By NICK CHILES
The furor over the Gwinnett County, Georgia, school that used slavery and slave beatings as the elemental facts in third-grade math word problems was a prime example of why parents always have to be so incredibly vigilant when it comes to the education of their children. Even when we are completely comfortable with their school, with their teacher, with their school district, something crazy like this can pop up at any moment, shocking a parent to the core, making you suspicious about everything happening in your child’s classroom.
In the current case, nine teachers were using the worksheets that contained the two inflammatory word problems. If you know how schools work, you know that many eyeballs had to have scanned those worksheets before they wound up in the hands of youngsters in nine different classes.
One of the math problems reads: “Each tree has 56 oranges. If eight slaves pick them equally, then how much would each slave pick?”
Another was: “If Frederick got two beatings each day, how many beatings did he get in one week?”
While the school system said the teachers were attempting to incorporate lessons from social studies into math word problems, it’s still hard to imagine that nobody flagged this beforehand as a potential problem. Can you imagine a worksheet being used that discussed how many Jews were burned in a Nazi concentration camp oven?
I speak here as the father of a child who attends a different school in this very same Gwinnett County school district. While we haven’t had anything quite as outrageous as the slavery word problems, we did have our own encounter with racially insensitivity in a teacher a couple of years ago at our daughters’ school. The white teacher, while a fine educator, just did not have the proper level of sensitivity to detect something that we saw as potentially quite harmful to all the children in the class, black and white (and Hispanic).
When I was an education reporter in New York, I spent more than a year writing about the school system’s efforts to inculcate the curriculum with the message that our society contains all kinds of families, and that a family with two mommies or two daddies was just as acceptable as one with a mom and dad or just a mommy. That message didn’t go down easily for a lot of people in the city—the curriculum was the subject of a great deal of controversy—but in the end city residents came to terms with the idea that we needed to enlarge our children’s idea of what a family is. The point is that schools have a huge role in helping our children learn how to view themselves and others who are not like them.
As the father of a Gwinnett County fourth grader, I have seen little effort on the part of my daughter’s school to do a serious job educating her about all the intricacies of slavery. It is a subject that the school system, as much as possible, tries to avoid like the ebola virus. So if my daughter brought home such a word problem, cavalierly using slaves and their punishment as the facts to be employed, I know what my first reaction would have been—outrage. Followed by alarm that such insensitivity was flowing through the halls of my daughter’s school. Teachers are armed with so much power to shape the self-images of our children; if they so desire, they can chip away at a child’s self-esteem on a daily basis. It happens all the time and we as parents always have to be on alert for teachers who don’t have our children’s best interests at heart. As a father who brought a black boy all the way through public schools to college, I know that this is even more important when the child is a rambunctious little black boy. If a teacher can use a word problem like this, it would make me wonder what other things are happening to those black kids in that classroom that would never make any juicy headlines but could be just as destructive and insensitive.
We must stay involved, connected and present in our children’s school lives—so that they don’t one day get haunted by something like slavery math word problems. We are their first protectors, their greatest defenders. That is our job. It will never change.
Nick Chiles is a New York Times bestselling author and former award-winning education reporter. See more of his work at NickChiles.com.
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