Care and Feeding

Worst Assignment Ever

Should students be forced to share personal loss on a poster?

A girl raises her hand to her notebook, which is splattered with color.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock and Image Source/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. In addition to our traditional advice, every Thursday we feature an assortment of teachers from across the country answering your education questions. Have a question for our teachers? Email askateacher@slate.com or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

This week’s Ask a Teacher panel:
Carrie Bauer, middle and high school, New York
Amy Scott, eighth grade, North Carolina
Brandon Hersey, second grade, Washington
Cassy Sarnell, preschool special education, New York

My daughter is a freshman in high school, and she recently got an assignment in life sciences that seems inappropriate. I’m wondering whether I should intervene with the teacher or leave it alone. The assignment is for the kids to identify someone in their family who died of cancer, and then students are supposed to research that kind of cancer. They’re supposed to create a poster presentation to display for the entire school.

The teacher also told them that the assignment requires them to use the story of their relative’s death as the “attention-grabbing” part of the poster and presentation. This means sharing details of how cancer affected their relative and how the person died. The goals of the project are to learn about cancer and to advocate for more research funding to fight cancer.

It seems inappropriate to me to ask kids to share memories (some very recent) of their relatives’ deaths with the entire school, and to grade them on how well they do it. My daughter told the teacher she thought this wasn’t a great assignment, especially since two classmates lost a close relative to cancer earlier in the school year and are still grieving. The teacher’s response was to tell the kids that the best way to do the assignment was to use a relative’s story but that she would permit the kids to use a celebrity’s story if they didn’t want to use a personal story. Given that my child has already attempted to resolve this herself, I’m wondering if I should step in or if my sense that this is inappropriate is off-base. Thanks.

—Wanting Some Boundaries

Dear Wanting,

Oh, LORD! I gasped aloud! The goals of this project are reasonable enough (although “learn about cancer” is such a broad objective that even a student teacher could see it needs refinement), but the execution is absurdly tone-deaf at best and cruel at worst. I guess I can sympathize with what I surmise is the teacher’s desire to make her curriculum feel visceral and relevant, but “Building Engagement by Retraumatizing Grieving Adolescents” is not a professional development workshop anyone is going to deliver on staff development day.

Normally, I’d advise you to start with the teacher, but as you said, your daughter has already advocated to the teacher once. My prediction is that going to her again won’t yield much of a result—I think she’ll likely say she has already accommodated the concern by offering the celebrity alternative. Technically, that’s true, but in my opinion, it’s not a great workaround when the overall project has such clear potential to be hurtful. In this case, I might start by emailing the guidance counselor and cc-ing the principal. If your daughter has a copy of the directions for the project, I’d quote the language directly from that, then spell out your concerns as clearly and neutrally as you have here. I wouldn’t frame the issue around the two classmates who have suffered a loss; because you aren’t their parent, it’s a bit of an overstep to advocate on their behalf. You can just as compellingly express that the general task seems insensitive and ill-considered. I certainly hope they’ll press the teacher to adjust the assignment. (Also, I have so many lingering questions! Has the teacher ever assigned this project before? If so, how is it possible that no one has complained previously?! Please feel free to write back and give me the full run-down and an update!) Good luck.

—Ms. Bauer

My kiddo is a very bright third grader who loves to read. If the book involves unicorns or rainbows, she will not stop talking! Getting her to put those ideas in writing is a different struggle, however. It often results in tears, tantrums, and, yesterday, torn assignment pages. I’ve thought about asking my child’s teacher for strategies to encourage her to put her thoughts together coherently. What do you think of that? Is there anything else I could do at home to help reinforce the concepts of, say, expository writing and narrative writing? I don’t need her to be doing five-paragraph essays or anything, but I do want to help coach her through these tantrums.

—Turn a Reader Into a Writer?

Dear TRIW,

Your letter is music to an English teacher’s ears! Any time I hear a student loves to read, I bloom.

Frankly, I don’t think you should worry too much about the other part right now. Generating ideas is a huge part of writing, and from what you’ve said, she’s got that part down. While it’s true that many third graders can physically write stories, letters, and reports, for others it takes longer, and the best thing you can do is not push too hard.

Let me draw a parallel. I’m a member of several online parent groups, and at least once a week, a parent will post: How should I potty-train my 20-month-old? The seasoned parents will reply, practically in chorus: don’t. Wait until the kid is ready. Because the fact is, while some 2-year-olds will want to use the toilet that early, many just can’t do it at that age. And while you can train some who don’t want to, it’ll probably involve tears from both parties.

I’m not saying your daughter can’t do it, but it doesn’t seem like she wants to right now. The worst thing that could happen is that your daughter could decide now that she “doesn’t like writing” or she’s “bad at writing.” So let her do what she’s comfortable doing, what she likes, what she’s good at. If that’s talking, let her talk. Help her develop her ideas by asking clarifying questions. Restate what she says in a more organized way: “Let me see if I understand. You’re saying … ” Praise her creativity or whatever part of idea generation she is doing well.

One question: Does she give you any indication that the physical part of writing is a chore? Some kids at that age still have fine motor challenges, which can manifest as resistance to writing. If that’s the case, there are a few things you can do. First, she could try dictation software. Second, you could ask to scribe for her (then let her reread and edit the piece). Last, see if she’s ready to learn to type. There are a bunch of online typing programs that kids love.

