A hard lesson

Cross-curricular teaching attempt was thoughtlessly offensive

Here’s an easy math question for you:

Let’s say teachers at an elementary school give third-graders some story problems using examples of slaves picking fruit and getting beatings. How many ways is that stupid?

Answer: Two.

Pretty, and doggone.

Yep. Easy.

Yet, that’s precisely what some third-grade teachers at Beaver Ridge Elementary in Norcross did recently – giving students homework with questions such as “Each tree has 56 oranges. If eight slaves pick them equally, then how much would each slave pick?” And the ever popular, “If Frederick got two beatings per day, how many beatings did he get in one week?”

The questions provoked outrage and protest in the community, as they should have. How tone-deaf and insensitive can these folks be?

To be fair, it doesn’t look as if there was any ill intent. It appears it was an overzealous attempt at cross-curricular teaching: an attempt to raise the kids’ awareness of black history while teaching math.

But if you can add one and one, you now know just how dangerous that is: pretty and doggone. Imagine if these teachers’ math problems had used the example of, say, Jewish concentration camp inmates or U.S. POWs in World War II. The slavery example is no less offensive.

While teaching kids about awful things, one cannot use trivial circumstances – such as math problems or picking fruit. It only serves to desensitize the kids to such horrors as slavery. It completely erases the awful context.

Some called for the teachers’ firing. Unless more damning evidence points to it, that may be an overreaction. Some sort
of discipline ought to be sufficient. It’s likely those involved realize what a colossal bonehead move they made. And now their story has been told far and wide, and forms a cautionary tale. We need to be careful not to create a chilling effect that has teachers paralyzed with fear about losing their jobs over innocent mistakes, however repellent.

But let this be a hard lesson learned: You cannot use an atrocity as a prop.


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