A year ago, we looked at the plight of a Georgia teacher who made a clumsy and altogether disastrous attempt to integrate social studies with mathematics, using the brutality of slavery to teach word problems.
Not only was the attempt slapdash and insensitive (the latter through no fault of the teacher, I’m guessing) but grossly inaccurate and leaving students with less of an understanding of BOTH subjects.
At PS 59 in Manhattan yesterday, someone (who probably didn’t read my post of a year ago) attempted a similar integration effort, using social studies content with word problems for a class of 9-year-olds—in a neighborhood where many were the children of UN personnel.
Again, slavery was the subject of the day—which was another not-so-bright move given the school’s community base. Here are two examples:
“One slave got whipped five times a day. How many times did he get whipped in a month (31 days)?”
“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?”
And once again, a teacher trying to do the right thing in her mind gets herself in hot water.
Jane Youn assigned these kinds of questions for homework and almost handed them to a second class before a student teacher noticed the inflammatory questions and put the kibosh on the whole thing.
The Chancellor and the DOE displayed the appropriate amount of outrage, and “disciplinary action” will follow for the teachers responsible. Yet as in the Georgia case a year ago, what exactly is Ms. Youn’s crime?
Was she being deliberately insensitive? I would guess not. Slavery is so explosive as a topic that any instruction—of any level—could be construed as inappropriate or insensitive given the audience. After all, being around diplomat’s kids would give anyone a heightened sense of moral outrage over any perceived slight. Putting a dinner fork in the wrong place could cause an international incident.
Yet is Ms. Youn at fault for clumsy, irresponsible lesson design? Absolutely.
It’s not her fault entirely. Such is the current trend of integration that science and social studies content miraculously show up on standardized tests aligned with the Common Core Learning Standards we hear so much about. In this frenzy, a teacher with little, if any, time for content instruction would sneak social studies or science in any way they can…even if it means a math problem about slavery or a reading exercise about the discovery of the DNA double-helix.
However, it isn’t an excuse for bad planning. Real content integration—true integration—uses the vehicles of English Language Arts and math to expand understanding of content knowledge, or the “stuff” you have to know. A student should hone practical skills in reading, writing and math and also learn more about a subject.
For example, the way Ms. Youn phrased her questions leads me to believe she really didn’t give a shit about teaching the kids about slavery, but would rather assess their math skills. It’s obvious since her scenarios are so wildly unrealistic: whipping an enslaved man 5 times a day? Wouldn’t it be easier to sell him? How often did slave revolts happen during the Middle Passage? My guess: not very likely.
How about questions that showed how much commerce slave-based industries such as cotton contributed to the growth of Northern industry? Or if you dare touch the Middle Passage, how much an enslaved African was sold for on the market, and the profits of the slave-merchants per person?
If Ms. Youn really cared about content, she would’ve done enough research on slavery (as well as appropriate math skills) to answer the following:
- What do I want the kids to know about (insert content area here)?
- How can I use (insert ELA/Math skills here) to help my kids understand (insert objectives about content area here)?
In education today, the debate between content-driven versus skill-driven instruction has devolved into a chicken-before-the-egg argument: do skills drive content, or vice versa? The reality is that skills are necessary to understand content, yet skills cannot be mastered without basic content knowledge as a foundation. There’s no good answer to this.
Yet for the sake of Jane Youn and others who simply see social studies and science as a backdrop for their test prep, I do hope future teachers take integration seriously.
There’s too much at stake not to do so.