremacist governments in the South.  This view overlooks the differences in black culture, especially among free blacks and escaped slaves, rich Northern blacks and poor free persons in the South, as well as black leaders’ often conflicting attitudes towards assimilation, suffrage, womens’ rights, immigration, etc.

Bolden avoids this trap of victimhood by laying bare the conflicts, anomalies, and hypocrisies that characterized much of the actions of the period.  She could have easily hammered down on Republicans for not doing enough, Democrats for undermining progress or white Southerners for clinging to antiquated ways at any cost.  Instead, Bolden offers something rarely seen in children’s books–nuance.  She establishes the actors for who they are, makes no excuses and presents the period in a straightforward manner. 

Cause ultimately offers the student a rich, complex view of Reconstruction.  It opens many avenues for research, debate and reflection.  Bolden has created a work that allows students to make their own assumptions about Reconstruction, something very rare in children’s non-fiction.  Thus, Cause has the honor of being the first book on Mr. D’s History Bookshelf.

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