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Teachers Administered “Slave” Maths Problems

When I first heard about the story of a teacher who wrote maths problems such as, “If Frederick got two beatings per day, how many beatings did he get in 1 week?”, I was as angry as many of the people calling for the teacher’s sacking.

After further contemplation, I am no longer as irate.

This teacher made an awful mistake (and one that will brand him/her, rightly or wrongly, as a racist). It was a very poor choice of maths problem and I am sure that the teacher involved feels very ashamed about their role in this incident. I have to say, that I don’t think this teacher was being racist. But I wont go too far in my defence, as some acts of stupidity defy any plausible defence.

A Georgia school insisted today there was no “maliciousness” intended when a third grade math quiz asked students to compute the number of beatings a slave got a week and to calculate how many baskets of cotton he picked.

But the Gwinnett County School District has launched an investigation to determine how the offending questions made it onto the students’ homework sheets.

The math homework assignment was given to more than 100 students at Beaver Ridge Elementary school in Norcross, Ga., as part of a social studies lesson, Gwinnett County school officials said. The assignment outraged parents, community activists and members of the Georgia NAACP.

Sloan Roach, a Gwinnett County school district spokeswoman, told ABCNews.com that the students were studying famous Americans and as an attempt to create a cross-curricular worksheet, one teacher used Frederick Douglass and slavery beatings for two of the questions.

Although only one teacher wrote out the controversial questions, another teacher made copies of the assignment and it was distributed to four out of nine third grade classes at Beaver Ridge, Roach said. The school is not publicly naming any of the teachers who are suspected to be involved.

In lashing out against the school and its teachers, I think people are missing a small but still important side story. There is a growing obsession in educational circles to integrate the curriculum. Teachers are called on to integrate all subjects under an unbrella topic. For example, as this year in an Olympic Year, many teachers will plan their maths, language, science, art and music classes around the Olympic theme. This can work well, as the topic lends itself quite easily to the subjects listed above.

But then you have a subject like American History and Slavery. You are the maths teacher, and you have to find a way to cover the curriculum whilst at the same time, covering the topic of slavery. This is neither an easy task nor a fair one. I am glad that I haven’t been asked to combine the two, as I would find it all too hard.

It is time we realised that not every topic can be integrated across the curriculum. Sometimes you have to let the maths teacher teach maths, without imposing on them a topic that doesn’t fit well with skills such as chance and data and order of operations.

Was this teacher in the wrong? Absolutely! Was he/she a racist. Probably not. Should the teachers found administering this worksheet be fired? I don’t think so. Should a maths teacher ever be expected to combine maths problems with a slavery topic?

I would have thought the answer to that question was obvious.

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