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.