Monday, March 12, 2018

School's Out Forever

"The trouble with normal is it always gets worse."

— Bruce Cockburn

It's been a while since I've posted in this space, and for good reason: my kids graduated from high school last June, which means that our lives are no longer enmeshed in an education system whose flaws were the catalyst for many of my posts over the years. And although my daughters are by no means launched—one is in first-year university and the other is taking a gap year—I've been trying to pull back on the hands-on "parenting," as much for my sanity as for theirs. I've also been preoccupied with other things for the last year and half, things like working (or thinking about working) and sponsoring a Syrian refugee family. At the moment, I'm toying with starting a new, non-parenting blog (because, who says blogging is dead?), but before wrapping this one up, I wanted to offer some final thoughts on the end—and the ends—of high school.


The whole pre-and post-prom season was horrific, and I say that as a relatively uninvolved observer. It was worse than horrific for my daughters, both of whom participated reluctantly and afterwards wished that they'd taken me up on my offer to take them to Paris for prom week. From my perspective as a parent who skipped her own prom—called "the formal" back then, before the Americanization of every lower-key Canadian event—it was confirmation of my suspicion that everything or almost everything associated with education is getting worse, not better.

Worse, for instance, is the hype surrounding prom, and its sheer conventionality—how the girls stress (far more than I remember my girlfriends stressing about the "formal," and far more than the boys) about the outfit and the hair and the makeup and the promposals or lack thereof (although boys sometimes receive or fret about not receiving promprosals too—progress!). And how both boys and girls stress about the pre-prom parties and the pre-pre-prom parties, and how drunk they can or cannot get before prom, and how they're going to survive without being drunk, and which after-prom party they're going to attend and how they can ditch the date they wish they hadn't agreed to go with, without hurting his or her feelings. Worse also is how parents get conscripted into the madness by means of pre-prom events held by parents for the prom-goers and their parents. (What? When did this become a thing? Why?)

What bothered me most about the whole prom phenomenon is how conventional North American high schools (still!) are when it comes to thinking about ways to mark transitions such as the end of secondary school. Compare "prom" to the Norwegian tradition of russefeiring, a term that means "russ celebration," russ being the Norwegian word for the graduating class. Rather than staging nostalgic performances of 'fifties debutant balls, complete with strictly defined and still mostly enforced gender roles, Norwegian kids decorate buses and hold events and parties in and around them every night and weekend for nearly a month. While I can imagine that for introverted or non-partying types, this travelling carnival might induce its own anxieties, at least it is inclusive* and not predicated on tired, constricting gender norms. In fact, russefeiring allows and even encourages graduates to test and flout of all manner of societal norms, which seems like a healthier way to mark the transition to adulthood than a backward-looking dance that reinforces social conformity.

Nonetheless, in the end, the backward-looking dance that was my daughters' prom lasted only one night; my girls survived and were happy to have put it behind them. Mostly they were happy that it signalled that the four-year-long horror show of high school was also behind them.


Almost behind them. Because there was one final event that was also worse than I remember it being: graduation. Grad day managed, in the space of a few boring hours, to crystallize everything that is wrong with high school. Like high school in general, grad serves as a sorting mechanism for students, clearly marking out the winners and losers by means of the awards and honours bestowed, or very conspicuously not bestowed. The interesting thing is that although there were a few purely academic honours, a majority of the awards rewarded either sports excellence or "character" or both. Kids were singled out for having displayed "spirit," and though the term was never defined, it became clear from the comments of the teachers and administrators that "spirit" or "character" more or less equalled conformity to the school culture of competition, hard work (i.e., the ability to withstand the ridiculous pressures of contemporary high school), and—somewhat contradictorily—"teamwork."

In fact, the whole ceremony created a fog of cognitive dissonance that thickened and peaked during the valedictorian's speech. The teacher who introduced the valedictorian remarked that the first thing he noticed about her when she entered his classroom in Grade 9 was her competitiveness, which he clearly saw as her greatest virtue. In her speech, though, the valedictorian told an animal fable about cooperation and teamwork, which she analogized to her time in high school. The message, while sweet, was a little surprising given the context in which it was being delivered: a ceremony honouring a graduating class that had just finished tearing its collective hair out in a frenzied attempt to make the grades needed to ensure admittance to competitive universities. But what also struck me about the speech—and in this it mirrored the earlier speeches of the teachers and officials—was how apolitical it was (this in a year during which Donald Trump became president of the United States) and how unmoored from the reality of most kids' experience of high school. I don't know what I was expecting, and I'm not at all blaming the valedictorian: the truth is, she showed herself to be an exemplary product of the current secondary education system, equipped with precisely the kind of mindset regarding hard work, perseverance, and "teamwork" that for her, because she comes from the right school and the right socio-economic class, will yield the results regularly claimed for it. The problem for me was that in her speech, and in the doling out of award after similar award, the school's hidden curriculum—of conformity, hoop-jumping, and ranking—seemed to be clanging quite jarringly against the surface curriculum—of "critical thinking," hard work, and personal achievement. By the time it was over, I felt as if my head was going to explode.

