Oh, sure, we could be outraged and annoyed that any teacher of fourth-graders could be so clueless as to think it would be appropriate to distribute a “Slavery Word Problems Homework” worksheet to their students, because we would like to think that nobody would give nine-year-olds questions like “In a slave ship, there can be 3,799 slaves. One day, the slaves took over the ship. 1,897 are dead. How many slaves are alive?” Nine year olds, dude.
But we are feeling positive and hopeful today, and so we will instead heap praise on Aziza Harding, the New York student teacher at P.S. 59 who, instead of copying and distributing the worksheet, “took it upon herself to copy a different assignment instead, writing the assigning teacher a note saying she wasn’t comfortable with the questions” and then spoke to her NYU professor, who broke the story to NY1. Because really, it’s the weekend, and isn’t it something of a relief that this story broke because Aziza Harding said something, and not because that worksheet actually went home with a bunch of kids?
OK, well, let’s also acknowledge the other bad news — the worksheet actually did go home to another class of fourth-graders in January. Aaaand the questions were actually written by fourth-graders, in a seriously misguided attempt at combining math content with what the kids were learning about the history of slavery, which is an example of what is called, yes, “integrative learning.” Done well, it can be downright inspiring, leading kids to find cool connections, like how the French Revolution and advances in science were connected — fun fact: chemistry demigod Antoine Lavoisier was beheaded during The Terror! Done sloppily and thoughtlessly, it can result in a math question reading
“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?”
Oh. And did we mention that the school is predominantly white?
If all this sounds a little familiar, it should. Pretty much the same thing happened in a Georgia elementary school a little over a year ago.
As Salon’s Mary Elizabeth Williams notes, the problem isn’t the attempt to connect multiple subjects, it’s the reduction of that approach to mere busywork, and of course the utter failure to think about slavery — about history — as something that affected actual human beings:
In both cases, the faulty logic behind the questions was the pursuit of integrated learning. Used wisely and sensitively, it’s an otherwise useful teaching tool – taking a history course as the starting point for a math lesson, using a reading assignment to explore science. I have two children in two different progressive New York City public schools, and can safely say that in practice, dancing about architecture is a whole lot more useful than it’s been cracked up to be.
But without guidance, children are just going to wind up doing exactly what that horribly misguided group of fourth-graders did: reduce humans to abstractions, and the vivid and painful lessons of history to problems to be mindlessly filled in on a work sheet. “There’s no explanation, there’s no education, there’s no teaching going on,” says Charlton McIlwain.
Which, again, brings us back to Aziza Harding, who, thank the seven mad gods who rule the sea, saw the problem with that slave ship math problem. She
understood it and questioned it – concepts that unfortunately, it seems, eluded both the previous class that had already done the assignment and the teachers who shuffled it off to them. An education that doesn’t incorporate nuanced, critical thinking is useless. And that’s the deeper shame of the whole debacle: that a group of teachers and students could come up with a list of numbers, but couldn’t see something so blatantly wrong, right in front of them.
So now, class, how about we get cracking on the math that will help us to figure out how to get more Aziza Hardings to become teachers?
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