Math Homework Question About Sexual Abuse? These Parents Are Furious.

Screenshot of the controversial math homework, showing a question: "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 are “boyfriend,” “brother,” or “father.”
Yes, this math worksheet is real. It is not “fake.” It has been causing occasional public uproars for several years now.

Over the past decade, at least three different school districts have been forced to issue public apologies because of a math homework sheet that contains content about sexual abuse.

The math “Person Puzzle” features biographical facts about the poet Maya Angelou, who died in 2014. The worksheet mentions sexual abuse and prostitution.

Outraged parents say the worksheet is not appropriate for high school math students. The controversial assignment has been removed and is no longer available for teachers to download for use with their students.

What the Worksheet Says

Until late February 2022, the “Maya Angelou Person Puzzle” was being sold on the Teachers Pay Teachers website. It was marked as appropriate for students in 10th through 12th grades.

Today, it is no longer available online. But here is an archived version.

A teacher named Clint Clark said he created the worksheet, one of hundreds he wrote over the years.

The worksheet includes these questions:

  • “Angelou was sexually abused by her mother’s _____ at age 8, which shaped her career choices and motivation for writing.” (The answer choices are “boyfriend,” “brother,” or “father.”)
  • “Trying to support her son as a single mother, she worked as a pimp, prostitute and _____.” (The answer choices are “bookie,” “drug dealer,” or “night club dancer.”)

Here is a closer look at the worksheet:

Screenshot of the controversial worksheet. It is titled PERSON PUZZLE: Solving Systems With Substitution. There is space for student's name and date. Below that is a small thumbnail photo of the poet Maya Angelou and a paragraph of text containing biographical information about her. Below that are some directions fro solving the problems on the worksheet. There are algebra problems paired with multiple choice answers. An example is question number 1: y=5x+4 and below that y=x. It is paired with the question: Angelou was born in _____, Missouri. And the three possible answer choices are a. (1,1) Kansas City; b. (-1,1) Springfield; and c. (-1,-1) St. Louis. There are four such questions shown in this excerpt, and one of them is the controversial question "Angelou was sexually abused by her mother's _____ at age 8, which shaped her career choices and motivation for writing." The answer choices for that question are “boyfriend,” “brother,” or “father.”

Clark said 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, pique the interest of those not as interested in math, and encourage reading across the curriculum,” he added.

2022 Controversy: Missouri

Most recently, on Feb. 21, 2022, parents in Missouri were in an uproar on social media over the worksheet.

They even created a petition claiming the school district was “exposing children to sexually explicit content.”

The school system apologized a day later, saying the “content does not align with the beliefs or mission of the Lincoln County R-III School District.”

2017 Controversy: Pennsylvania

In January 2017, 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.”

She added, “The homework worksheet in question was downloaded from a website that allows teachers around the world to share educational resources. It is not part of our approved curriculum.”

The uproar caused this story to go viral in 2017, with the Associated Press reporting on it.

2015 Controversy: Florida

In 2015, Lee County School District in Florida sent parents a message “sincerely apologizing” for the use of the worksheet after parents complained.

One mom told reporters, “I read [the worksheet questions] and just thought, ‘What in the world?’ This is so inappropriate for a 13-year-old eighth-grader.”

A spokesperson for the school district responded, “While Maya Angelou is a well-known American author and the facts of the worksheet are historically accurate, the principal believes [it was] inappropriate for some students.”

Photo of someone holding a cellphone, and you can see on the screen an image of the controversial homework assignment, along with a text message reply that says, "I'm no prude but don't think these..." (the message is cut off after that. In the bottom of the image you can see the FOX 4 TV logo. This is an image from a TV news report from Florida from 2015.
A Florida high school was embroiled in controversy in 2015 for using the Maya Angelou–themed worksheet. Parents took their complaints to TV news reporters. (Photo: Fox 4 Fort Myers)

Complaints About the Worksheet Go Back to 2013

Since at least 2013, teachers warned other teachers to watch out for the sensitive content on the worksheet, with comments on the Teachers Pay Teachers website saying things like:

  • “I would be careful with [question] numbers 3 and 5.”
  • “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.”

The worksheet was sold with this caution statement:

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

“Not Suggested as Homework”

Clark, the Maya Angelou worksheet author, said he had a good reason for including 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 told BuzzFeed News in 2017, noting that Angelou’s own writing discussed how she was a rape survivor.

He said 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.

A Story of Survival

Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is assigned reading in many high schools. Decades after it was first published in 1969, the autobiography continues to draw controversy decades later with its discussion of her rape and teen pregnancy.

Before her death, Angelou said the book was misunderstood and attacked by people who have never even read it. She said she herself viewed it as a “mild” story about surviving trauma.

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)

What I Think About This Controversy, as a Curriculum Copy Editor

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 (these were high school students) 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:

On a gut level, a fill-in-the-blank sexual abuse question simply doesn’t feel right on a mathematics quiz.

It feels like a trivial way to treat something that is traumatic and horrible.

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.

Final Thoughts

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 (grammar, spelling, punctuation, etc.), K-12 curriculum copy editors take a hard, objective look at the big picture and point out what doesn’t seem to work.

We are there for curriculum designers 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.

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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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