Memorization, not rationalization. That is the advice of my 13-year-old daughter, Esmee, as I struggle to make sense of a paragraph of notes for an upcoming Earth Science test on minerals. “Minerals have crystal systems which are defined by the # of axis and the length of the axis that intersect the crystal faces.” That’s how the notes start, and they only get murkier after that. When I ask Esmee what this actually means, she gives me her homework credo.
Esmee is in the eighth grade at the NYC Lab Middle School for Collaborative Studies, a selective public school in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan. My wife and I have noticed since she started there in February of last year that she has a lot of homework. We moved from Pacific Palisades, California, where Esmee also had a great deal of homework at Paul Revere Charter Middle School in Brentwood. I have found, at both schools, that whenever I bring up the homework issue with teachers or administrators, their response is that they are required by the state to cover a certain amount of material. There are standardized tests, and everyone—students, teachers, schools—is being evaluated on those tests. I’m not interested in the debates over teaching to the test or No Child Left Behind. What I am interested in is what my daughter is doing during those nightly hours between 8 o’clock and midnight, when she finally gets to bed. During the school week, she averages three to four hours of homework a night and six and a half hours of sleep.
Some evenings, when we force her to go to bed, she will pretend to go to sleep and then get back up and continue to do homework for another hour. The following mornings are awful, my daughter teary-eyed and exhausted but still trudging to school.
I wonder: What is the exact nature of the work that is turning her into a sleep-deprived teen zombie so many mornings?
I decide to do my daughter’s homework for one typical week.
By late afternoon, I am tired after filing a magazine article on deadline. I’m not looking forward to homework. When I arrive home, a few minutes ahead of Esmee, I consider delaying my week of homework, but then I realize that Esmee can never put off her week of homework.
So I am relieved when she tells me she doesn’t have much tonight. We have 11 algebra equations. (Esmee’s algebra class is doing a section on polynomials, a word I haven’t heard in decades.) We also have to read 79 pages of Angela’s Ashes and find “three important and powerful quotes from the section with 1–2 sentence analyses of its [sic] significance.” There is also the Earth Science test tomorrow on minerals.
I am surprised by the amount of reading. Reading and writing is what I do for a living, but in my middle age, I’ve slowed down. So a good day of reading for me, assuming I like the book and I’m not looking for quotable passages, is between 50 and 100 pages. Seventy-nine pages while scanning for usable material—for a magazine essay or for homework—seems like at least two hours of reading.
But the math is easier than I thought. We are simplifying equations, which involves reducing (–18m2n)2 × (–(1/6)mn2) to –54m5n4, which I get the hang of again after Esmee’s good instructions. I breeze through those 11 equations in about 40 minutes and even correct Esmee when she gets one wrong. (I think. I may be overconfident.)
I then start reading Angela’s Ashes while Esmee studies for Earth Science. We have only one copy of the book, so we decide it will be more efficient to stagger our work. I’ve never read Angela’s Ashes, and it’s easy to see the appeal. Frank McCourt, whom I once saw give a beautiful tribute to Peter Matthiessen at a Paris Review Revel, is engaging and funny. But after 30 minutes I am only about 16 pages in, and Esmee has finished studying for Earth Science and needs the book.
So we switch. It is now time for me to struggle with Earth Science. The textbook Esmee’s class is using is simply called Earth Science and was written by Edward J. Tarbuck and Frederick K. Lutgens. “The term synergistic applies to the combined efforts of Tarbuck and Lutgens,” says the biographical note at the beginning. “Early in their careers, they shared frustrations with the limited availability of textbooks designed for non-majors.” So they rolled up their sleeves and wrote their own textbook, which reads exactly like every other textbook. “If you look again at Table 1,” begins the section on silicates, “you can see that the two most abundant elements in Earth’s crust are silicon and oxygen.” I spend the next five minutes looking for Table 1, which is 12 pages earlier in the book.
Then come carbonates, oxides, the sulfates and sulfides, halides, and—I am asleep after about 20 minutes.
