When our elementary school library got its CD-ROM last year, I hoped my fifth graders would use it for social studies research projects. Little did I know that it would become the basis of a broader project using math to explore racial and gender bias in educational materials.
As in many fifth grades, my students do a major research project on a famous American. Perhaps less typical, it has to be an American who has fought for justice, and “American” is defined to include people from Mexico and Puerto Rico (as many of my students are from those two places).
This past year, I told my students that in addition to biographies and encyclopedias, they’d be able to use the library’s CD-ROM encyclopedia. They were excited. I was skeptical. I feared that the new technology would add just one more source of information to be copied and plagiarized by uncritical and inexperienced researchers.
During writing workshop, the students went in pairs to the library to look up information on their famous person, and to get a print-out of the CD-ROM entry to be used as one of the sources for their report.
When the first two girls, Jade and Lafayette, returned from the library, they raised an issue that I hadn’t thought about. Jade, who had chosen to write about Harriet Tubman, was upset that Lafayette’s printout on Thomas Edison was 4 or 5 times longer than hers. (My immediate reaction was to question how Lafayette had concluded that Thomas Edison fit the criteria of a famous person who fought for justice, but she was determined to report on him so I let that matter drop.) When I asked Jade why she thought there was this difference her response was, “I don’t know.”
I asked Jade and Lafayette to quantify the difference somehow and to tell the rest of the class about their research during sharing time at the end of writing workshop. They reported that while there was less than two inches of information on Harriet Tubman, there was more than 10 inches on Thomas Edison. Some students thought this wasn’t fair, but there were no profound insights as to the cause of the inequity. When I asked the class how we might find out why there was this disparity, a popular response was to ask the librarian. So we postponed further discussion until our next library visit a few days later.
During the next library visit, the librarian, Maggie Melvin, and I led a discussion that tried to get students to think more deeply about the nature of the information in the CD-ROM encyclopedia and other educational materials. We used Jade’s concern as a jumping off point. We taped to the wall the print-outs on Harriet Tubman and Thomas Edison and asked the kids what they noticed and what they knew about the two individuals. The students agreed that both Edison and Tubman were dead and famous; that Edison was a white man who invented things, while Tubman was an African-American woman abolitionist who fought for freedom.
Children came up with a variety of hypothesises to explain the length difference. Some thought that the CD-ROM makers “didn’t know much about Harriet Tubman;” “didn’t get much information about Harriet Tubman when they were little;” “had to meet a deadline and didn’t have time to put Harriet Tubman in;” or that “maybe they were racist, so first they put in white inventors and then they added a little extra.” Another student disagreed that the disparity was due to racism and suggested that it was because “Thomas Edison was a man and Harriet Tubman was a woman and maybe it was men who did the CD-ROM.”
When one student suggested that perhaps inventors were more important than other people, a Puerto Rican girl disagreed. She argued that abolishing “slavery was more important than the light bulb.” Another boy said that the disparity wasn’t fair because “Harriet Tubman had to risk her life and did work that was more dangerous” than Edison’s.
We then began a conversation about what criteria one should use to put people into the encyclopedia and how much should be written about them. Some kids thought “everybody should get treated the same” while others argued that those who helped people should get more space.
To broaden the discussion we taped on the wall two additional print-outs — bibliographies of books in our library on Thomas Edison and Harriet Tubman. Our school library had three or four times more books on Tubman than Edison. One student deducted from this that, “The CD-ROM people are just making up for the difference in the amount of books we have at our school.” This in turn led to a lengthy conversation about who makes decisions about educational resources. At our school, I told the kids, teachers have tried to makeup for the lack of information about women and people of color in the main-stream libraries and encyclopedias by buying more books about those people. In fact, the availability of such biographies in the Fratney library was the way many of the kids came to choose their famous person in the first place.
We ended our conversation by asking students how we might find out if the accusations of racism or sexism were accurate. One student thought we should write to the CD-ROM makers and ask them, but most thought the company wouldn’t be honest. Finally, it was agreed that two examples weren’t enough, and that as a class we would chart the length of the print-outs on all the famous people that we were studying, as well as the person’s race and gender.
Over the next two weeks students recorded the length of entries for 30 different individuals on large chart paper on the classroom wall. Students were surprised to find that Felisa Rincón de Gautir, the first woman mayor of San Juan and a famous Puerto Rican leader, was not listed, nor were the 19th Century African-American journalist Ida B. Wells, Mexican-American farmworker organizer Delores Huerta, the first female chief of the Cherokee Nation Wilma P. Mankiller, or Puerto Rican scientist Maria Cordero Hardy. Two presidents, Abraham Lincoln and George Washington, had the longest entries, and others varied from 2 to 13 inches. (A complete list of people studied is at the end of the article.)
Analyzing the Data
I realized that a key tool in analyzing the data would be the concept of averages. So I worked with my student teacher Susan Hersh and math teacher Celín Perez to develop a mini-unit on averages. We built on the students’ existing knowledge of averages — mainly involving sports and grades — and deepened their understanding by having them use counters and other physical objects. We also discussed and practiced using the formula for figuring out an average.
