Sunday, January 18, 2015

There’s Too Much F***ing Homework, Part 1

It’s been a tough couple of weeks in our household. As usual, the source of the stress is school. At this time of year, when teachers are under pressure to submit grades for the second report card, stress flows abundantly and continuously from the high school into the home. The result is tears (on the kids’ part), yelling (on everybody’s part), and swearing (on a certain adult’s part). The swearing occurred during a telephone meeting involving my husband, the vice-principal of my daughters’ school, and me.

The meeting began courteously enough, with me enumerating the ways in which we thought the girls’ workload in the two weeks following Christmas break was not only unreasonable and developmentally-inappropriate, but also contrary to both the letter and the spirit of the Toronto District School Board’s homework policy. This policy, about which I've written and tweeted at length (see this post), stipulates that “homework assignments for students in Grades 9 to 12 shall be clearly articulated and carefully planned with an estimated completion time of two hours or less.” It also states that “no homework shall be assigned on scheduled holidays as outlined in the school year calendar or on days of significance.” Elsewhere, the policy emphasizes the importance of teachers’ spacing assignments in consultation with one another. (Read the entire document here.) 

As we explained to the vice-principal during our meeting, the girls both had multiple projects, tests and assignments due in the first two weeks after the Christmas break. (One daughter had to deliver a speech on the same day that two major projects were due.) Both girls were staying up until midnight every night, scrambling to complete the work, and both were anxious and miserable as a result. We asked the vice-principal how the bunching together of so many due dates was in compliance with the homework policy. We also questioned why teachers were allowed to assign projects in the few days before the holidays began that were due in the first or second week following the break. Was this not a violation of the homework policy’s position on holiday homework?

The vice-principal’s response to our questions was dispiriting. He argued that the clustering of due dates was okay if the kids had been given enough lead time for each assignment. And the homework wasn’t holiday homework if it had been assigned two weeks before the holidays. We pointed out that the most significant and time-consuming of the projects—a multi-step history project, with a separate due date for several pages of references and notes,* as well as a multi-media component—was assigned just six school days before the break, at a time when students were scrambling to complete all the pre-Christmas break projects. The vice-principal countered that all of the requirements of the history project were outlined in the assignment handout and in the rubric, as if the very fact that it was written down negated the possibility of its being too much work for the time allotted to it. We pointed out that kids are not expected to work on school work over the holidays, yet our daughter’s history teacher explicitly warned the students that if they wanted to do well, they would have to work on their projects over the holidays. We noted that if our daughters restricted their homework time to two hours per night and did not work over the holidays—in other words, if they followed the board’s homework policy—they would not be able to complete their projects. In general, we said, if they were to follow the homework policy, they would most likely receive grades in the 50-60% range in all of their subjects. 

None of what we were saying seemed to register with the vice-principal. He kept repeating that the students were given ample time for the projects and that all the requirements were laid out in the rubrics, and when my husband said that the rubrics were irrelevant and that our daughters had not in fact been given ample time to complete the projects unless the holidays were counted as work time, the VP asked, “have they been ill?” At that point my husband snapped. “No! There’s too much fucking homework!” He slammed the phone down.

I immediately apologized for my husband’s outburst. I did say, however, that I thought what he (the vice-principal) had just heard was a parent’s frustration over the school’s unwillingness to entertain the possibility that there could ever be too much homework, or that homework stress might not be simply an individual student's problem—that it might be, rather, a systemic problem stemming from a persistently unreasonable workload. I wanted to get off the phone myself at this point (I actually wouldn’t have minded slamming it down, as well), so I ended by asking what our recourse was, if we felt that teachers were not adhering to the homework policy. We could talk to the teacher, he said (a course of action that he knew had already proved fruitless), or to him.

*We enquired as to the pedagogical value of having kids hand in notes, since (as Chris Liebig noted in a tweet) the only valid criterion by which notes can be judged is the quality of the product they help produce. The vice-principal first said students were to hand in the notes so as to receive “feedback” on their research. Why were the notes being marked, then, we asked, if the purpose was merely feedback. The vice-principal told us that he thought the notes weren’t being marked, but later confirmed in an email what we already knew, that the notes were indeed being marked, and that they would not be handed back before the bulk of the project was due. So much for feedback. The lengthy and detailed notes being due several days before the rest of the assignment meant that this particular project was, in fact, two projects disguised as one.