And to answer your question, yes, definitely consult with her teacher. They will know your daughter as a reader, a writer, and a whole person, so their feedback will be the most valuable.

—Ms. Scott

My son is in his first year of kindergarten. While his year has generally been fine, I’ve been disappointed with the setup of his class. He has two teachers who job-share the single position (i.e., one works Monday and Wednesday and Friday, while the other is in class on Tuesday and Thursday), and from what I see, this setup hasn’t provided the consistency and stability needed by kindergartners starting out in school. In particular, it seems like it has contributed to some ongoing behavioral problems in the classroom. Moreover, the class is very boy-heavy (something like 75 percent of the students are boys), which I assume further complicated this classroom setup.

I want to contact the principal regarding my dissatisfaction, but I’m not sure if this is appropriate on my part. I don’t necessarily have an issue with job-sharing in general, but I think it should be restricted to older students who are already accustomed to the social and behavioral demands of school. Is this worth contacting the principal over, even though my son made it through relatively unscathed, or do I leave that to parents of classmates with more significant problems? I’m certain he would have had a better year with a more consistent environment, like his older sister had when she was in kindergarten.

—Not Usually a Complainer

Dear Not Usually a Complainer,

I generally give the advice to parents that you shouldn’t complain to principals (because they should talk to their teachers first), but I think this circumstance is rather unique. I’ve never been to a school where kindergarten teachers job-shared for exactly the reasons you mention. It creates inconsistency at an age when kids thrive off consistency and familiarity. It seems like a strange policy to me, not to mention bad for the teachers. Furthermore, you’re not complaining in a school district where job-sharing in kindergarten has been the norm, since the older sister had a more consistent environment.

There’s nothing the school can do about the gender ratio, unfortunately, but you can certainly mention to an administrator that you have concerns. I wouldn’t storm the principal’s office, guns blazing, and start demanding a single kindergarten teacher, but if the principal is someone you know, and you happen to see them at a school event, I don’t see the harm in mentioning this to them. As with all situations where you’re telling someone you would like them to do their job differently, a big part about whether you should say anything is in how you say it. Like you said, your son is relatively unscathed, and there are parents with worse problems. But if the principal asks, “How was this year for your son?” there’s nothing wrong with responding, “It was OK, but I think having one consistent teacher, like his sister did, would have made XYZ easier.”

It’s entirely possible that the school was trialing the job-sharing and secretly hoping for feedback from the parents on how well it went. It’s also entirely possible they’re trying job-sharing out for budget reasons. (Hiring a bunch of people part time is cheaper than hiring a few people full time—a workaround that I don’t like because it tends to take advantage of teachers.) Whatever the case, the school administration should probably be informed if it isn’t working well, and as long as you present it as feedback rather than as a demand or complaint, I think it’s fine to speak up and advocate for your son and any kiddos whose parents aren’t able to do so.

—Ms. Sarnell

My family and I are American expats in an Anglophone country, and our daughter is almost 3. It’s really hard to find good preschools where we are, and my daughter has ended up in a bilingual class at the German international school. We love it and she loves it, so all is great currently.

The challenge comes in planning for the future. I have the sort of job where we have to move every few years, and we expect our next move to be when my daughter is 6. I have no idea where we’ll end up going and won’t know for several years.

The American International School here starts at 4 years old, and we were initially planning to move her over there then, as the German school doesn’t start really focusing on academics until about 7 years old. We also figure that she’ll move to an American or British school when we move (and she’s 6), so the American International School would help keep her from being behind her peers when that move happens.

But now the German school is asking if we want to put her in the full German class starting next term, or if we want to keep her in the bilingual program. I am a big believer in the benefits of knowing other languages. My daughter has this great opportunity to master German, but she probably won’t have much chance to use German past the age of 6.

Do we keep her in the bilingual program and then switch her to the American school at 4? Put her in the full German class and keep her there until she’s 6, when we’ll move again? Put her in the bilingual class but keep her at the school ’til she’s 6? Put her in the full German class but move her to the American school when she’s 4?

Or am I overthinking this and any option will be fine since she’s so young and a quick learner?

Deutsch Lernen Oder Nicht?

Hey there, Deutsch!

What an amazing opportunity for your daughter and family! I don’t think you’re overthinking it. Decisions like these can be tricky, and approaching them thoughtfully is important. Kids at this age are quite resilient, so let me start by saying that I believe whatever you choose will benefit your daughter greatly.

That said, my recommendation is that you place her in the full German class next term and consider moving her when she’s 4. At your daughter’s age, school is less about teaching content and more about learning skills. Placing your daughter in a linguistically challenging learning environment, even if the content isn’t academically rigorous, will give her skills like problem-solving, reasoning, and making connections. These skills will serve her well during any transition your family makes. Also, it’s important to keep in mind that most American children don’t begin school ’til age 5, so I wouldn’t worry much about her falling behind her peers.

After one year in the full German class, you’ll be able to see how she likes it, and reassess. If she really enjoys it, you could consider keeping her there ’til your move, and if not, the American school will still be there. I hope this helps. Viel Glück!

—Mr. Hersey