From my Mailbox–A Seventh Grader Speaks Out

I got this compelling email the other day from a Connecticut middle school student:

Dear Sara,

The life of a middle school girl is one of total chaos–cliques, peer pressure, friendships, guys, emotions, and lots lots LOTS of homework. I don’t understand why children are expected to complete assignments that have NOTHING to do with their goals for life. For example, I want to be an author when I grow up, and I’m always working toward that goal. WHEN in my life will I ever be required to do algebra? Why must I complete 50 algebra problems a night, when I COULD be working on my journal? Doing so many problems only makes me hate math more than ever. Plus, when these assignments are graded, I always end up getting the last twenty or so wrong. By this point of the assignment, I am so completely drained that I do the rest haphazardly. THAT is not helping my education. I usually eat dinner while completing homework, because I have so much of it. Therefore, sometimes my dinner is a bowl of Captain Crunch or a bag of chips. By the time I actually have time to myself, it is 9:30, and I have to go to bed. It doesnt matter though. I’m usually up until over 11:00, worrying about tests, quizzes, and whether or not I did all my homework correctly. That is not a healthy lifestyle, but I’m gonna have to deal with it for seven more years.

I’d like to thank you for your incredible website. It has really comforted me to know that other people feel this way about homework- especially adults. Thank you for reading this!

13 thoughts on “From my Mailbox–A Seventh Grader Speaks Out

  1. Your letter is very well written and you really shouldn’t have to work this hard in middle school. It’s no surprise to me that so many children drop out of high school…who wants to face this kind of life?

    I hope you have good support at home and will be able to enjoy your summer at least. You deserve a break.

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  2. I am a teacher who is very anti-homework. However, I think that parts of letters like this weaken the anti-homework argument. 50 algebra problems is too many, clearly. But the fact that the girl wants to be an author doesn’t excuse her from learning math. She will use algebra in her adult life in some way, certainly. I do.

    Further—she’s so busy doing homework that her dinner is a bag of chips or Cap’n Crunch? Sorry, that has nothing to do with her teacher or school. Where in the heck are her parents?

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  3. As a teacher of honors and AP English, I don’t actually assign much homework. AP is very much skill, rather than content, based. Additionally, as a parent of a G/T first grader, I was very concerned about excessive and repetitive homework for my child. However, where I understand the criticism of 50 algebra problems, I regularly challenge my students on the idea that they don’t need algebra – and it’s the job of parents and teachers to do the same, explaining the purpose.

    The very nature of a liberal education is the vast exposure to knowledge across all fields. Effective readers and thinkers draw from existing knowledge, and the more you know, the deeper you can take your critical thinking. As an English teacher, I don’t ever use my algebra. But there is no doubt I use the stronger, more well-developed brain I have as a result of challenging my mind in unnatural ways of thinking outside my comfort zone.

    Fourteen-year-olds may not fully accept this explanation, but they should always have an understanding of it.

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  4. Cheryl, I caught the same inconsistencies you did. But please, give the girl a break. She’s thirteen years old. Her essay overall is well written.

    I agree with you about math and educating well rounded kids. That this girl sees no relevance to her algebra studies may be the fault of her teachers, not her. It’s their job to infuse the subject with some inspiration and application.

    And I’m hoping FedUpMom caught this. Why is this girl taking algebra in 7th grade anyway? My daughter did, but the two year ahead track was intended for very strong math students who really needed more of a challenge. There’s been a push to get more and more kids to take high school classes in middle school and for all we know, this girl might have faced peer or parental pressure to achieve.She may not be ready for an algebra course yet but even if she is, fifty problems every night is a sure damper. My daughter’s math homework in 7th grade alone took three hours and I fretted about burn out all year. In any case, this girl has become turned off to the subject now and that is sad.

    I caught the bag of potato chips and Cap’n Crunch too. This poor girl, we are now analyzing her, but I had the same reaction. Where are her parents and why isn’t this child getting a more nutritious solid dinner? What ever happened to family meals?

    Sadly, I know several comfortable middle class families where outwardly the kids look well tended too. But the children are eating dinner alone with often nothing more than some ramen noodles.

    Regardless, the girl’s pleas cannot be ignored. Whether she likes math or not, whether she sees relevance to it or not, she’s way overworked. This was my daughter’s 7th grade year minus the disillusion with math and the cereal dinner. I cannot swear on a bible that every night produced a dinner worthy of Martha Stewart. But as the famous line goes, ‘ninety percent of parenting is showing up” and we were there for her.

    I can’t swear my daughter might not have lost her thrill of math a year later. I didn’t wait to find out. Three days before school started, I pulled her out, took a deep breath, we took in a classical outdoor concert at the US Capitol Labor Day weekend instead of sweating over the summer math packet and the night before school began, our entire family took a long exhilarating moonlit walk through the neighborhood.

    Come first day of school, we slept in and then joined other homeschoolers at Not Back to School Day. I don’t want my daughter catching me saying this so shhh, don’t point her to this site, but I felt as if we’d been sprung from prison. Free at last!

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  5. You’re all reading too much into the Cap’n Crunch! This girl comes across as mature, very literate, knows what she wants out of life. I wish more kids were like this.

    And hey, she’ll learn algebra when the day comes that she needs it, like most things in life. Listen to her: she’s not applying to engineering school.

    But if her schoolwork is so overwhelming that it interferes with something very important, something close to her heart, that she has a passion for, then her school is destroying something extremely valuable, and we should all be outraged. All the great writers, actors, and yes mathematicians, found their passions young. It’s a crime to crush those dreams.

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  6. Hi. I wrote the letter and I’ve been reading your comments. I actually laughed when I got to the part about the parents….don’t worry, their not neglecting me….sometimes I just choose to do that, because it’s hard to do my homework while eating a family meal. Plus I said “sometimes” so this is only like one or two times a week…I just mentioned it because it annoys me.
    I also understand that I’m going to need to know math, obviously….but, algebra I’m not sure about…I’m not really sure how algebra is going to help me in the future, but if anyone can tell me, I’d be more than happy to know….and I don’t even mean that sarcastically.
    Anyway, thanks for your opinions….I just didn’t want anyone here to think I’m this poor, poor neglected child. 😉 I also didn’t wanna look like some whiny kid go on a rampage, and overexagerating everything, so I just thought I’d clarify. =)

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  7. By the way, thank you Joe! Your comment means a lot to me! And lol I thought the Cap’n Crunch thing was getting a little ridiculous too. 😉

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  8. As a high school freshman, I can agree with a lot of what this person is saying. I don’t have as much of a problem with homework, but my sister, who is a junior, had 4 to 5 hours most nights, and she was absent probably about 8 school days because of the stress and homework that was slept on. In the end, these stories are part of a bigger problem; a college admissions system that can’t look past grades and SAT scores in determining a person’s worthiness of joining their institution. Most of the kids that stress out like this are anticipating being a student in a college with unbelievably high admissions standards. Unfortunately, these are the most important agents of social mobility in our country today. The current contenders for my class valedictorian are nowhere near the smartest; getting an A in every class is just their life purpose. What pisses me off to no end is that these people will be hailed as the next great leaders and given a free ride in college, when most of them are just stupid people who were pushed by their parents the hardest and will be unable to find that motivation without Mommy and Daddy around (unless of course their parents continue to helicopter their kids until they’re dead).

    It honestly scares me to see a future where these people dominate our country; people who are able to look past such an arbitrary number and actually have a life will be shut out of a college education. Grades measure nothing once it’s important enough that people will build their life around maximizing their GPA.

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  9. John H — take heart! The good news is that college admission doesn’t actually mean a lot. The leaders in our society did not all go to high-status colleges. Plenty of successful people went to colleges you’ve never heard of. This will only be more true as the economy changes. Two or three years ago that Wharton MBA was a ticket to a pile of money. Today? Not so much.

