Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Pointless Homework of the Week

OK, this one is from Older Daughter's expensive private school, Friends Omphalos.

Journal due Tuesday

Write an open topic journal. Introduce yourself. Talk about goals for the year. What has interested you so far about social studies.

Here is what journals should be about.
1.) Your thoughts and reactions to things learned about in class or in doing homework.
2.) Your reactions to the class itself. How is the group working ... etc ...
3.) Anything that relates somehow to social studies. This is broad. Many, many things are related to social studies. Perhaps virtually everything is.

What your journal should not be is a diary. For instance, I do not need to know what are
[sic] for breakfast, whether or not you walked your dog this morning etc...

To add insult to injury, this assignment will be graded! What could possibly be the standards for grading this thing?

Here's our e-mail exchange so far: the first is from Yours Truly:

Mr. Pointless -- we have been trying to help Older Daughter with her Social Studies homework but we are completely baffled by the Journal assignment. Older Daughter can't think of anything to write because she can't figure out what the purpose is, and we can't figure it out either. What is she supposed to learn from this assignment?

Thank you.

Sincerely, FedUpMom.

And the reply, from the Obscure Desk of Mr. Pointless:

Hi FedUpMom,

I wish Older Daughter would come to me with her concern.

That said, the purpose is for kids to write for fluency and to consider items discussed in class, read or seen for homework, or to talk about items related to social studies. For instance, and I said this when explaining it in class, any current events issue or event relates to social studies. It is supposed to be wide ranging. It is how I get a sense of what kids are thinking about and their reactions to the class.

I would suggest Older Daughter
1) share her goals for the year.
2) Consider things talked about in social studies thus far... for instance would she like to live in 1900? Why or why not?
3) How does she feel about school, class, etc... For instance, she can clearly let me know that this assignment has troubled her. This would be a perfectly appropriate use of a journal.
4) Is there an issue or event in the world that she is worried about, happy about, interested in?

I will assign these journals regularly. I get to know what my students are thinking about.
I hope this is helpful.

Argh! These people drive me crazy! I hardly know where to start.


  1. My daughter had something like this in 9th grade. It was so laborious, she went from a phenomenal writer to a mediocre one in a heartbeat.

    Alarmed, we just told daughter to do what she could (I should have stopped it entirely) and not to worry. We encouraged her to continue writing her novel instead.

  2. Yes, the idea that writing is best taught in the absence of content is whackarooni to the extreme.

    The other point is that my daughter, as a normal teenage girl, doesn't want to share her thoughts and feelings with her teacher, and I don't see why she should.

    I'm thinking that every week Sainted Husband or I will teach OD about a little event from history, and she can write it up in her journal. At least she'll learn something.

  3. Ok the "I wish she came to me with her concerns herself" type comment is concerning right there. It's almost as though he is saying he wants zero parental involvement and that shy kids can just suffer.

  4. Happy Elf Mom, I always get that line, because teachers don't want to deal with me. They'd rather deal with a shy, powerless, adolescent girl than a fed up middle-aged Mom. However, they're out of luck.

  5. That line bothered me too. I'd want to respond, "Yeah, I wish she felt comfortable raising that concern with you too. Why do you suppose she doesn't?"

  6. That kind of homework would probably be one of the worst types of homework I could think of. If I wanted to share my opinion, I would (like I am now), but on most occasions I would be too shy to do so.

  7. Why would a teen/pre-teen girl feel comfortable sharing private thoughts or feelings with a middle-aged man that will judge her entries in a written diary?

    Was this man ever young?

  8. Absolutely. Those are the worst, most pointless assignments. I remember in my own junior year, we were required to keep a journal, which was graded. I knew from older students that our teacher liked to read extracts to the other teachers in the lounge. Of course, she was a piece of work in general, but still.

  9. It seems the teacher may have been trying to accommodate parents who bemoan a lack of freedom/creativity. The teacher may have been thinking "ok, I'll do an open ended assignment, so the kids can have choice, write about something they want to write about, and feel more involved in the work". I read often that parents are frustrated with the micro-managing of their children, and of the specificity of tasks that leave little room for personal preference. Yet when this is tried, it's now too vague.

    I'd honestly be interested to know what the sweet spot is between parents feeling that teachers dumb things down and micro-manage and kill creativity, and parents feeling like teachers are too vague and open ended and don't give specific enough direction. That is a sincere question. It just sometimes seems like teachers can't "win" with parents. I know teachers that work 70 hours a week on average, thoughtfully designing lesson plans and homework. And, no kidding, they get parents complaining on the one hand that they are too soft and don't give enough work, and parents complaining on the other that they are too hard and give too much work and need to back off. In the same year. In the same class. What are teachers supposed to do with these conflicting messages, when most of them genuinely want to help kids learn?

  10. Do it all in class! That way parents don't have to get worked up over the homework!

  11. I guess I'm failing to see what's so terrible about this assignment. The teacher is asking the kids to think about what they're learning in class and how it applies to them and current events. It may not encourage much content memorization, which I'm generally not a fan of for kids anyway, but it's asking teenagers to apply what they're learning to a bigger picture. What's so horrible about that?

    I enjoyed these kinds of assignments in school (well, as much as it was possible to enjoy homework), but I get that not everyone might. Still, I see value in it.

    For those of you who hate this, what sort of assignment do you think is appropriate for social studies?

  12. I've got an update -- Older Daughter talked to the teacher and then wrote a journal entry about why she's found Social Studies boring in the past, what history she'd like to study (for instance, the histories of countries we've visited), and history-related videos (e.g. "Horrible Histories") that she likes to watch.

    @Megan, the problem with the original assignment is that it was SO vague that Older Daughter got confused and couldn't think of anything to write. It was a little bit like saying, "write anything you want!" but the truth is that the kid didn't want to write anything in the first place.

    And the question the teacher really never answered was what the kids are supposed to learn from this exercise. That's what I'd like to know.

    I guess I'm turning into a complete curmudgeon, but I'd actually rather see "discuss the causes of WWI" or something. I could see the point, and I could see my kid is learning some history. If she writes 1 1/2 pages a week about her feelings, what exactly is she learning? It seems like there's no content, which is an ongoing problem with Social Studies.

  13. Anonymous: Sure, you can't please everyone. I don't think FedUpMom or any of us think that we're individually entitled to dictate what the teacher in any classroom should do. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't speak our minds, any more than we shouldn't complain to our Congressperson when we disagree with his or her votes. To the (admittedly small) extent that they have discretion over how to conduct the class, teachers are making educational policy decisions that affect our kids. It would be strange if people didn't speak up about it.

    So what do the teachers actually owe the parents? Not compliance with their every demand. But I do think they should at least think about whether the parents' arguments make sense. And I do think they should be willing to answer questions about why they've made the choices they've made. And I think they need to recognize that they can't just assume the parents will sign on to whatever approach they choose to take. (I would say the Congressperson owes those same things.)

    Nobody would think twice if you complained publicly about a decision that your legislator made, but when you complain about a decision that a teacher or school official makes, it's as if you've broken some sacred taboo. Nobody likes being criticized, but if you're making public policy, even in a small way, it comes with the territory. In the big picture, dissent (as opposed to silence or groupthink) can only help things improve.

    You should just think about parents' complaints, answer their questions, then make the best decisions you can make. Then you just have to put up with the fact that some of them still won't agree with you.

    I do appreciate it when a teacher tries to show some flexibility with individual kids/families. For example, we had a teacher who required the kids to get their parents' signature on their homework. When I objected, she didn't insist on it in our case. I don't see any reason to get into it with a parent over a requirement like that one.