Moms (and Dads) on a Mission–Edible Art Project

Below is a letter a New York City mother sent to her son’s sixth grade public school teacher after her ex-husband told her that the edible projects at the class’s ancient Greek and Rome festival looked as though they had been made by pastry chefs. A few days before the project was due, the mother had asked the teacher for clarification and had been told: “The assignment (which your son should have in his folder if you’d like to look it over) is to bring an edible object which he can somehow, no matter how randomly, connect to our study of ancient Greece and Rome. It’s simply meant to be fun for kids and parents alike. He can bring hummus and pita or a bag of oreos–he just needs to be creative about how it connects to our festival. One year, a student made Poseidon’s Trident out of a tube of gumballs and tin foil shaped into a fork-like top. Another used a horse shaped cookie cutter to make Trojan Horse sandwiches.”

Dear 6th Grade Teacher

My son’s father just told me that my son felt self-conscious this morning about his “offering” when he saw the other spectacular projects, which is what I had feared. He felt fine about it until then.

My son is absolutely crazy about you as a teacher and I know how wonderful you are and how much they have been learning from you — so I do hope you will take this in the spirit in which it is intended. You have been truly amazing and so responsive to my son, so I do want to say how very appreciative we are for all of these things and that he was lucky enough to get you as his homeroom teacher!

After years of witnessing a certain phenomenon, though, and after reading this book (The Case Against Homework), and seeing this harrowing documentary I mentioned, I feel the need to speak my mind. (So please know that this letter is coming after years of silent endurance for fear of angering the teachers or — even worse — risking repercussions for my son. I trust that whether or not you agree with me, you will not hold anything against my son, who only wanted sincerely to do something wonderful and impressive for you and the class — hence his initial request to me that we build some huge structure out of candy!)

My ex-husband reported that some of the offerings were breathtakingly

spectacular and elaborate. (He commented that some of the parents must be pastry chefs.) My son told me that last year, someone made Greek temple out of sushi with a fountain of soy sauce. Unfortunately, this is the image he had in his head when he was trying to figure out what to make. If I had had the time or belief that it was right to spend hours doing my son’s project, he, too, would have had a spectacular piece of work to show off to everyone. But I had him do it himself because I think it sends a very mixed and potentially harmful message to a kid (especially when one has been striving relentlessly to get that kid to be more independent and take responsibility), for the parent to do that kid’s work.

Unfortunately, even though I gave my son one of my boring lectures this morning about how he should feel proud that he did his own work and try not to feel badly if he sees work that looks like it could not have been done by a 6th grader, he apparently was still “self-conscious”, upon comparing his scones-and-marshmallow trident and thunder-bolt (which I thought was adorable and fine for a 6th grader), with some of the others’ work. From years of experience, and from my ex-husband’s description, I would guess that many of those projects were done in whole or in part by people over the age of 35. I worry about the effect on t he self-esteem of kids who did not get this level of assistance.

On the flip side, I do understand how this seems like a fun activity and that it probably made for a festive atmosphere. (You mentioned in your e-mail that you thought this would be a fun thing for kids and parents to do together.) But I’ll bet if you took a poll, there would be more than a few parents who, like me, only stressed out about it the whole week because their kid so fervently wanted to do something spectacular (like build a trident out of candy!), and who knew (like me) that their 6th grader could not do it independently on that level. (Believe me — many parents are too scared to speak up or just don’t bother for other reasons!)

I happen to be an artist and I have to tell you, this was not fun. Even less fun was hearing of my son deflatedness this morning and worrying that perhaps I let him down by not doing the project with him. By the way, I love spending time with my son doing things together: As you know, we just finished reading Huck Finn, and we will be starting David Copperfield soon. Just last weekend, we built a structure out of hundreds of wood slats and had a blast doing it. There are few things I like more than getting down on the floor with some markers or paints with both of my kids, as I have often done. So it’s not a question of whether a given parent enjoys doing projects with their kids or not: It’s the pretense that the kids did all the work themselves when they did not and the resulting effect on the ones who did.

Perhaps, if projects like this really contribute to the class in some way that is valuable, then the thing to do might be to have the actual makers of the project indicated on the cards that accompany each piece. So if Johnny Smith’s project was done in whole or in part by Ms. Smith, it should indicate that. At least that would be honest to the kids and not leave some with the false impression that they are simply not as good or creative as the other kids.