The students were ready to analyze the data. We prepared a sheet that helped students organize their work, then pairs of students chose different categories of people (white females, Mexicans, females, etc.) and found the average length of the entry in inches. They each calculated a number of groups and recorded their answers on chart paper in the front of the room. When pairs came up with different averages, they rechecked their work until they agreed.
After all the conceivable categories were calculated, we gathered as a group. I asked for observations. The students saw that the “white males got the most information” and “Puerto Rican females got nothing.” Other observations included more specific comparisons, for example, that the information for males was “three times as long as information for females” and that “information for whites was three times as long as information for non-whites.”
We asked the children how they felt about what they had discovered. Some of the comments: “I feel very bad because the Puerto Ricans don’t have much information;” “I hate it because it’s not fair;”
“Other kids might think that women don’t do very many important things.”
Other students weren’t as upset and said, “We should not blame them [CD-ROM makers] for what they did. If we don’t like it, just don’t buy it and get a book.” Others countered that the disparities were important because younger students would use the CD-ROM and not get sufficient information.
I asked how the students might present the information to other children in the school. They decided to make large wall graphs using sticky tape, which the children did in groups of four. The construction of the large graphs was difficult, as the average lengths ranged from zero inches for Puerto Rican females to 28 inches for white males. The vibrant colors of the sticky tape made the finished products show quite clearly the bias that we had discovered in the CD-ROM.
Some students wanted to do more than just show other kids the results of their research. A couple suggested we visit the CD-ROM makers and tell them to change their encyclopedia. When the kids found that the company was based in California, that put a damper on that idea. Instead students role-played what they would have said and wrote letters to the company. The students wrote from the heart: “My name is Alfonso and you made me and kids in my classroom mad. You discriminated against people that are ladies and non-whites;” “I am a Puerto Rican student at Fratney Street
School and I did not like what you gave Puerto Rican people on the CD-ROM encyclopedia.” Some wrote in Spanish: “No es justo que haiga mas información sobre hombres que mujeres” [It is not just that you had more on men than on women]; “Women and men of all cultures should be treated fairly!” wrote another. One student threatened, “You better do something about it before I take you to court.”
One student who didn’t think writing to the company would do much good wrote to the superintendent of schools instead, informing him of our investigation. He wrote, “The purpose of this letter is to try to get the people who buy or make this program to either stop making it or to change the information. This might not matter to me cause I’m going to sixth grade next year and my new school doesn’t have a CD-ROM system in their computers. But this matters to the kids who are going to get the information from this encyclopedia in the future.” He went on to suggest that “the school system not buy any more CD-ROM encyclopedias from this company.”
Problems and Lessons
The whole project took several weeks and involved a great deal of discussion. It was not part of my pre-planned curriculum. The fact that the project was initiated by students’ concerns about the learning materials in the school was positive and provided important motivation. It fit well into our school districts K-12 Learning Goal #1, that “students will project anti-racist, anti-biased attitudes” and “analyze, critique and assess bias in all forms of communication.” It also gave the students a chance to act on their concerns.
In retrospect the project had some serious shortcomings. First, while we were looking at one aspect of bias in the CD-ROM encyclopedia, we barely approached the larger, more important issue: the content of the information itself. While I encouraged children to look out for stereotypes or misinformation in the text, with a limited knowledge base this type of critique is difficult at the elementary school level.
Students found some incongruities with other sources of information — for example, with the dates given for the births of Nat Turner and Harriet Tubman. But it was usually only when I pointed out that the encyclopedia selection omitted something that the students became aware of potential content problems.
Earlier in the year we had spent time analyzing children’s books that dealt with Christopher Columbus — whose voice was being heard and who was being silenced, what was being omitted in books, etc. While that experience might have helped spur Jade and Lafayette into questioning the new learning materials they encountered, it did little to prepare kids to critique encyclopedia sections or even come up with ways of thinking about the issue beyond the question of omission and voice.
Another problem was that our statistical approach was far from accurate. Our sampling was limited, and the inclusion of the two presidents weighted the statistics in favor of white men. Nonetheless, the students gained experience in collecting data, manipulating it, and looking at it through the lens of race and gender, something that isn’t readily encouraged in most classrooms. Similar projects could be done by looking at traditional encyclopedias, or by analyzing the racial and gender composition of the biographical books in a school library.
Finally, the project raised several questions that we didn’t adequately delve into: Who makes the decisions for CD-ROM encyclopedias? What criteria are used for inclusion or exclusion of people? What criteria should be used?
Because this project was started near the end of the school year, such questions were raised, but left unanswered. With more time I could have had students develop their own criteria for inclusion in encyclopedias. They then might have tried to use such criteria to rank the famous people they had studied.
We might have organized a debate or role-play, with students representing different groups of people arguing for their inclusion.
But even with these shortcomings, lessons were learned, at least by some students. One was that even something as sophisticated and flashy as a CD-ROM encyclopedia cannot always be trusted as an “objective” source of information. Students need to find multiple sources of information, and read everything with a healthy dose of skepticism.
A second important lesson was that mathematics can be an effective tool, like written and oral language, in the fight against injustice and discrimination.
Knowing how to figure out things like averages and percentages, being able to use mathematical data in arguments, and making clear graphs became more than just preparation for next year’s math class, but a means by which one can help figure out and change the world.