The ceremony had a similar effect on my daughters. At one point, one of them whispered that to save time, they should have given one humongous spirit award to one prototypical kid, since the awards all seemed to reward the same traits. I do think, though, that my daughters were less surprised than I was by the banality and hypocrisy of grad. After all, they had been forced to sit through myriad similar speeches and ceremonies during their four years at the school. Afterwards, during the snapping of photos with friends and parents, they seemed dazed and detached, as if the reality of what had just happened had not yet sunk in. It was only in the car on the way home that they both finally expressed a sense of release and freedom. High school was over.

*Options that are less heavy on the partying are typically available to religious kids, or kids who don't drink, etc.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

The Current on Homework

This morning I was a guest on the CBC Radio show The Current with Anna Maria Tremonti. The topic was homework, about which I apparently never lack for things to say. Tremonti is a great interviewer, and I was happy to be able to share my family's homework "story." But there's much more I wish I could have said. For instance, I wish I'd mentioned the recent CAMH study showing disturbingly high levels of psychological distress among Ontario high school students; I would have liked to wonder out loud why there's been so little interest in figuring out the root causes of teen stress. But maybe I didn't raise that question because I know the answer: It's much easier to implicitly blame kids for their own troubles and individualize the problem of stress (by offering coping mechanisms and time management guidance) than it is to acknowledge one's complicity in perpetuating a school culture of overwork that harms kids. So once again there's an elephant in the room of the debates about teen mental health. (Spoiler: its name is homework.)

Here's the link to the interview.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Elephants and Puppies

From the Toronto District School Board's Mental Health and Well-Being newsletter:

Some of the activities that wellness groups have done in schools in the TDSB include: yoga before exams, mindful minutes on the announcements, speed friending, mindfulness bubbles, mentoring new students, teacher thank you cards, puppy rooms, and more! 

Conspicuous by its absence: encouraging principals and teachers to adhere to the TDSB homework policy and reduce homework loads to reasonable levels. Because why confront the elephant in the room when you can just bring in puppies?

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Hazardous High School?

Not long ago, while walking down Yonge Street, I overheard two girls talking. One stopped for a moment and grabbed her friend’s arm: “So grade 11, fuck! I’m actually going to have to work. Every. Single. Thing. Counts.”

My twin daughters have started Grade 11 this fall, so I’m familiar with the anxiety underlying this snippet of conversation. My daughters worked hard in Grade 9 and 10, but they, too, are feeling the extra anxiety of this year’s marks “counting” for their university applications.

As I look back to my own Grade 11 year—a year in which I worked, but not too hard, and managed to find time to read for pleasure and explore my own interests—I can’t help but feel sad for kids entering Grades 11 and 12 in 2015. The workload, the homework, the near-mandatory, resume-fluffing extracurriculars, the anxiety-inducing university application process—all of it is symptomatic of the kind of “rat race” we used to deplore for adults, and now accept as a normal part of modern (middle class) adolescence. The question I find myself asking is this: Do the benefits of the education my kids are receiving outweigh the costs to their mental health and well-being?

A pair of American studies that caught my eye a couple of years ago, and which I recently stumbled on again, suggest that the answer to this question may be “no.” The first is entitled “Hazardous Homework? The Relationship Between Homework, Goal Orientation, and Well-Being in Adolescence,” by Mollie K. Galloway and Denise Pope, from Lewis and Clark College and Stanford University, respectively. The second study, by the same research group, is called “Nonacademic Effects of Homework in Privileged, High-Performing High Schools.” Both are empirical studies consisting of large-scale surveys of kids’ attitudes towards and experience of homework. The authors claim that their research aims to redress a perceived lack of student voice on an issue that affects students directly. Though the studies have slightly different emphases and scopes, their findings are similar and can be summed up by the following points:
  • Students in middle and upper-middle class high schools have too much homework—an average of 3 hours a night, with many doing 7 hours per night or more.
  • Homework adversely affects teenagers’ physical and mental well-being; effects include insomnia, headaches, weight gain or loss, exhaustion, performance anxiety and excessive worrying.
  • Students in Grade 11 have the most homework and report the most distress from their homework load, possibly because (in the US) it is the year of SATs and ACTs.
  • Time spent on homework is positively correlated with higher grades, since homework is often graded, but not with “learning” or “enjoyment.”
  • A significant majority of students surveyed said that they had dropped an extracurricular activity that they enjoyed, due to too much homework.
The researchers draw a variety of conclusions from their work—including the insight that the collected data belie the commonplace notion that “homework is inherently good”— and call for more research into the relationship between homework load and student well-being.

