Slavery + Math Homework Add Up to a Dumb Lesson for Georgia Kids

Janelle Harris

Think quick: If a tree has 56 oranges and eight slaves pick them equally, how many would each slave pick?

I couldn’t tell you. I’m more focused on the absurdity of the question. But I betcha the third grade students at Beaver Ridge Elementary School in Norcross, Ga. might be able to fire off the answer. After all, it was one of the word problems they had to do for homework last week.

Ah, nothing says repressed racism like a little revisit to the good ol’ days when slaves did their manual labor like they were supposed to.

The school says the teacher was taking a stab at a cross-instructional lesson by infusing social studies into the math questioning. Great idea! Let me give it a go: How many doofuses does it take to create one math worksheet?

Apparently just one.

The sad part is, the educator responsible for the assignment couldn’t sense that something was wrong with a word problem about slavery. Because they just kept on coming: “If Frederick got two beatings per day, how many beatings did he get in 1 week?”

Oh, and another stumper: “Frederick had 6 baskets filled with cotton….” You know what? The rest doesn’t even matter.

Parents were rightfully outraged and hightailed it the next day to report the insults to the principal, who immediately went into damage control mode to admit the inappropriateness of the mistake. But, she offered, it was an innocent mistake. It doesn’t help that this whole debacle went down in Gwinnett County, Ga., where slavery — but not necessarily oranges — was big business.

There were questions on the worksheet about Susan B. Anthony. She, unlike poor Frederick the anonymous slave, made it out without insult, proving that the teacher did have some sort of social studies-meets-mathematics agenda in mind.

But here’s my problem, aside from the stupidity of the questions in the first place: why oh why oh why does the only connection to the black experience have to be about slavery? You know, our greatest contribution, much to the shock and surprise of some folks, wasn’t baled in a cotton field or wrought from servitude. Our history is more than that. I know it’s the highlight of our story reel as far as some people are concerned, but African-Americans have done more than till the soil and pluck the harvest.

How about some questions like: How many everyday items did black inventors create in fifty years? Or how many songs were inspired by traditional African music? Or how many black men and women bolstered the armed forces and war efforts? Or how many everyday, average black folks have had a hand in shaping this country? And the sum of those contributions didn’t have anything to do with what went on before the Emancipation Proclamation.

The put-out parents of these students were appalled by the ridiculousness of their kids’ homework assignment, but it’s also a chance to remind them that black folks’ part in social studies — all of American history — is bigger than just slavery, Jim Crow, and the civil rights movement.

In the meantime, keep an eye on your child’s homework. Who knows what they’ll try to slip in when they get to mixing in science.

Was the teacher wrong for including these socially awkward homework questions?

Image via { pranav }/Flickr