Finally, if it is something you feel comfortable doing, perhaps you could say something to the class about how you as a teacher value work that is done independently and that you can discern work that is done by a student versus a parent. For a project like this, in which it seems that parents were expected to participate, perhaps you could say something so that kids whose parents did not participate for whatever reason (e.g., single parents who have their hands full as it is, parents who might not have had the extra cash to buy elaborate supplies, parents who simply don’t believe it’s good for their children to do their work), don’t have to feel badly about their efforts.

Thank you for reading this — if you got this far! I do appreciate in advance your understanding and any effort you could make to ameliorate the situation.

9 Comments on “Moms (and Dads) on a Mission–Edible Art Project”

  1. PsychMom says:

    All I can say is “well done”. What a well crafted letter! Can’t wait to hear what the response is….

    April 1st, 2009 at 8:26 am
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  2. HomeworkBlues says:

    Great letter. My daughter had an awesome teacher in her 4th grade private school as well. The teacher was on to the parents who were all doing the kids’ projects so she finally had the students do the projects in class. Even then the parents tried to influence the process greatly by sending in elaborate materials. But at least the kids did it themselves. The teacher remarked to me the sheer difference in the quality of the work. These looked as if they’d been made by nine year olds, not forty year olds! And that amazing little artist over there? Not quite so amazing once she had to do it herself.

    When parents take over, commandeer the project, do it for their children, they are sending a very strong message. You can’t do this yourself and you need mom and dad to save the day. All I ever did was run to the store for poster board, and even then I felt she should come with me, but she was home working on said project.

    I knew so many people who did their kids’ projects for them. One mother defended the practice, arguing her son was not good in art. Understood. But he doesn’t have to be, it’s not an arts college. If the other children were allowed to do their own work, we’d see a lot more projects look like they were made by children.

    Mainly the parents did it, not out of a a genuine desire to help their child but to make sure their kid’s masterpiece was the best, the most creative, the most outstanding. These parents fall all over each other, making sure their little darling is always first, and this competitive streak begins in preschool. Heck, it starts with the Apgar score, what did he get?

    Schools and teachers could help greatly in this effort by acknowledging that parents are doing the work (isn’t it obviious?), sending home letters to parents asking that they not craft to their children’s projects and doing what my daughter’s 4th grade teacher did, bringing in the materials and having the children work on them in school.

    Some teachers would say that it wouldn’t work, would eat up too much class time. My daughter’s teacher managed to make it work. If the child cannot do them in class (or if it must be sent home, have a homework session after school, I know that’s a controversial idea but beats the status quo), then consider scrapping it. It teaches the child nothing when we do their work for them, except how to be utterly dependent on us. Hardly the mission of homework, which we are told, is to teach responsibility and initiative.

    April 1st, 2009 at 9:09 am
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  3. HomeworkBlues says:

    Gotta fix this paragraph, from above. It has some boo-boos I didn’t catch.Here’s the corrected version:

    Schools and teachers could help greatly in this effort by acknowledging that parents are doing the work (isn’t it obvious?), sending home letters to parents asking that they not craft their children’s projects and doing what my daughter’s 4th grade teacher did, bringing in the materials and having the children work on them in school.

    April 1st, 2009 at 9:11 am
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  4. FedUpMom says:

    Holy mackerel. Every time I’m confronted with one of those “fun” assignments, I’m more convinced that schoolteachers don’t know what fun is. If the only purpose of the project is to have fun, and nobody’s having fun, why are we doing these projects at all? A truly creative child would rather be doing her own art. An athletic child would rather be out running around. Either of those is a better use of the child’s time than building a scone-and-marshmallow trident as directed by a stressed-out mom. Really, if even the teacher doesn’t see this exercise as helping the child learn anything, why does the teacher assign it, and why do the parents feel compelled to do it? This is Potemkin education. It’s a sham through and through.

    April 1st, 2009 at 12:16 pm
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  5. HomeworkBlues says:

    FedUpMom, was just wondering how you are, we hadn’t heard from you lately. You write:

    Holy mackerel. Every time I’m confronted with one of those “fun” assignments, I’m more convinced that schoolteachers don’t know what fun is. If the only purpose of the project is to have fun, and nobody’s having fun, why are we doing these projects at all? A truly creative child would rather be doing her own art.

    >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

    This is an excellent point and one I made recently as I detailed what our house looks like after one of those arts masterpieces.

    Friends would defend the massive assignment, arguing, but it was fun! If it’s fun, let my daughter do her own creative thing. Fun isn’t being told exactly what to do on the weekend. C’mon, we all know projects are weekend homework, let’s not kid ourselves. Just when can a child find the hours and hours and hours during the week these projects consume?