For me, the first question the studies raise is, do the American data reflect the Canadian experience? It’s difficult to answer this question with any accuracy because comparable Canadian studies do not exist. The closest is an Ontario-focussed 2008 study out of OISE that surveyed parents’ views on the issue of homework, but did not consult students directly. The results of this survey suggest that parents in the demographic most heavily represented in the study—middle class parents with incomes between $100,000 and $200,000 per year—believe their kids have too much homework; according to the data collected from parents in the OISE study, students in Grade 12 have the most homework, followed by students in Grade 11. At all grades, parents report, conflicts arising from homework negatively affect home life. A census conducted by the Toronto District School Board in 2011 also uncovered high levels of student anxiety over school work, but questions were worded in such a way that homework worries could not easily be isolated from general worries about school and life.

“Harder” statistics on homework in this country are few and far between and can be confusing to parents. For instance, an OECD report, drawing on data from the 2012 PISA results, states that Canadian 10th graders spend an average of 5.5 hours on homework per week, a statistic that does not jibe with what I have experienced as a parent of high-schoolers who average two or more hours of homework per night. My experience, and that of other parents I know, is more in line with the results of the OISE study, which documented the ways in which heavy homework loads place undue stress on kids and families.

An explanation of the discrepancy between the OISE study and the OECD statistics can be found in the OECD report itself, whose purpose is to answer the question posed in its title, “Does homework perpetuate inequities in education?” The report shows that in every participating country, advantaged students spend more time on homework than disadvantaged students—in countries, like Canada and the US, significantly more time. So the Canadian average of 5.5 hours per week does not capture the reality of students attending schools in advantaged communities (whether the students themselves come from socio-economically privileged homes or not). The authors of the OECD report argue that time spent on homework is positively correlated with results on international tests like PISA; they conclude therefore that measures should be taken to reduce the disparities in homework loads. However, many homework researchers—Alfie Kohn, for instance—have pointed out that the correlations between homework and achievement are weak, that they hold only for older students, mostly for math homework, and only when the homework is not too burdensome. Even the OECD report notes that “evidence from PISA 2009 suggests that after around four hours of homework per week, the additional time invested in homework has a negligible impact on performance.”

Which leads me to a second question that the studies on homework stress raise: given the consensus among both detractors and advocates of homework that more is not better, and given the mounting evidence—explicit in the US studies and implicit in Canadian research—of the deleterious effects of heavy homework loads, why does excessive homework still seem to be the default at middle-class and upper-middle-class North American high schools? Why is it that homework policies (such as the Toronto District School Boards) designed to rein in homework are routinely violated or simply ignored? A charitable answer might be that, while research on homework and achievement is abundant, research on the link between homework and student well-being is relatively new and, in Canada, difficult to find. The less charitable but more plausible answer is that school boards and administrators are aware of the studies on the harmful effects of homework but have chosen to ignore them. For, despite the lip service paid in recent years to issues of student mental health, there has been a conspicuous unwillingness on the part of ministries and school boards to confront the source of much student distress: school itself. Rather than considering the ways in which overstuffed curricula and ingrained pedagogies can overburden students with the sheer quantity of work, while often leaving them under-challenged intellectually (qualitatively), many policy makers and administrators have jumped on band-aid bandwagons such as mindfulness, thereby restricting the discussion to individual, versus systemic or institutional, problems and solutions.

