The AJC has a long, thoughtful piece about what can be learned from the controversy over the slave questions given to third graders in a Norcross elementary school math class.
The piece begins with questions about how such bizarre questions could have been conceived, no less handed out to third graders, at Beaver Ridge Elementary, a Gwinnett school where 88 percent of students are either black or Hispanic and half the staff is non-white.
(Still no word on the fate of the teacher. Gwinnett has not responded to my most recent questions about the teacher’s employment status but earlier had refuted reports that he has been let go for creating the two slave-related math questions.)
Christopher Braxton said he was helping his son Nicholas with homework like always when Nicholas stumbled upon the slave math word problems meant to re-enforce a history lesson about ex-slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass. One of the problems: “If Frederick got two beatings per day, how many beatings did he get in one week?”
“He didn’t understand the part about Frederick getting beaten,” the dad said. “He said, ‘What is a slave? Why did they do this?’ He had a lot of questions for me I couldn’t answer right away because me and my wife were floored.”
Plechette Walker, another parent, said she was so surprised about the questions that she showed up at school seeking answers. “You have Africans, Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, blacks and whites [attending Beaver Ridge],” she said. “The teachers are multicultural. You would think that in dealing with issues of race they would be very, very, sensitive.”
Educators, especially minorities, are expected to be culturally aware. When they fail to be sensitive to the cultural differences of their students, they run the risk of losing them with lessons that miss the mark and alienate parents.
This incident shows even multicultural staffs can show cultural “ignorance” said Jane Elliott, a consultant who developed a program on cultural competency . The experiences of people vary by region and country on how they see race, she said. “I’ve heard of some teachers doing slave auctions during Black History Month.”
Georgia requires education majors at its colleges to take a class that helps them to understand their cultural experiences and how to relate to the kids they may teach. Beaver Ridge principal Jose DeJesus told parents in a message on the school’s website that the lesson did not meet his standards: “We are working to ensure that this does not happen again.”
But where the breakdown occurred, which allowed the assignment to be distributed and sent home, is unclear. The questions were written by one teacher, copied by another and used in four classrooms. The district said that the 20-question homework sheet failed to undergo a mandatory content review. The teachers involved in the incident are facing a human resources investigation.
Last school year, a third grade teacher at Chesney Elementary in Gwinnett assigned a reading packet that contained the story “What Is an Illegal Alien?” It had not been reviewed first. In September, Cobb County students were asked to write about dress codes and read a fictional two-page letter written by a 20-year-old Saudi Arabian woman who spoke approvingly of her fiance’s multiple wives and the law of Sharia. It also had not been reviewed.
Many of the lessons public school students take home undergo extensive review. Lessons and questions in textbooks take nearly two years to develop and undergo multiple quality checks, said Jay A. Diskey, executive director of the Association of American Publishers’ school division. “A panel of academic reviewers go through the books to specifically look for bias.”
Beaver Ridge teachers have common planning time to create and discuss assignments. Gwinnett Schools spokeswoman Sloan Roach said she did not know whether the school offers diversity training. The district does not have mandatory training though some campuses offer it to staff.
Some experts say there could be a downside to diversity training: Becoming overly sensitized can lead to less effective teaching. If teachers stick to repeating “safe facts” and teaching to tests, it will be difficult to produce critical thinkers, said Jane Hinson dean of college of education of Georgia College and State University. “The process of education is one that is powerful and it is one that is wrought with consequences that we as educators have to help each other be mindful of.”
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog