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Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Homework, history, privilege, guilt. It's all so complicated.

So did you hear about the school in Georgia that, in an attempt to integrate the social studies and math curricula, wound up sending home a math assignment that asked questions like, "Each tree had 56 oranges. If 8 slaves pick them equally, then how much would each slave pick?” and, “If Frederick got two beatings per day, how many beatings did he get in 1 week?” Yeah, really. That happened.

So here’s a piece exhorting public schools to do a better job with racial sensitivity. It reminded me of another, related issue:  They also need to do a much better job with socioeconomic sensitivity. We all should.

I’m amazed how often my kids have come home from school with assignments like, “Bring in a photograph of your house,” or, “Write about your family vacation.” These are such enormous cans of worms to open. It’s got to be tough on the kid who lives in a cramped apartment in a run-down building or even a shelter, seeing his classmates’ houses and even McMansions; or the kid whose parents are working multiple jobs to support the family and have precious few hours at home, hearing her classmates’ stories of ski trips, summer camp and cruises.

And then there are the assignments that require kids to bring in materials. My kid comes home with a list of stuff he needs to complete a group project; rather than tell him to divvy up the list with the group, I purchase the lion’s share of the list for fear that the expense will be a burden to a kid who really shouldn’t have to bear it. Most of the time, these projects could be simplified to require fewer materials - so why aren’t they?

This is a very socioeconomically diverse school district; don’t teachers think about these things?

But then again, I often don’t, either. I got schooled, so to speak, when one of my kids came home with an assignment to write about an object of importance to his family. This rang no alarm bells with me - it’s an object, not a house or a trip. Every family has some object that matters to them, right?

The afternoon the kids read their essays to the class, my son came home and told me it was his most emotional day at school. One essay had brought most of the class to tears. This student wrote that he had no object about which to write, because he’d been in foster care for a long time and he owned nothing of importance to his family.

That stopped me cold. The word “family” is an alarm bell, too. One I’d forgotten all about.

As it turned out, the kid did an excellent job writing an essay that educated his classmates (and I suppose his teacher, too) about his situation. I will never know what it cost him to do that; whether it was a positive experience for him, or one he would rather have lived without. But I feel pretty damn certain that he should have had a choice; that if he’d wanted to, he could have worked his story into some other essay. He should never have been put on the spot like that.

I hope schools are starting to recognize these problems and give teachers guidance in avoiding these situations.  And I’m rethinking what I tell my kids, too. Because, let’s face it, you can’t expect a kid not to mention her summer vacation to her friends for fear they can’t all afford the same, but you have to teach kids to be aware of their privilege. How do you navigate these tricky waters? Or am I the hopelessly patronizing white liberal trying to pad the world for people whose problems I don't truly understand? I remain unsure.

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