But the American studies also lead me to believe that there is more to the endurance of the homework status quo than simple laziness or head-in-the-sand avoidance on the part of educators. Galloway, Conner and Pope explain their focus on “privileged, high-performing” high schools by observing that it is in these educational communities that the “accepted value of homework appears to be entrenched.” This observation reflects and to some extent explains the OECD statistics on class-based disparities in homework loads. But while the OECD report implies that such disparities are an unfortunate side effect of our socio-economic and education systems, the American researchers offer a deeper, more troubling explanation. In their analysis, unequal homework is not merely an epiphenomenon of socio-economic inequity, but one of its key drivers. They note that homework is itself a socio-economic sorting mechanism: since it is primarily in privileged homes that there are supports available to allow students to survive excessive homework, heavy workloads act as a leg up to the advantaged, while further disadvantaging the disadvantaged. In other words, students who can handle the homework are going to do better in school than those who, for reasons beyond their control, cannot. 

Beyond the immediate context of high school, the authors argue that training in the ability to spend long hours on work of dubious inherent value constitutes another advantage for students seeking to “advance in a competitive, achievement-focused society.” So if, as the authors imply, and as the OECD statistics confirm, homework loads are significantly lighter in less privileged communities, then students in those communities are being denied the competitive advantages that experience with heavy loads confers. The authors suggest that it is privileged parents’ tacit understanding of the ways in which homework advantages their children that renders many of them complicit in maintaining the homework status-quo, despite its cost to student well-being.

But what about the parent who thinks the costs of excessive homework are too high, the parent who would rather that homework not be used as a means of reproducing privilege, even if that privilege is his or her own? What is such a parent to do? For my part, I plan to talk to my kids about the research on the links between homework and well-being, including the fact that Grades 11 and 12 are particularly “hazardous” years in this regard. I will suggest that they do as much homework as seems reasonable to them, and I will advise them not to worry excessively about getting into the “right” university or about losing out on vaguely envisioned longer-term advantages. Such advantages may or may not devolve to them as members of a relatively privileged community. The advantages of less stress and more enjoyment in the here and now are much more tangible.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Too Much Homework, Part 3

It's "summative" season at my kids' school—the period between March break and final exams when teachers assign labour-intensive final projects that count for a substantial chunk of the final grade. These projects are all due around the same time—because we wouldn't want kids to enjoy the warmer weather too much! A perfect time, then, for me to resume the sorry saga of my family's fight against excessive homework. 

Sadly, there's not much to report in the way of progress since I posted Part 2. The vice-principal with whom we had the "heated" telephone meeting about homework (see Part 1) has left the school—not because of us, we've been reassured! We were disappointed to lose our one contact person within the administration—unlike the principal and guidance counsellors, he actually answered our emails—but the truth is, his departure had little effect on our ongoing battle against homework. Well before we learned of his transfer, we had concluded that pursuing the matter further with him would be futile. Over the course of several meetings, starting with an initial in-person meeting during our kids' first term at the school, we'd come to the realization that although the VP would often make the right noises about the need to educate teachers about the homework policy and rein in those who continued to ignore it, the reassuring noises did not—and likely would never—translate into action. Change was not going to come from him nor, it seemed, from anyone in the administration.

So we decided to take a different tack. We wrote to our newly elected school trustee and explained our situation, outlining the steps we had taken thus far to address the problem of the school's non-compliance with the homework policy. Specifically, we asked her if she could help us get answers to the following questions:
1. Does the TDSB have a homework working group that is tasked with evaluating and revisiting both the issue of homework and its own policy? 
2. Does the TDSB have a mechanism in place to verify that its homework policy is in fact being adhered to at individual schools?
3. What recourse do students and parents have when they believe (or indeed have evidence) that the homework policy is not being adhered to at a specific school.  
The trustee responded quickly. She seemed interested in the issue and promised to try to get answers to our questions. Since she was a rookie trustee, she forwarded our questions to the area superintendent who, she hoped, would be better informed than she, and able to answer our questions. Not long afterwards, our trustee forwarded the superintendent's response.

