Friday, March 20, 2015

Wait, what?!

"Wait, what?!" This was my reaction when I read this problem in the book, "It's Alive." 

I was so upset by the insensitive racial language in the problem. I decided to write the letter (included below). I found the email address for the publisher and sent off my letter. I was pleased to hear back from the editor and publisher within the day (their letters are below as well). Their quick response showed that they understood the magnitude of the problem and I appreciated their action to revise the problem.

This turned out to also be a learning experience for my students as I shared the problem with them, as well as my letter and the two responses. My students had reactions like, "Wow, you got it changed!" and "I didn't realize you could write a letter like that!" I think it was important to share with my students the power of words and why it is important to address injustices when they see it.

While I was happy that the publisher is revising the language in the book, I am still left with an uneasy feeling about why it was there in the first place. I know that both people that responded indicated that they, too, couldn't believe it was there... but somebody had to have read it at some point. While it might have slipped by the editorial process, what about the authors? How could they have written it and thought, "yep, that language is okay!" 

To Whom it May Concern,

I am a middle school math teacher at Freedom Middle School in Berwyn, IL. This year, I am teaching 7th graders. This is my 11th year teaching middle school and I am a National Board Certified Teacher, 2014 recipient of the ICTM Middle School Teaching Award, and blogger at

A few years ago, I purchased your book, It’s Alive, by Asa Kleiman, David Washington, and Mary Ford Washington. Over the years, I have referred to it to find interesting problems for my students to try. As a class, we have enjoyed the funny, gross, or silly topics in the problems. I like the fact that the topics are engaging and the problems are non-routine, which make for interesting discussions.

This year, as my students are working with ratios and percent, I turned to the book for inspiration once again. While I have used the book several times over the years, I have never read all the problems cover to cover. So, I came across a problem the other day that I had not read before. This problem appears on page 6, is titled “Lawn ornaments,” and is the reason for my letter to you today.

The problem is as follows:

David and Asa have calculated the percent of houses in their town with each type of lawn ornament listed below”
18 percent- Snow White and the seven dwarfs
7 percent- crystal balls (no doubt useful for fortune telling)
6 percent- little Mexican boys leading little Mexican donkeys
14 percent- cutesy squirrels and bunnies
17 percent- Bambi and his relatives (outfitted in orange during hunting season)
25 percent- black boys fishing
3 percent- white boys fishing

If there are 20,000 people in their town and approximately 5 people live in each house, how many houses have each kind of lawn ornament?

I find this problem to be at best, insensitive, and at worst, racist. I checked the copyright date of my addition, which is 1996. I had hopes that perhaps there was a newer addition that did not have this problem, but I see that this is still the current edition being sold by your company.

My students are mostly students of color, with 75% being Hispanic. Teaching Hispanic students, where many are Mexican-American, is not the only reason that I take issue with this math problem. For a publishing company focused on gifted education, I’m sure you are aware of the fact that students of color are underrepresented in gifted programs. Finding materials that have people that look like my students or have names like people they know can be challenging. However, I have never come across materials that outright use their race or culture as a “joke.”

Having language such as “little Mexican boys with little Mexican donkeys,” and “black boys,” and “white boys” in your problem is not acceptable and I would never use this problem with my students without changing those lawn ornaments to something else. Which also leads a question: Why was this language was even necessary? There are other interesting or funny lawn ornaments that could have been used in the problem. Using race as a defining characteristic of the lawn ornaments is unnecessary and insensitive.

I hope you will take the time to look into this issue. I am looking forward to hearing your thoughts or explanations about this offensive problem. I do plan to blog about my concerns regarding this book and would be happy to include your response.

Annie Forest, NBCT
7th Grade Math


Dear Annie,

Thank you for bringing this to our attention. As you noted, It’s Alive is one of our much older products. We continue to sell it because it does offer an appealing alternative to many practice problems on the market (and many teachers enjoy using it for the same reasons you noted in your e-mail).

I was not aware of the insensitive language used in the book before now—and I apologize that any of my predecessors let that slip into the text. It is insensitive and unnecessary and does not reflect us as a company (you may be aware that we actively publish many books on the very topic you raise—the underrepresentation of students from diverse backgrounds in gifted education and the need to support/identify these students is an issue we believe strongly in; thus our support of leading authors/experts on the topic like Donna Y. Ford). 

Now that you have brought it to my attention, I will make sure it is immediately removed from any future printings (and eBook versions) of the book. If you’d like, I would be happy to get you a revised PDF copy of the book to use in your classroom, and we can replace your hard copy once the new printing is underway. Additionally, I will have our editorial assistant check through the rest of the book (and the second book in that series, “It’s Alive and Kicking”) to see if there are any other problematic issues/language.

Again, I apologize that such language was included in the first place, and I absolutely thank you for bringing this to my attention so we could remedy it immediately.

On a side note, as a math teacher and blogger, if there are any other math books that you would like to review/share with your readers, please let me know. I am always happy to get products into the hands of teachers who can actually use and review them.


Lacy Compton, Senior Editor


Dear Annie,

Good lord. This would have been insensitive even back in the 1990s when we first published the material. Having a problem like this in a education product boarders on lunacy. I honestly have no idea how in the world this passed through our editorial processes. The best explanation I can give is that back in those early days of the company, our quality control wasn't as systematic as it is now. I was still in graduate school and working on a federal grant at the university and trying to run the company at the same time. My oversight of our editorial flow was pretty spotty until 1997 when I left the university to run the company full time.

Lacy and her editorial team are on top off this, and we are combing through both books (It's Alive and It's Alive and Kicking). There is no excuse for racial or ethnic insensitivity appearing in our products. We are taking this very seriously, and I am indebted to you for raising this flag.

I am having all copies of the current product in our wareshouse destroyed, and we are going into a corrected reprint once we have reviewed the material for any other problems we might have missed back in those early days of the company.

Thank you.

Joel McIntosh, Publisher

Here is the new problem with the insensitive language removed:


  1. Good for you and such a great lesson for your kiddos - they can inspire change! Thank you for sharing this awesome post!!! :-)

  2. I'm glad you took the time to speak up. I would think that the publisher was also glad to hear this information from you as well.

    1. They did seem appreciative to know about the issue. I'm kind of surprised this was the first time anyone ever mentioned it since the copyright is 1996!

      Thanks for taking the time to visit the blog!