Ron White, who ought to know, is famous for saying, "You can't fix stupid." Well, I don't want to call anyone stupid because I'm not the brightest bulb in the chandelier myself. But there is a group of teachers over in Gwinnett County that -- well, they may not be stupid, but they certainly haven't been paying attention.
You've all heard the story by now. They were studying the life and times of Frederick Douglass in history class over at Beaver Ridge Elementary School. Frederick Douglass, in case you aren't studied up on your 19th century social studies, was the former slave who blew those concepts of African-Americans being intellectually inferior to whites right out of the water. He was an elegant writer and public speaker and became one of the leading proponents of the abolition of slavery -- which was accomplished about 150 years ago, by the way.
Teaching about Frederick Douglass didn't create a controversy, understand. The controversy came in math class. You see, for years -- even before No Child Left Behind made memorizing standards the standard for quality education -- educators have been encouraged to engage in what is known as cross-curriculum instruction.
The theory is that learning will be reinforced if students are exposed to the same material at the same time in a number of content areas. This is supposed to make learning more authentic and meaningful and when it is done correctly it really works well and is very effective.
Let me give you a for-instance or three. My now-retired colleague, Mary Supple, who taught American literature to most of the students to whom I taught history, and I used to try our best to coordinate our instruction so that our lessons would complement one another. When my history class was studying the Great Awakening, for example, her classes would examine Jonathan Edwards's sermon, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God." When we studied New England theocracy and the Salem Witch trials, they read "The Crucible."
When we studied the Romantic Era and learned about the influence of people like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau and their impact on society, her classes read Emerson and Thoreau and learned about their influence on literature.
And when we studied abolition, they read "Uncle Tom's Cabin," maybe -- or "Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass." You get the idea, I'm sure. The instruction students received in one class was reinforced in the other -- and let's face it, today's students need all the reinforcement they can stand.
The problem with cross-curriculum instruction comes when it is done just for the sake of doing it. Then it becomes forced and artificial and meaningless. It has been a long time, but I have experienced forced cross-curriculum instruction and let me tell you -- it ain't pretty. Teachers wind up veering from the curriculum and making up assignments that have little real relevance to what they are trying to teach and sometimes they resort to tactics as meaningless as--well, as making up word problems in math using references from social studies.
I know nothing of the motivation, but that is what happened in Gwinnett County last week when a math teacher -- or math teachers -- decided that they would reinforce a history lesson about Frederick Douglass by presenting math homework problems about slaves picking cotton -- and oranges, no less -- and receiving beatings.
This is 2012, y'all. Who would ever think it was acceptable to give such problems?
"If Frederick gets two beatings per day, how many did he get per week? Two weeks?" I ain't making this up y'all. I saw it with my own eyes.
"Frederick had six baskets filled with cotton. If each basket held five pounds, how much did he have in all?"
Are you kidding me? This was an assignment for third-graders!
Now understand, I am the most politically incorrect and insensitive person in the world. Well, maybe with the possible exception of Neal Boortz. I am often outspoken about perceived oversensitivity to all conversation about "old times there" and so forth. I still play "Dixie" on my way to college football games and I have a son named Jackson Lee -- but y'all! There is no reason that any third-grader should ever be assigned a math problem about slaves picking cotton or getting beatings. Again -- are you kidding me?
Now I don't believe for a minute that this assignment was intended to be racist or mean-spirited -- and I don't agree with Ed Dubose, Georgia NAACP president, that the teachers responsible should be fired. I do believe, however, that as Jed Clampett used to say of Jethro -- "Somebody needs to have a long talk with that boy." Or man. Or woman. Or all of the above.
And somebody needs to make sure that if cross-curriculum instruction is being pushed, it had better be authentic and effective -- and devoid of references to slaves being beaten or picking cotton and oranges.
Darrell Huckaby is a local educator and author. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. For past columns, visit www.rockdalecitizen.com or www.newtoncitizen.com.