To the first question, regarding whether the TDSB has a working group or committee looking at homework and its own policy, the answer was a depressingly simple no. We were disappointed by this answer but not surprised: since 2008, when the new policy came into effect, homework seems to have fallen off the board's radar. It's as if the thinking is that the problem of homework was solved in 2008, and there's no need to revisit the issue. Of course a policy is only as good as its implementation and enforcement, but individual schools' non-adherence does not seem to worry the board, as the superintendent's response to our second question makes clear:
We do not have one mechanism to verify that the policy is being adhered to.  But we rather we have a multi-pronged approach.  Important policies are noted on Principal checklist that is available to principals for the year (Homework is one of them) of which we recommend they review themselves and with staff. . . . One of the things that very clearly came out of community consultation in 2008 was the feeling from parents that although the Homework Policy is important that it is also important for local school needs to be considered and that communication and collaboration between principal, teachers and parents was an important component of successful implementation.  I do receive calls (approximately 5-6 a year) with concerns about the policy not being followed in a particular school.  My recommendation is always to speak with teacher, if concerns continue speak with principal...  [emphasis added]
What's interesting about this response is the implication (in the sentence I've italicized) that the policy is flexible, and that "local school needs" may affect its implementation or mitigate its effects. The reason I find this interesting is that five years ago, when I wrote a long post about the TDSB homework policy for Sara Bennett's homework site, I interviewed our superintendent and trustee at the time, as well as the principal at our kids' elementary school. It was made clear to me then that the policy, while not exactly binding in any legal sense, was not optional either. The point of the policy was to reduce homework loads to manageable, developmentally appropriate levels across all grades.

Also somewhat disappointing is the superintendent's answer to my (third) question regarding the recourse available to students and parents who believe that the homework policy is not being adhered to. He wrote:
Follow up with school.  Would recommend teacher first.  Depending on age of student they could begin by advocating for themselves, then parent to teacher and principal as needed in order to support student wellness and student learning needs.
But my letter to the trustee (which she had forwarded to the superintendent) made it clear that we had already followed up with the school, to no avail. I wrote back to the trustee clarifying our question number 3: "What we meant to ask was what recourse is available to parents and students after it has been determined that the school is both not adhering to the homework policy and not responding satisfactorily to parents' and students' concerns about excessive homework." We received no response to this email.

To be fair, mere hours after we sent that final letter, all hell broke loose at the TDSB—the damning report by Margaret Wilson was released, and the board entered into crisis mode. I suppose the next step would have been to contact the superintendent directly, but we chose not to attempt further communication until the crisis at the TDSB blew over. Instead, we decided to try yet another tack.

Our daughters' school had recently convened a "Mental Health Team" in accordance with the TDSB's Years of Action, 2013–2017 Plan. According to the information sheet available on the school's website, the team, composed of "students, parents, teachers, community partners and the principal," is responsible for "facilitating student mental health and well-being" at the school. A lofty aim, my husband and I thought, and when we learned that the team was meeting monthly, we asked the vice-principal (just before he left the school) to put us in touch with the parents on the team. Our intention was to bring the issue of homework to the attention of the mental health team; our hope was that we could convince the team's members that one relatively straightforward way to reduce student stress would be to reduce homework to levels consistent with the TDSB homework policy. The VP informed us that the parent representative on the mental health team was one of the co-chairs of the school council. He gave us the appropriate email, and we wrote a letter asking whether the issue of homework fell within the mental health committee's mandate, or if it did not, whether we could attend a meeting to discuss ways to incorporate it into the discussion. The response to this email to date: crickets.

I'm surprised that the school council co-chairs thought it acceptable to ignore a letter from a fellow parent. But I'm not surprised that the mental health team might not be receptive to our proposed input. Homework is clearly the elephant in the room of recent initiatives concerning student mental health. It's far easier, from the school's perspective, to individualize stress and other mental health difficulties than to regard them as systemic problems tied to a school culture of overwork.

I've written a follow-up note to the school council member, reiterating my questions and asking to be put in touch with someone willing to answer them. But, frankly, my expectations for a response are low, and I confess that my energy for the homework battle is flagging. At this point in the year, during "summative season," my goal is simply to help my kids get through the year with their mental health intact. "Getting through school" has become my daughters' goal as well, which says something about what stress and overwork can do to kids' motivation and attitudes towards learning. What it says is not good.

Sunday, March 1, 2015


I've heard talk of the "pearl-clutchers" who object to the sex-ed portion of the new Ontario Health and Physical Education curriculum, but I've never met any. My suspicion is that, apart from a handful of people belonging to fringe religious groups (such as the small group that gathered to protest at Queen's Park on last Tuesday), no one really objects to this update. Why? Maybe because contrary to what many of the media stories on the new curriculum would have us believe, this is an extremely tame sex-ed program. In fact it's not about sex at all.

