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Stressing Out our Children

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I have a dear 17-year-old friend named Rachel. She is a delight; intelligent, articulate, motivated, kind, funny. We can have conversations about literature, morality, God, and just plain life. She's in the youth program that I run at church.

But right now Rachel is completely stressed, and it's all because of a magazine.

You see, in her senior philosophy class, she has an assignment whereby she has to create a 20-page magazine using a computer software no one has taught them how to use. The magazine must portray a philosophical theme. It must contain a table of contents, several advertisements, and several different types of articles (how-to, interview, essay, fiction).

That may not sound like much, but she showed me the prototype yesterday in church and I just gulped. They want it to look like a magazine--complete with graphics, photographs, appropriate fonts, etc. etc. And it's 20 freaking pages.

Here's my question: what is the educational value of this assignment? It's a philosophy class. I can understand the teacher wanting to see if they can carry a theme over into different types of articles and ads, but then ask them to just write the articles, and do some sample ads. Why set it up as a magazine? It is not, after all, an art class or a computer graphics class.

Rachel is trying to keep her average in the mid-90s to get scholarships to universities next year. So she is putting a ton of work into this magazine, so much so that it is all she has talked about in over a month, despite the fact that she has other work. Think about real magazine editors; they work full-time to create such a magazine. Rachel is supposed to do one for homework over the course of a month.

How is she supposed to get it done? And done to her standards (she never does things halfway).

It reminds me of the time that my oldest daughter took a grade 9 French class online through our Board of Education (we homeschool, so it was her first exposure to public schooling). One of her first assignments was to create a poster, complete with graphics, that explained ten things about her. She had to write sentences (like I have one sister, or I do not have any pets), but then she needed to put pictures with the sentences and make it interesting to look at.

She spent hours on this assignment, getting the right graphics and creating a poster. But what did searching out graphics on the internet have to do with a French class? She wrote the sentences in 5 minutes flat. She didn't learn any extra French using Flickr Creative Commons to find the right pictures. It was a make work project.

I think often teachers assign these sorts of things because they think it will make them more interesting, but all it does is add hours to homework assignments for little benefit. I have no problem with creating nice graphics, by the way--but those were not the learning objectives for the course. And in Rachel's case, the learning objectives included understanding basic tenets of philosophy, not spending a ton of time understanding how to use the professional version of Adobe Publisher, or whatever it's called.

The high school students I know seem to fall into two camps: the ones who do the minimum amount of work, and still pull off 75-80, and the ones who are up until 2 every morning trying to finish their entire assignment, and pull off 92s and 93s. The amount of work you have to put in to get a 93 instead of an 80 is insane. And it doesn't teach you anything more about the subject matter.

It doesn't begin in high school, either. I have spoken to kids in middle school and below who also had ridiculous assignments, involving copious amounts of glue and magazines and scissors and other things that did nothing to teach you the subject matter. I remember one child who had to present the multiplication tables in a 12-page booklet, teaching them 12 different ways. I have no problem with that; so far so good. But they also had to use 12 different art mediums, and they had to use different fonts and different looks for each page.

Why not just spend a few hours forcing the children to actually memorize their times tables (this child didn't know them by heart, and this exercise wasn't helping). We spent far less time on multiplication than this child did, but my kids can rattle off 32 * 64 or 78 * 12 pretty easily, because they learned the basics first and can do it in their heads easily. And they didn't learn it by creating booklets with glue. They learned it through tons of timed drills.

And so I repeat: what is the point of all of this homework? If it has an educational value, with a learning outcome attached, I am fine with it. But so much of it seems like a make work project to keep the kids busy, rather than actually showing that they have mastered something significant.

I have no problem with art, by the way; what I do have a problem with is insisting that children create something visually appealing in a class that has nothing to do with that.

Our kids have too much homework, in the sense that they have too many ridiculous assignments. If they were bringing home book reports and essays and creative writing assignments and history timelines and maps to fill in, I'd be okay with it. But too much of what they do doesn't teach the content area anyway; it just keeps them busy and--most importantly--it steals family time.

My friend Rachel has other things she'd like to do this year. She wants to work more to earn money for university, but she doesn't have time. She'd like to socialize a bit more (she hardly has any time for that). She'd like to make it out to youth group more. She'd like to be on the rugby team, or some other sports teams. But there simply is no time.