When I wake up, I go out to find Esmee in the living room, where she is buried in Angela’s Ashes. I struggle with Earth Science for another half hour, attempting to memorize rather than understand, before I give up and decide I have to get my reading done. Since Esmee is using our copy of Angela’s Ashes, I figure I will just read another 63 pages of the novel Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, which I started yesterday. I don’t make it. I’m asleep for good after about 15 pages.
Esmee stays up until a little after midnight to finish her reading.
Total time: 3–5 hours
I don’t remember how much homework was assigned to me in eighth grade. I do know that I didn’t do very much of it and that what little I did, I did badly. My study habits were atrocious. After school I often went to friends’ houses, where I sometimes smoked marijuana, and then I returned home for dinner; after lying to my parents about not having homework that night, I might have caught an hour or two of television. In Southern California in the late ’70s, it was totally plausible that an eighth grader would have no homework at all.
If my daughter came home and said she had no homework, I would know she was lying. It is inconceivable that her teachers wouldn’t assign any.
What has changed? It seems that while there has been widespread panic about American students’ falling behind their peers in Singapore, Shanghai, Helsinki, and everywhere else in science and mathematics, the length of the school day is about the same. The school year hasn’t been extended. Student-teacher ratios don’t seem to have changed much. No, our children are going to catch up with those East Asian kids on their own damn time.
Every parent I know in New York City comments on how much homework their children have. These lamentations are a ritual whenever we are gathered around kitchen islands talking about our kids’ schools.
Is it too much?
Well, imagine if after putting in a full day at the office—and school is pretty much what our children do for a job—you had to come home and do another four or so hours of office work. Monday through Friday. Plus Esmee gets homework every weekend. If your job required that kind of work after work, how long would you last?
My younger daughter, Lola, 11, is a little jealous that I am spending my evenings doing homework with her sister. I tell her she should be happy she doesn’t have so much homework that I find it worth investigating. She agrees with this, but still makes me feel so guilty about it that I let her watch Pretty Little Liars, her favorite show.
The co-op board meets—and over my objections makes me secretary—before I can start on Esmee’s homework.
Tonight we have 12 more algebra equations, 45 more pages of Angela’s Ashes, and a Humanities project for which we have to write one to two pages in the style of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, the young-adult novel by Sherman Alexie. There is also a Spanish test tomorrow on irregular verbs.
The algebra is fast becoming my favorite part of this project. I may have picked an easy week, but something about combining like terms, inverting negative exponents, and then simplifying equations causes a tingle in a part of my brain that is usually dormant. Also, the work is finite: just 12 equations.
The Spanish, however, presents a completely different challenge. Here, Esmee shows me that we have to memorize the conjugations of the future tense of regular and irregular verbs, and she slides me a sheet with tener, tendré, tendrás, tendrá, tendremos, etc., multiplied by dozens of verbs. My daughter has done a commendable job memorizing the conjugations. But when I ask her what the verb tener means (“to have,” if I recall), she repeats, “Memorization, not rationalization.”
She doesn’t know what the words mean.
I spend a few minutes looking over the material, attempting to memorize the list of verbs and conjugations. Then it takes me about half an hour to memorize the three most common conjugation patterns. I decide to skip the irregular verbs.
Esmee already worked on her Spanish this afternoon, so she goes right to the Humanities project, which she has been looking forward to. She calls her project “The Ten Secrets to Being the Only Sane Person in Your Family.”
No. 6: Don’t Listen to Anything Your Father Says.
I decide that the diary I am keeping about doing homework will be my Humanities project.
Soon it’s 11 p.m., and I start bugging Esmee to go to bed. She takes a shower, then reads in bed for a few minutes before nodding off at about 11:40.
I sneak in and grab her copy of Angela’s Ashes and catch up on my reading, getting all the way to page 120. The hardship of too much homework pales in comparison with the McCourt family’s travails. Still, because we are sharing our copy of Angela’s Ashes, I end up going to bed an hour after Esmee.
Total time: 3 hours