Using slave beatings to teach math concepts in a public school is shocking enough. But equally puzzling to some parents is that such a concept would emerge from Beaver Ridge, a school in which 88 percent of students are either black or Hispanic and half the staff is non-white.
The incident at Beaver Ridge ended up casting an international spotlight on Georgia and its racial past. Given the diversity of Beaver Ridge, the case, though, is far more complex. And it underscores the need by all teachers — regardless of their race — to better understand the students they’re teaching as school systems become more diverse.
When teachers 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.
In a message on the school’s website, Beaver Ridge Principal Jose DeJesus told parents 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 district said the 20-question homework sheet failed to undergo a mandatory content review.
Not the first time
One parent, Plechette Walker, 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.”
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.
Georgia requires education majors at its colleges to take a class to help them to understand their cultural experiences and how to relate to the students they may teach.
Gwinnett County school officials said the assignment betrayed such training and was a clumsy way to tie a history lesson to math computation.
It’s not the first time something like this has happened.
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.
And 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.
The latest lesson might have gotten lost under a mountain of competing teacher responsibilities, suspects Calvine Rollins, president of the Georgia Association of Educators.
“Teachers are under the gun to do a whole lot,” he said. Sometimes, assignments get pushed out without a glance.
“They could definitely be overlooked.”
Timothy Johnson, founder and president of the Frederick Douglass Foundation, says workload, though, is no excuse for sending such math questions home with kids.
“How many lashes did Frederick get? Unacceptable,” Johnson said.
Johnson suggests this as a “more appropriate” question about the noted orator and activist who counseled President Abraham Lincoln: “If Frederick made five speeches a year between 1845 and 1890, how many speeches would he have made in 45 years?”
Multiple quality checks
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.”
Building a math lesson that references slavery — and making sure it is appropriate — takes training and skill, said Brenda Fitzgerald, a consultant with Georgia Education Training Agency. A social studies lesson on slavery goes better with reading, but combining slavery and math would not be “the best practice.”
“What’s important is how many oranges were picked and how many were left,” Fitzgerald said. “What’s not important is whether it was a slave.”
Christopher Braxton, whose son brought home the slave math lesson, agrees.
It’s why he complained to school officials, organized third-grade parents, participated in a protest in front of the school, and echoed the Georgia NAACP’s call for the termination of those who wrote and distributed the questions.
Braxton said that Wednesday's teacher resignation should only be the “tip of the iceberg” in handling the slave math incident. He said he wants counselors to speak to students impacted by the questions and the fallout. Braxton said diversity training for the staff is needed and the others involved in the copying and distributing of the slave math assignment should not go unpunished.
“They had a part to play in it too,” he said. “They passed it on. If one robbed the bank and the other three knew about it, they all were suspects. I believe they should be fired.”
Tim Callahan, spokesman for the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, said what happened at Beaver Ridge shouldn’t end the careers of dedicated teachers.
“It’s a good teachable moment not just for the students, but for the adults as well.”