Why are we stealing the life of 17-year-old kids with ridiculous assignments? High school should not be only about work; it should be about preparing kids for life, which includes having an active volunteer life at church, earning money, saving money, negotiating and navigating relationships, getting exercise, and spending time with family.

I hope that her teacher reads this and apologizes, because she could really use an apology right now.

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At 8:50 AM , Anonymous Carol Harrison said…

Good post Sheila and unfortunately it seems to hit the nail on the head in too many cases. I have my B.Ed. and as a former teacher I agree with you 100%. As a grandmother who sees some of her grandchildren ( not in high school yet) being given assignments that are good learning tools but then having the presentation become another assignment in itself that has nothing to do with that course's learning I see the stress it creates not only in the children but their parents who at the younger ages must help them. These parents also have busy lives and more than one child to help with their homework and monitor what they are learning incidentally as they must search the web for graphics and information. Teachers need to be responsible to make the assignments fit the goals of the courses they are teaching no matter what age the student is. Why add unnecessary stress. It's time to go back to the basics - ie memorize those times tables instead of trying to get all "fancy" with new math. Teach creative writing but not force the use of untaught computer programs to provide a "finished product" and so on. I hope teachers read this and begin to reevaluate the assignments they are giving and why they are giving them. Objectives need to be clearly defined and assignments and marks based accordingly.


At 9:48 AM , Blogger Katy-Anne said…

I don't see the problem with incorporating aspects of things you are learning in other classes in with assignments for a certain class. After all, that is much closer to reality than just writing a paper. The facts of life are that articles go in a magazine, and so it is beneficial to learn about both.

This really sounds like another one of those posts where home schoolers try to show how much better they think they are. Do you really keep all of your subjects in neat little boxes? I mean, sometimes a kid has to write (that's English) a paper for geography. What does writing have to do with geography?

Projects like these that people put time into are very useful and productive.


At 10:20 AM , Anonymous gradchica said…

Katy-Ann, Yes, I think bringing different skills together in one assignment can be useful. However, teachers should be realistic about how long it will take students to do an assignment and to realize that they have homework for their other classes as well. Imagine if all 7 or 8 of this girl's HS classes had given similar assignments at the same time! As a highschooler and in college, I hated assignments that seemed too "arts and craftsy" for me--why did I need to make a poster, cut things out and glue them together, when I could just spend my time writing and researching the actual content?


At 10:36 AM , Blogger Tina Hollenbeck said…

As a former classroom teacher myself, Sheila, I whole-heartedly agree with you. I often gave big projects as assignments - but 1.) I made sure they fit learning goals; 2.) had a variety of project options using different multiple intelligences (so the heavily "logic smart" child didn't have to do artwork!); and 3.) (maybe most importantly) organized my class so that most of the work occurred during our class time. I did that by implementing a workshop format - much to the confusion and derision of my colleagues, but I didn't care because it was right for the kids. Thus, the kids would come into their two-hour language arts block with me and get to work on either their reading or writing - their choice. They had guidelines for what types of things to write, but there was much freedom...because the goal was to improve their composition skills. WIth a few limitations, each student chose his/her own books to read, kept a reading journal, and then created a project afterwards to show comprehension, etc. The motivated kids took some of the reading and writing home because they wanted the top grades, but a child could work hard in class alone and still accomplish that. And, BTW, that was middle school and high school, and I wouldn't change a thing about what I did. My kids learned much and were thankful for one teacher who wasn't "piling on" busywork. And I didn't give a hoot what any colleagues said or thought. :^)


At 11:18 AM , Blogger Sheila said…

Thank you for the teachers who agreed with me! I wish you were teaching Rachel.

And Katy-Anne, I don't know why you're so negative whenever I write an education post. I really do care about these kids; I'm not writing to say that homeschooling is superior.

Since you asked, though, let me respond. There is absolutely nothing wrong with assignments that take in more than one subject. In fact, that's one of the beauties of homeschooling--we can combine art and history, for instance.

But in a public school they don't because they take 8 separate subjects in high school. If a high school English teacher decides to make their assignment half about art, but the art teacher is still assigning a ton of art homework, how is that helping? Traditional school is not set up to do assignments that cross subject lines unless all teachers agree--and they don't.

What happens instead is that each teacher assigns a huge amount of work, and it's virtually impossible to get it done well because it encompasses so much more than the one discipline that that class is supposed to teach.

If schools want to combine subjects and teach them combined, that's fine. But don't assign homework that combines subjects in each class, or you're just loading way too much on to a student.

