Math and Slavery Don’t Mix

In January, a fourth grade teacher at P.S. 59, an elementary school in New York City, sent her students home with a worksheet of math problems that were based on slavery.  The students wrote the questions themselves because their teacher, Jane Youn, had asked them to write questions that blended with their social studies lessons.  One of those math questions read as follows:

“One slave got whipped five times a day.  How many times did he get whipped in a month (31 days)?  Another slave got whipped nine times a day.  How many times did he get whipped in a month?  How many times did the two slaves get whipped together in one month?”

When student teacher, Aziza Harding, saw the wording of the questions, she refused to hand them out to her children, and showed the sheet to her graduate professor at NYU.

New York’s Department of Education stated: “This is obviously unacceptable and we will take appropriate disciplinary action against teachers.  The Chancellor spoke to the principal, and she has already taken steps to ensure this does not happen again” (The Huffington Post).  The principal of the school has subsequently ordered sensitivity training for the entire staff.

For me, this incident raises the following concerns:

  1. The main issue is that the issue of slavery was handled in such a way that may desensitize children to a crucial, horrific period in American history.
  1. By presenting these math questions to students, the teacher is now asking a nine-year old to put themselves into a position of a slave master.  Again, this is not the proper way to discuss and educate young children on the issue of slavery.
  1. How desensitized was the teacher already to the issue of slavery?
  1. Why haven’t members of the staff already received training of this nature?

While I’m glad that the principal and the school boards have ordered disciplinary action and training, this has a lot to say about our education system, our society, and the type of progress that still needs to be made.

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