Third-grade teachers at Beaver Ridge Elementary School in Norcross, Georgia, sent home math worksheets that included questions referring to slavery. The worksheet contained problems such as, "Each tree had 56 oranges. If 8 slaves pick them equally, then how much would each slave pick?" and "If Frederick got 2 beatings per day, how many beatings did he get in one week?" Setting aside the poor grammatical construction of the first question, it's difficult to understand why one of these college-educated teachers didn't at least stop to think that their homework problems - with no historical context - would be extremely offensive.
Shocked parents were left with an attempt to explain to their children why slavery and beatings comprised part of their third-grade math homework. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports an outcry from upset parents in Georgia's Gwinnett County and a community demanding an apology.
As a longtime math teacher, I understand that there is pressure on teachers to include cross-curricular material. I doubt these educators intended to offend anyone, yet they obviously botched their attempt to incorporate history with mathematics. Clearly, a closer look should have told them that these unseemly questions would raise concerns with parents. I also wonder about the staff development in this district; typically, teachers are schooled in the importance of avoiding any remark that could even remotely be construed as racist or sexist.
This Georgia elementary school, however, obviously has a lot of teachers who are on the ball as well. Beaver Ridge Elementary School's 2010-11 accountability report indicates that the school made Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) 6 years in a row, earning it the honor of a Georgia Title I Distinguished School. Making their AYP even more impressive is the fact that 87 percent of the 1,200 students at this school are on free or reduced lunch programs; low socio-economic areas are typically a much tougher academic challenge for teachers.
Collecting and destroying the homework sheets wasn't enough. Either district spokeswoman Sloan Roach or principal Jose DeJesus should have immediately released an apology to parents and the community. When they didn't, they added fuel to the fire. I'm sure parents were longing for an assurance that inappropriate questions such as these would not be tolerated on third-grade math homework sheets in the future.
Through their incorporation of these tasteless slavery questions into the math homework assignment, these teachers no doubt learned their own difficult lesson.
Karen LoBello has a B.S. degree in Elementary Education and an M.S. in Computer Education. Her experience includes over 25 years of teaching.