    Students today should focus on finding a college that will be a good fit for their interests, that they can attend without the burden of crippling student loans.

    Best of luck to you —

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  10. Good for you Shannon, for clarifying your position. I tend to agree with some of the parents in that I don’t know why someone in middle school is even taking algebra because it didn’t appear in my life til mid highschool. And while it’s true that grocery shopping, paying a mortgage, filling out credit applications and tax forms will never involve algebra, algebra is a type of mental exercise. It is a way of thinking about problems that is needed to form a more complete repetoire of problem solving skills. Just like in physical exercise, different types of movements produce different kinds of benefits (muscle building, cardiac stamina etc.) algebra takes your brain down a new path and may help you to be a better writer.

    But you also need your rest, less stress and better food. The Mom in me still thinks a Cheeto supper twice a week is too much. Once a month maybe…

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  11. Shannon, thanks for writing again. You seem like a lovely girl. When I first read your post, what jumped out at me was how hard you work, how burdened you are and that the Captain Crunch and potato chips could very well be more of a symptom of your harried life, rather than that you are often left to your own devices. But it still nagged at me. Given that I know kids like you who don’t have family meals, the mom in me, as PyschMom said zeroed in on the health aspect. Too much stress, too little dinner, too little sleep, too little family time. What do your parents have to say about all this?

    Remember, if algebra is just too much for you right now, you don’t have to take it just yet. Our county offers Math 7 Honors for gifted students who then go on to take Algebra I in 8th grade. Given that the year is almost over, I guess you want to see it through but I hope you didn’t choose a two year ahead track more to please others than yourself. Since we don’t have more details, we can only go by what you wrote.

    The important thing is that you have a passion for writing and please don’t let anyone or anything snuff that out. I agree with others who chimed in that a solid math foundation surely has its place. Aren’t you glad you have caring parents here who can help to light the path for you? We aren’t telling you to suck it up just to get good grades and look better for college admissions officers. Kids get so much of the preparation mantra at school, it’s easy to see why they get so turned off.

    In contrast, when my daughter took a Johns Hopkins CTY on line geometry course during our homeschool sabbatical, Chapter 10 was optional. Her tutor emailed though with this: “I know it’s optional, but if you have time, do take a peek, especially section 5. The angles are gorgeous and you will just love how the shapes and forms integrate” Or something like that. My jaw dropped. I simply cannot remember any of my daughter’s public school teachers ever saying that, encouraging a student to do more because what that child will find when she goes there is so awesome. I believe children are hard wired to learn, it’s the “well meaning” adults who drum it out of them.

    As John said, if you can’t see the value of algebra now, you will as you mature. Better you should have waited to take algebra when you were truly ready. We live in the gifted world and I can’t tell you the pressure on kids and parents. As a mother, I have to know when to encourage and when to lay back.

    And I still contend educators have more of a mission than to just feed students the material. Children are not vessels in which you pour information in each year and it accumulates. That’s NCLB conventional wisdom. Blech. In the time educators are obsessed with preparing kindergarteners for first grade and four graders for 6th, and 6th for middle school and 7th for high school, teachers and staff alike could take a deep breath, live in the here and now, and sometimes teach math for no other reason than that it has elegance, relevance, it stretches your mind, it teaches you information you ought to know, is fun and will prepare you to be a deeper more thoughtful more intellectual human being.

    Let us know how you are, Shannon. And please see if you can take a break for family meals. Without the textbook. It’s hard but take a break. You need it. And ask your mom to talk to the teacher and then the principal.

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  12. I am a college graduate with a Master’s Degree. I am 43 years old. I struggled with Algebra and other math for years. I got through it but it was a collossal waste of time and a real bummer. You know how many times I have used Algebra in my life as a Social Worker? Exactly 0. My time would have been better spend leaning about finances (checking, credit cards, banking) than endless hours of algebra. Teach kids what they need to know. Why do you think we have so many people in financial trouble? They don’t know what the hell they are doing when it comes to banking, loans and so forth.

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