slave word problem


Do you remember the outcry about the math word problems for third graders which used slaves picking oranges?  The example was used to integrate history lessons into math, one of the goals of common core standards.  The parents of the students were outraged that slaves would be used in the math problems and that math shouldn’t be taught in that manner.  We agreed but wondered if this was because of the push of common core standards and that history must be worked into mathematics because the time to study history has been reduced in the classroom.


Reading between the lines, I believe we were correct.  This first article from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution details some of the challenges the teacher faced:

The math assignment was sent home with more than 100 students. Among its 20 questions were word problems on slaves picking cotton and oranges. Some mentioned Douglass: “If Frederick got two beatings per day, how many beatings did he get in one week?”

“This is an unfortunate incident,” Rollins said. “I don’t believe the teacher wanted to expose those kids to anything offensive. Gwinnett County teachers are dedicated. They work hard and try on a daily basis to do the right thing.”

But mistakes can occur because the burden on teachers to create lessons, tutor kids, analyze data and complete paperwork can be daunting, especially in a district the size of Gwinnett County Schools, the state’s largest system.

Beaver Ridge principal Jose DeJesus issued a letter to parents this week on the school’s website informing them about the situation and reassuring them that teachers “embrace diversity” and are not biased.

“Our third graders have been studying famous Americans and had been reading about Frederick Douglass, a former slave,” DeJesus wrote. “These particular questions were an attempt at incorporating some of what students had been discussing in social studies with their math activity. First, let me say that I understand the parents’ concerns about these questions. While I encourage our teachers to create cross curricular lessons, my expectation is that those lessons be appropriate and provide true connection between the subject areas. That did not occur in this case and we are working to ensure that this does not happen again and that this situation is handled appropriately.” (emphasis added)


The second ACJ article identifies the teacher who “resigned for personal reasons”:

 A Gwinnett schools investigation found former Beaver Ridge Elementary School teacher Luis Rivera was the author of a third-grade homework assignment that used slave beatings to teach math concepts.

In a statement to school officials obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Thursday, Rivera, a teacher at the school since August 2008, apologized and said some of the questions he wrote were in “poor taste.”

Rivera’s 20-question homework assignment used slave beatings and picking cotton to link lessons about ex-slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass to math computation. One of the problems read: “If Frederick got two beatings per day, how many beatings did he get in one week?”

Rivera told officials he was following the district’s curriculum, which asks that teachers explain what Douglass had to overcome to succeed and become a hero.

Beaver Ridge teachers are asked to create cross-curricular assignments and assessments and Rivera said he was attempting to do so.

“As a minority myself, I understand the trials and tribulations associated with being a minority,” he wrote. “There was no intent to harm, or to offend. Rather, I was trying to make connections for the students, while completing my assignment of cross-curricular integration.”

The homework assignment also had questions about Mary McLeod Bethune, Susan B. Anthony and Paul Revere.


The teacher used poor judgment, but I believe Mr. Rivera when he stated he was trying to complete an apparently difficult juggling act of combining math and history lessons so as to fulfill his mandated assignment.  He should be held accountable for his insensitivity, but not blamed for trying to teach in a cross-curricular integrated mode as required by his school district.  The parents of Beaver Ridge students should read Truth in American Education to understand the travesty of common core standards and why this may very well happen again:

Some parents of Beaver Ridge students who received the assignment asked that counseling be made available for kids.

At a Gwinnett school board business meeting Thursday, Henry White, who does not have children, called the incident an “egregious act of assault on the minds of a kid by an adult” and also recommended counseling.


With all due respect to Mr. Henry White, this incident is “an egregious act of assault on the minds of a kid by the NGA, CCSSO, Governor Sonny Perdue, the Georgia State Board of Education and the adoption of the Common Core standards”.  


Perhaps if the parents and Mr. White understood the impossible position the common core  standards place teachers, they would demand a return of local control and the cessation of nationalized standards and assessments.  Maybe then an education integrating history facts with math problems isn’t what is considered an excellent educational model in their school, and such nonsensical teaching mandates can be thrown in the trashcan.   


The teacher’s poor judgment isn’t why the kids may need help, the “one size fits all” mode of education is what will lead them to mediocrity and failure.


Here’s a video report from on the teacher’s personnel file obtained via a Sunshine Request in which he was described as an “exemplary teacher” and served on the Black History committee:


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