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.
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.)
More Slavery Math Problems: Another Example of Clumsy Content Integration in NYC
Today’s post is proof positive that not every teacher visits the Neighborhood—especially when it’s for their own good.
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:
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.
Filed under Uncategorized
Tagged as American History, Civil Rights, Commentary, Education, education reform, Educational leadership, Georgia, Homework, Jane Youn, Manhattan, Mathematics, Middle Passage, Opinion, Slavery, Social studies, Standards, Teachers, Teaching, U.S. History