When fourth grade teacher Jane Youn handed out a new set of math problems to her students in Manhattan’s Public School 59, the otherwise routine event sparked outrage among parents.
That’s because the assignment consisted of a number of math word problems, some of which contained references to slavery. Youn had asked her students to create word problems that combined math with their social studies lessons. Youn later collected the problems and presented them to students for homework.
All might have been well except for two questions. The first asserted that a ship had been loaded with 3,799 slaves and continued by stating that, “One day, the slaves took over the ship. 1,897 are dead. How many slaves are alive?” The other problematic question concerned a slave who was whipped multiple times everyday. Students were asked to determine how many times the slave was whipped in a one month period.
The assignment raised a few eyebrows when Youn’s students took it home that night. Almost immediately, parents were raising concerns about the appropriateness of the questions. When school officials were alerted to the matter, they expressed that they were appalled. At this time, disciplinary action against Youn is still being considered. Another teacher at the school, Jacqueline Vitucci, had copied the assignment but ultimately decided not to use it. Vitucci may also be facing disciplinary action by the administration.
The public school, which shows a demographic that is 60% white and only 5% black, is still reeling from the aftereffects of the assignment. Parents call the use of the slavery questions “unnerving” and “unsettling.” Another parent referred to the questions as “sending the wrong message.” A student teacher at Public School 59 refused to hand out the assignment in a later class, declaring that it contained issues with “desensitized” violence.
Though the fact remains that it was students who initially composed the questions, the ultimate use of those word problems was left up to the teacher’s discretion. Clearly, where racially charged subjects are concerned, it’s better to exercise caution in an educational atmosphere.