As I tweeted on the day the curriculum was released:

It's not just orgasms that are MIA; pleasure in general gets short shrift, though at least the concept is mentioned—eight times in the 2015 release, up from five in the 2010 version. And, yes, there are those "shocking" references to wet dreams, vaginal lubrication and masturbation in Grade 6, but since these topics are mentioned (once each) in the optional teacher prompts, the likelihood of them making their way into actual classroom teaching or discussion is slim. By contrast, teaching about abstinence or delaying sexual activity (eleven mentions) is not optional: it is clearly a part of the curriculum that is expected to be taught—in fact, it is listed as one of the "key topics" for Grades 7 and 8. STIs are another key topic for these grades. There is a lot of information about STIs in this curriculum, as of course there should be, but as I said in my tweet, the balance between "scary" and "fun" topics may strike some as skewed.

Or rather it would be askew if this were a sex-ed curriculum: that is, a curriculum about sex and sexuality. It is not. The Human Development and Sexual Health portion of the Health and Physical Education curriculum is in fact a harm-prevention program whose aim is to educate kids about the possible dangers they may encounter as they grow into sexual beings. That is precisely how the government has framed the new curriculum in their parent guides and news conferences, and most of its "controversial" parts can be explained in light of this aim. Education minister Liz Sandals has pointed out, for instance, that young kids need to know the proper names of body parts so they can communicate with family members and police if they are being abused. Older kids need to be aware of anal and oral sex in the context of STIs, since rates of teen pregnancy in Ontario have dropped while STI rates have risen—the reason being, according to Sandals, that teens are engaging in pregnancy-avoidant sexual behaviour, unaware that alternative acts carry other risks. The new lessons about online behaviour and sexting are safety-focussed in obvious ways, as are the anti-bullying sections, the LGBTQ sections, and the new additions about consent.

All of these new emphases are welcome, and they all make sense given the government's explicit goal of keeping kids safe and healthy. One would be hard pressed to object to a program that furthers such a goal. Which is why, as I mentioned at the beginning of this post, so few people oppose the new curriculum. Progressive parents and educators, and organizations such as Planned Parenthood support it, but so too do well-known conservative pundits and columnists, such as Margaret Wente and Michael Coren. (See also this thoughtful post by a Baptist pastor from Eganville, Ontario. )

I'm happy that there is wide support for this curriculum and that it will finally be implemented in September of 2015. Kids need sexual harm-prevention education. But they also need sex education. As I said in my post on the 2010 version of the curriculum,
The pornographic rival has not gone away. And progressive sex education for Ontario kids is still lacking.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Too Much F***ing Homework, Part 2

Four days after our unsatisfactory telephone meeting with the vice-principal, we received an email from him. He had spoken to the history teachers as well as the head of the history department, and he wanted to enlighten us as to the "facts" of the multi-step project to which we had objected. Clearly he felt that our daughters had given us misinformation rather than facts. The facts, he informed us, were straightforward: the project was assigned on December 12—well before the Christmas break (although the last day of school was December 19); the kids were given three sessions in the library to work on it (two before the break and one after); and the librarian had told the students during the first library session that the notes were due the week after Christmas break (something both daughters, who are in different history classes, refute). The underlying message of the email seemed to be that our daughters were liars or slackers or both, and that any reasonable child would have been able to complete the project (over the holidays?) without undue stress.

Had he chosen to speak to any of the students in, for instance, my daughter E's class, he would have learned that the first library session was taken up with a lesson on "how to take notes," that during the second one, the computers were down (so the research session was cancelled), and during the third one, the computers were so slow that it was impossible to conduct research efficiently. Leaving aside for a moment the question of the many ways in which technology (for which the infrastructure is still mostly inadequate or unreliable) often renders school assignments more unwieldy and time-consuming than low-tech equivalents, such as, say, a persuasive essay about a topic discussed in class—leaving aside that important question for the moment, it is clear that this particular multi-step history project was not a project for which enough class or library time was allotted, nor was it designed as an in-school project, as E's teacher's admonishment that kids had better work on it over the holidays (contra the homework policy) makes clear. On paper, it may appear reasonable and doable (though even that is disputable), but the reality for the students actually carrying out the assignment is quite different; "evidence" collected solely from the teachers who designed and assigned the project cannot be expected to reflect that (student) reality.

The vice-principal's email made it clear that he was interested primarily in defending the school's practices, rather than resolving the persistent problem of teachers' collectively assigning homework that far exceeds the limits set forth in the Toronto District School Board's homework policy.

My husband and I  decided, in light of the VP's follow-up email, that tackling the problem by means of reasonable—or unreasonable, expletive-laden—discussion with the school's administration was going to prove futile. After considering possible next steps, we decided to to approach our local trustee first and the school's own Mental Health and Well-Being committee second. Stay tuned.