One evening when Esmee was in sixth grade, I walked into her room at 1:30 a.m. to find her red-eyed, exhausted, and starting on her third hour of math. This was partially her fault, as she had let a couple of days’ worth of worksheets pile up, but it was also the nature of the work itself. One assignment had her calculating the area and perimeter of a series of shapes so complex that my wife, who trained as an architect in the Netherlands, spent half an hour on it before coming up with the right answers. The problem was not the complexity of the work, it was the amount of calculating required. The measurements included numbers like 78 13/64, and all this multiplying and dividing was to be done without a calculator. Another exercise required Esmee to find the distance from Sacramento—we were living in California—to every other state capital in America, in miles and kilometers. This last one caused me to question the value of the homework.
What possible purpose could this serve?, I asked her teacher in a meeting.
She explained that this sort of cross-disciplinary learning—state capitals in a math class—was now popular. She added that by now, Esmee should know all her state capitals. She went on to say that in class, when the students had been asked to name the capital of Texas, Esmee answered Texas City.
But this is a math class, I said. I don’t even know the state capitals.
The teacher was unmoved, saying that she felt the homework load was reasonable. If Esmee was struggling with the work, then perhaps she should be moved to a remedial class.
That night, in an e-mail chain started by the class parent to seek chaperones for a field trip, I removed the teacher’s name, changed the subject line, and then asked the other parents in the class whether their children found the homework load onerous.
After a few minutes, replies started coming in from parents along the lines of “Thank God, we thought we were the only ones,” “Our son has been up until 2 a.m. crying,” and so forth. Half the class’s parents responded that they thought too much homework was an issue.
Since then, I’ve been wary of Esmee’s workload, and I’ve often suspected that teachers don’t have any idea about the cumulative amount of homework the kids are assigned when they are taking five academic classes. There is little to no coordination among teachers in most schools when it comes to assignments and test dates.
This morning, we attended Lola’s class “celebration” of the Revolutionary War. The class had prepared dioramas of the role women played in the Revolution, the Boston Massacre, the Battle of Yorktown, and other signal events of the period. In hand-drawn murals explaining the causes of the conflict, the main theme was that excessive and unfair taxation had caused the colonies to rebel. The British had run up massive debts in the French and Indian War and wanted the colonists to repay them. The colonies also wanted, several children added, freedom. When pressed as to what that meant, they seemed unsure, until one boy came up with “Freedom to do what they want!”
I came home and took a nap.
My older daughter’s homework load this evening is just seven algebra equations, studying for a Humanities test on industrialization, and more Earth Science.
This algebra unit, on polynomials, seems to be a matter of remembering a few tricks. Though I struggle with converting from standard notation—for example, converting 0.00009621 to scientific notation is tricky (it’s 9.621 × 10−5, which makes no intuitive sense to me)—it is pleasing that at some point I arrive at an answer, right or wrong, and my work is done and the teacher will give me credit for doing my homework.
Earth Science is something else. I’ve been dreading returning to Tarbuck and Lutgens since our first meeting. And tonight, the chapter starts in the familiar dispiriting monotone. “Rocks are any solid mass of mineral or mineral-like matter occurring naturally as part of our planet.” But I am pleasantly surprised when T&L take a turn into the rock cycle, laying out the differences between igneous, sedimentary, and metamorphic rock in terms that are easy to understand and visualize. The accompanying charts are helpful, and as I keep reading into the chapter on igneous rocks, the differences between intrusive and extrusive igneous rocks make clear sense.
The upcoming test in Humanities will focus on John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, monopolies and trusts, laissez-faire capitalism, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, the foundation of labor unions, the imposition of factory safety standards, and the populist response to the grim conditions of the working man during the Industrial Revolution. My daughter has a study guide she is ready to print out. But our printer has just broken.
We end up borrowing our neighbor’s printer. The logistics of picking up the printer, bringing it over to our apartment, downloading the software, and then printing take about half an hour.
The study guide covers a wide range of topics, from how Rockefeller gained control of the oil industry, to the rise of monopolies and trusts, to the Sherman Antitrust Act, to the Triangle Shirtwaist fire. Esmee and I have a pretty long talk about the causes of the tragedy—the locked doors that prevented the young girls from taking breaks, stealing merchandise, or escaping the flames; the flammable waste material that had been allowed to accumulate—that leads to a discussion about trade unionism and then about capitalism in general. This is, I realize, a logical continuation of the conversation in my younger daughter’s class this morning, which started with unwieldy dioramas and implausible impersonations of King George. Freedom, in the form of unfettered capitalism, also has its downside. I tell her my view: laborers have to organize into unions, because otherwise those who control the capital have all the power.
“That’s why it’s called capitalism,” Esmee says, “not laborism.”
She falls asleep reading Angela’s Ashes.
Total time: 3 hours