And Katy-Ann, you seem to be presenting the impression whenever I write about education that I'm not allowed to say anything because I homeschool. What am I supposed to do, then, when I see kids I'm worried about? Simply not post on that topic because I'm not allowed? That's just a weird attitude, if you ask me.

Education is something I have thought a bunch about and have taken post-secondary courses in. I've also read a ton of philosophy of education books. I think I"m entitled to post on it if I want to.


At 12:51 PM , Blogger Karen said…

I really enjoyed this post. As a student, I wholeheartedly agree that teachers (even college professors) can assign asinine assignments that are a total time-suck.

I did want to mention, however, as a chemistry instructor, that sometimes it is important to combine disciplines. In chemistry, for example, students are expected to build content knowledge of the subject, but also to be able to manipulate variables in mathematical functions, and to be able to communicate findings effectively through lab reports. Students who take math classes don't always understand how they will use this knowledge, and I think that explicitly addressing these subjects in other classes to show how disciplines are inter-related is a great way to motivate students.

Additionally, although I don't agree with making students work on assignments that focus on formatting or aesthetic aspects(as in the case of your daughter's assignment), I do believe that it can be beneficial to branch out and have students work on projects that are not immediately related to the subject that they are studying. For example, I teach a supplemental instruction course for general chemistry students in college. This last semester I had my students give short presentations on a variety of topics related to the course. They demonstrated a reasonable understanding of the chemistry content, but their presentation skills were DEPLORABLE! And these were students in college! I intend to give my students another opportunity next semester to give presentations, if only to build some decent communication skills.

I think that overall, educators need to give greater consideration to the skills that they are trying to instill in their students. Through greater reflection on homework assignments (as well as what happens in the classroom), we can make students into more productive, motivated learners.


At 1:12 PM , Blogger Sheila said…


Thanks for your comments! I would agree that math & chemistry go together; I would have no problem combining them because both skills are important, and indeed you can't really do chemistry without some math.

I also like what you said about presentation skills: I think those are a vital part of education. But the thing about an oral presentation is that it doesn't really take a whole lot of extra time. You still have to write the report and figure out what you're going to say. It may add stress because you have to deliver the presentation, but it's not adding twenty hours to the original assignment or something.

So I think we're in agreement on this one! I do want to put a caveat here, too, about aesthetics: I do think it's important that students learn how to create a report that is neat, easily readable, easily scannable, and helpful. They should be able to create an essay, a memo, a briefing note, or all kinds of different written forms of work which would be different from each other. They should know how to format such stuff, because so much of the work world is about creating such presentations.

But knowing how to put a PowerPoint presentation together or knowing how to write a memo is an entirely different thing than creating something with graphics and pictures for no obvious reason. So I'm not against aesthetics per se; I'm against assignments that are too big to be completed well, and which don't teach important skills related to that field.


At 6:54 PM , Blogger Pickle said…

I've been out of school for 10 years now, and I voluntarily dropped out and took my GED because of things like this. I once had a teacher that told me if he had to send us home with homework, then he wasn't doing his job teaching us in class.

While I do understand taking home projects, this one seems to be extreme. She is not in an art class or a photo class. The extra 10 miles that is expected for this project is a waste of time and is in fact stealing from your family.

This is only one of the many reasons we have opted to home school. My son is only 4 and his last month of pre-school is January as I have been blessed with the opportunity to work from home now.

I think high school is becoming such a large strain on our kids that is easy to see why they may start thinking about alternative options. As a mother, wife, and full time employee, I have more time than I ever did in high school.


At 8:16 PM , Blogger Sheila said…

Pickle--isn't that a telling statement: you have more time now than you did then. I sometimes feel that way, too!


At 11:31 PM , Blogger Jennifer said…

The project still seems amazing and will teach her quite a bit. In most jobs to have to be versatile. It would be great if she got credit for multiple subjects for the one project like homeschoolers do and that other subjects took into consideration the project being done.

I also like the comment about actually learning the material for the class that the project was for - especially the 12xs tables booklet! What good is the art project that mom and dad had to spend hours helping with if they still don't know their times tables.

I hope she can come up with some great philosophical articles to include in her magazine about this project and the practical influences. Maybe something about teens not spending enough time with family or community service because of projects like this! LOL! OR an article about how teens should spend time working to help their families.

Hopefully this project will help her get a job in the future - if she does not ruin her other grades in the process.