    My daughter is very artistic so let her do her own thing. Please let’s not program fun too. Bad enough schools program all the drudgery and must work. We parents, as the author of the entry notes, are quite capable of sitting down on the floor with our children and building something. Just leave it up to us and let the families plan their weekends as they see fit.

    For those families who don’t want to, tough, your loss. It’s not the school’s job to “legislate” free time. Our children are not owned by the state. Attractive though that concept may be to some.

    April 1st, 2009 at 1:18 pm
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  6. HomeworkBlues says:

    (So please know that this letter is coming after years of silent endurance for fear of angering the teachers or — even worse — risking repercussions for my son.

    >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

    This is the part that eats at me. That parents feel such fear. It’s an excellent letter. The author tells the teacher how crazy her son is about her, how incredibly wonderful she is. Regardless, excessive apology necessary, for speaking up. There is always this current of fear. That we might anger her, that she would take it out on our kid. That’s the driving force, they have your child, you aren’t there to protect him, she might get angry.

    So which is it? The awesome teacher, the one who retaliates against your child, or both? All this power, all this fear. Is it a case of the oppressed becoming the oppressor? Unsettling.

    April 1st, 2009 at 2:17 pm
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  7. Learnedthehardway says:

    How I wish I had included such flattery in my letters to resolve an issue with my daughter. Maybe the daily reinforcement of being the absolute authority in the classroom makes teachers susceptible to insecurity when having to justify their actions to an adult. So put in all that sucking up, and more!

    On the other side, it may not be wise to mention the book. Do you really want to discuss education in general with someone who will see you as unqualified, or worse, a threat? I’d stick with the specific case of how this instance was not fun, and a regrettable waste of time that might otherwise have been spent on something more positive, developmental, or educational. It’s a fine line you have to walk, and the letter does a great job.

    April 1st, 2009 at 4:48 pm
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  8. HomeworkBlues says:

    How I wish I had included such flattery in my letters to resolve an issue with my daughter. Maybe the daily reinforcement of being the absolute authority in the classroom makes teachers susceptible to insecurity when having to justify their actions to an adult. So put in all that sucking up, and more!

    >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

    I’m not so sure. Learningthe, I hear you, I really do. But…not all parents are comfortable with all that flattery. Not everyone can pull it off as eloquently. There should be some ground rules, of course. And teachers would be well advised to return the favor.

    At the very least, at least when you begin, be gracious, be considerate, be reasonable. When I taught and substituted, I would never retaliate against a child. Here was my take, from the vantage point of a teacher. If a parent came to me with a reasoned well thought out debate, I listened intently. But that’s me. I also was not a full time teacher. What I would not have welcomed is a lot of whispering and mean spiritedness behind my back, but even then, I would never take it out on the child.

    And as for the back stabbing and grumbling, now that I’ve been through the system as a parent, I understand why parents do that much more vividly now. If you started off nice and the teacher disrespected you, you no longer have to be overly pleasant. Muster up some basic courtesy in that situation and don’t beat up on yourself that you weren’t more cheerful..

    Be gracious, be considerate, be reasonable. And teachers, I cannot stress enough how you must do the same with your parents. Don’t throw your weight around because you are the absolute authority. You aren’t, you are in a partnership with the parents although from where I sit, it often sure doesn’t look like it. Don’t be a petty dictator.

    Again, many parents are not comfortable with all that flattery. They worry it might come off obsequious. And what if you really don’t like the teacher, or your kid doesn’t? Don’t be servile, don’t be disingenuous just to curry the teacher’s good graces. Many teachers can smell insincerity a mile away.

    The original poster crafted a well written elegant letter. I just hope we parents don’t have to feel that we must kiss a teacher’s feet before expressing dismay.

    April 1st, 2009 at 5:58 pm
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  9. Cate says:

    Fantastic letter. Last year we simply opted out of one of these ‘fun projects’ which was to build a bridge out of tooth picks and pipecleaners as we had neither of these items at home and we were only advised of this project on Monday AFTER I had done the weekly shopping (so, no I was not gonig to make a special trip back to shopping centre hell just so I could spend my hard earned money on these items). I probably should have written a letter but was just so over all the similar ‘fun projects’ and other ridiculous homework that I really couldn’t be bothered by that stage.

    April 6th, 2009 at 3:13 am
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