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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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