At 7:57 AM , Blogger Matthew Rathbun said…

I think today's High School children can use a little stressing out... Everyone says that children coming out of high school aren't prepared for the business world, and I agree.

The number of children who have created online content (YouTube videos, blog posts, etc...) is very, very high. Teacher seems to basking the children to incorporate the tools they have learned in varied classes to create a class project. Would your friend be as stressed out if she were creating a YouTube video for fun? Nope, probably not because SHE though it was fun, not because of the work.

I work with a lot of folks in my industry who ask for projects like this to be done and they don't care if you've used the software before. They expect that you would learn it. The problem is that most people in todays' business arena are Digital Natives and have no idea how to learn to produce content.

I'm actually glad to hear that a teacher is prompting her students to create, expand their focus and engage a project. That's real life... that's what I'd like to see the High Schools do. Education should be directed at functioning in a real job.

If your friend decides she doesn't like projects like this, than there is the added learning benefit of knowing that she shouldn't pursue a career that has performance elements of creating content and media projects.


At 4:17 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said…

The teacher was probably trying to make the assignment more interesting and fun for the students while underestimating the amount of work the better students would put into it.

If your friend is finding her homework is really consuming her life, perhaps she should consider dropping some of her more advanced classes. Sometimes good students get too caught up in doing everything.
Nurse Bee


At 5:42 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said…

I think you may find that the curriculum for the course actually has a cross-curriculum perspective to it, and rather than break it up the teacher has rushed through a cross-curriculum activity in one assessment task. It's not the teacher's fault perse, it's more to do with the curriculum - it's usually far too overbooked with detail expected to be learnt in university rather than realising that teenagers are just that - teenagers. They *need* their sleep, they *need* a social life, they *need* their family. In reality the blame lies with paper pushers in school boards and political offices who interfere far too easily and create further problems for teachers who truly care for the well being of their students. I think if you were to discuss this with teachers you'd find that we're all under the thumb of a higher authority within the system and sometimes pushed to the wall and forced to create ridiculous assessment tasks like the one your poor friend is enduring. I wish her well however, maybe she'll be able to use this at university and be part of the school paper (if it hasn't turned her off any form of media studies in the meantime).


At 12:46 PM , Blogger Carla Anne Coroy said…

I agree with Sheila. I've read the comments and I'm particularly disturbed by those who think it is okay to expect a high school student who is still learning how to learn, how to assimilate that information, and how it will make a difference in their futures to do the same thing that might be expected of them in a full-time job after high school. The point of school is that they are learning.

Expecting high school kids (or middle school for that matter) to do what would be expected in a career is expecting too much. What should be happening in school is a coordination between the different teachers and courses to TEACH the kids the skills they will need to learn and use together in the 'real' world after graduation.

Karen mentioned her students did a deplorable job on their presentations in her chemistry class. That does not mean she should start teaching how to do presentations! What that means is there should be a class these kids can take that would teach them HOW. School is for learning how, so that they can DO when they get to the real world.


At 12:47 PM , Blogger Carla Anne Coroy said…

One of the frustrations I think Sheila is right about is that there is no time for kids to develop interests and hobbies in areas outside the academic world if they want good grades. For some it's hard to even find time to work a part-time job. And those things are just as important (if not more important) than endless busy-work assignments. Quite frankly, I'd rather hire a young person who has volunteered in her community and worked as an appreciated part-time employee at a local job than someone who did a great graphics presentation in chemistry. I'd want an employee who has interests and people skills that they just don't teach in school. School often robs kids of the valuable experiences they need to be successful in the real world - volunteering to find out what their strengths are, volunteering to practice getting along with co-workers, part-time jobs to learn how to balance work/life situations, etc.

Yes, chemistry students should learn how to do presentations. Yes, graphics are a great thing to learn so you can use them in your career. But those things need to be taught separately before they can be integrated into other courses. Otherwise it can't be called teaching. Teaching is doing that - teaching. Throwing our kids into the 'wild' of the unknown programs, expecting them to produce material in a form they have not been taught is NOT teaching. That, my friends, is foolishness.

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Name: Sheila

Home: Belleville, Ontario, Canada

About Me: I'm a Christian author of a bunch of books, and a frequent speaker to women's groups and marriage conferences. Best of all, I love homeschooling my daughters, Rebecca and Katie. And I love to knit. Preferably simultaneously.

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