Math Homework Question About Sexual Abuse Raises Parents’ Ire

Screenshot of the test questions, showing that one has some math equations (y = x + 2, and 3x + 6y = 12) along with a question underneath that says: "Angelou was sexually abused by her mother's ––––––– at age 8, which shaped her career choices and motivation for writing." There are three answer choices below the question: "a. (0,2) boyfriend; b. (4,6) brother; and c. (-3,-1) father." Then there is another question below that one, labeled question #5. That question first provides two equations, x = y - 1 and y =o -4x + 21, along with the following prompt: "Trying to support her son as a single mother, she worked as a pimp, prostitute and ________." Three answer choices are: "a. (-3,2) Bookie; b. (9,10) Drug Dealer; and c. (4,5) Night Club Dancer."
In the future, the curriculum developer told reporters in the wake of the controversy, “we will make sure to add clear labels to any content containing sensitive material.”

A high school in Pennsylvania has apologized after a homework assignment went viral because of a math question that discussed sexual abuse.

The homework was a math puzzle featuring biographical facts about the poet Maya Angelou, who died in 2014.

“Angelou was sexually abused by her mother’s _____ at age 8, which shaped her career choices and motivation for writing,” one of the questions read. The answer choices were “boyfriend,” “brother,” or “father.”

Another question asked, “Trying to support her son as a single mother, she worked as a pimp, prostitute and _____.”

According to BuzzFeed, following a number of complaints from the community, Pennridge School District superintendent Dr. Jacqueline Rattigan said, “We apologize to anyone who was offended by the content of the assignment and have taken steps to avoid such occurrences in the future.”

The “Maya Angelou Person Puzzle” probably was downloaded from the Teachers Pay Teachers website. A teacher named Clint Clark says he created the worksheet, one of around 200 he has written in recent years.

“Not Suggested as Homework”

Clark says the biography math problems are intended to get students excited about tackling math problems by solving a cross-curriculum puzzle as they practice math.

“The math practice is the core; the biography is the hook,” Clark said. “These biographies increase engagement for reluctant starters, piques the interest of those not as interested in math, and encourages reading across the curriculum.”

The Angelou worksheet comes with a caution statement on Teachers Pay Teachers that says:

CAUTION: Mature content is integral to her biography. This is not suggested as homework and if you choose to you [sic] it, should be in your classroom where you can control the conversation.

Teachers have taken notice of the sensitive content, with comments on Teachers Pay Teachers going back as far as 2013 saying things like, “I would be careful with [question] numbers 3 and 5” and “This was completely unusable for my classroom. Surely there are more appropriate things to use for #3 and #5.”

Another teacher noted, “This assignment has specifically been banned in several school districts due to its content. Please be cautious if you choose to use this assignment.”

Clark, the Angelou worksheet author, says there’s a good reason he included the sexual abuse question: because it’s integral to the poet’s life story.

“I wrestled with whether to include her experience with sexual abuse, but eventually came to the conclusion that it was integral because Angelou herself found it integral,” he said, noting that her writing discussed how she was a rape survivor.

He says the worksheet was never intended as a take-home homework assignment. “I recommend it needs to be in the classroom so [the teacher] can control the conversation. Not to be sent home for homework,” he said.

Image with a photo of Maya Angelou "paperclipped" to a manilla folder labeled "Person Puzzle: Systems with Substitution." There is a piece of paper taped to the folder as well that reads, "Phenomenal Woman. Pretty women wonder where my secret ... I'm not cute or built to suit a fashion ... But when I start to tell them, They think I'm telling lies."
The Maya Angelou–themed worksheet addresses CCSS Math Standards 8.EE.C.8 and Content.HSA-REI.C.5. (Image: NextLesson)

My Take

I can understand people’s anger upon seeing a screenshot of the worksheet questions. Taken out of context, these questions don’t seem to belong at all on a math assignment.

Yet I can also see this from Clark’s viewpoint. It’s important not to flinch at showing students that traumatic experiences can and do shape lives. If the material is age-appropriate and presented in an inclusive, respectful environment, then under the right circumstances it can provide a valuable learning opportunity. Teachers would obviously need to consider their specific class and determine whether or not the sensitive material is appropriate.

Even so, with all that said, I think this particular assignment should never have made its way into any classroom, and here’s why: A fill-in-the-blank sexual abuse question simply doesn’t pass the “smell” test on a mathematics quiz. It feels trivial.

Clark’s reasoning that the worksheet shouldn’t have gone home with students doesn’t work for me. In the age of social media, every bit of curriculum text needs to be vetted carefully, regardless of whether or not it ever leaves the classroom.

Discussing a sensitive subject wasn’t the problem in this case. The problem was that the sensitive subject felt so trivialized.

If I had been copy editing this worksheet, I would have flagged the two questions and laid out a strong case for rethinking them. This is what great copy editors do. Besides the nitty-gritty stuff, they take a hard, objective look at the big picture and point out what doesn’t seem to work. We are there for you to prevent incidents like this from ever bubbling up and causing unwanted controversy.

If you need a fresh set of eyes on your educational materials, contact us today for a free copy editing or proofreading quote.

Dave Baker

View posts by Dave Baker
Hi, I'm Dave Baker, founder and copy chief of Super Copy Editors. I have more than two decades of professional proofreading and copy editing experience, including work for The Nation magazine, The New York Times, and The Times-Picayune of New Orleans, where I shared two staff Pulitzer Prizes after Hurricane Katrina. Today, I have put together a hand-picked team of copy editors, and we especially love working with ad agencies, marketing departments, and education companies to make their text as polished as possible. Learn more here.

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