When kids or parents normally complain about homework, it’s mainly because of either the quantity or the difficulty. One only has so much time in the day to plow through their studies. But people occasionally get upset about homework for different reasons. Not because it’s too time consuming, but because, in their eyes, it blows beyond the boundaries of good taste. This is usually not the intent. Controversy is something lower education tends to avoid like the plague. Inciting it can prove perilous for the employment of any teacher, be they well meaning or not. But controversy arrises with homework more than you might think. Sometimes a child comes home with an assignment so bizarre, incendiary, and insensitive that one it’s a wonder how it was ever assigned in the first place. Perhaps it’s too sexually provocative or racially charged, or maybe it presents moral dilemmas that children simply aren’t mature enough to fully comprehend. A teacher should try to preserve a child’s innocence as long as possible, some say, not offer a preemptive assault on their sensibilities. We need to play devil’s advocate here, while proceeding with caution: It’s not always a negative to get an assignment that diverts from convention. Sometimes homework provokes intense feelings because a teacher is asking important questions designed to broaden their students’ horizons. So why do some teachers give out homework that could result in being reprimanded at best and fired at worst? Let’s take a look at some of the most prominent examples of homework assignments that went very, very wrong—either because of poor taste or offending the sensibilities of overprotective parents.
“Each tree had 56 oranges. If eight slaves pick them equally, then how many would each slave pick?” Could you imagine seeing that loaded question on your child’s math homework? It was a real eye-opener for parents of third graders at Beaver Ridge Elementary School in Norcross, Georgia. The question appeared on a 2012 cross-curricular activity that mixed basic math questions with a reading assignment about abolitionist Frederick Douglass. And it got worse. Another question read: “If Frederick got two beatings per day, how many beatings did he get in one week?” So why would any teacher think about including slavery into a math question? Gaye Lynn Seawright, assistant superintendent at Valley Mills Independent School District in Waco, Texas, says, “When people send home questions like that, that are in poor taste, what that tells me, as an administrator, is that they need a mentor teacher. They don’t have enough experience in the classroom or in the community.” While it’s important to learn arithmetic and American history (both the good and the bad), mixing them together takes things out of context. Seawright also emphasizes that anytime a teacher is teaching about a sensitive topic, it’s important to “change the verbage to reflect a more neutral type of environment.”
How comfortable are you?
This outrageous questionnaire got a teacher in Hernando, Florida, fired. And it’s not hard to understand why. It was a list entitled “How Comfortable Am I?”, and it included provocative questions that had students rate how they might react to certain social situations. Those situations largely revolved around issues of race, gender, sexuality, and those with disabilities. In an interview with ABC news, Jennifer Block, mother to a 12-year-old student, said she was offended by the questions, including “How comfortable are you if you see a group of black men walking to you on the street?”, adding, “That’s completely inappropriate. In no world, whatsoever, is that okay to question a child on.” In the same segment, student Tori Drews was equally outraged by the questions: “I thought some of them were racist. I thought some of them were sexist. I thought it was completely intolerable.” So why would a teacher assign such potentially inflammatory homework? Did the instructor have good intentions by trying to teach about tolerance? Was it designed to help students confront their on biases, or was the instructor forcing their own bigoted views on their students? Seawright says no matter the intent, teachers walk a very fine line venturing into such sensitive territory, as there can be blowback from “preaching in a classroom and trying to make your own philosophies to be the kids, because that’s the parents job. You’re just there to teach the content and make sure they pass the class and they grow up with good standards and they have open minds to learning.”
Fat Shaming Children
As adults, it’s easy to forget just how sensitive children can be about their physical appearance. A 2015 study by Common Sense Media shows that one-third of boys and over half of girls as young as 6 to 8 years of age are unhappy with their body weight. And by age 7, one in four children have tried some type of dieting program. In other words, fat shaming can have a devastating effect on kids who already have body image issues. It’s too bad that some teachers didn’t get the memo—namely, teaching staff in Bellevue, Kentucky. Third graders were assigned an essay about the Great Depression that featured the insensitive multiple choice question “A very fat child probably…” The most egregious possible answer was “had trouble sharing a seat.” One parent took to social media to declare how upset she was that her child was exposed to such insensitive material. In response to her outcry, the school board apologized, stating that the essay, designed for reading comprehension, was sent home without any of the teaching staff aware of the potentially offensive material. You may be asking, “How could an entire teaching staff not know what’s contained in their teaching materials?” Seawright says that teachers who make these types of reckless errors often lack experience due to only learning the bare basic requirements for their position: “They pay like $2,000 and spend a few months taking online courses, and then they get a job. … So that’s where a lot of your mistakes are made.” She says that while an online teaching course covers all the major qualifications, it misses nuances which can result in a teacher who is “not attuned to the community, or the age of the kid, or what developmental state the kids are and what’s appropriate for them, because they don’t have a lot of experience.”
In 2016, a controversial homework assignment for students at a high school in Aloha, Oregon, drew polarizing reactions from some parents. The assignment in question was a survey which challenged students to identify if they had benefitted or been harmed by white privilege, a theory stating that white Americans benefit from a social hierarchy that discriminates against minorities. [pullquote align=”center”]It’s a huge topic and it needs to start somewhere. If it doesn’t start now, it’s not going to start.[/pullquote] Questions included hypothetical scenarios like, “I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well-assured that I will not be followed or harassed,” or “If a police officer pulls me over, I can I can be sure I haven’t been singled out because of my race.” In an interview with a local news station, parent Jason Schmidt was angry with his son’s assignment. “I think he should be learning actual education and not be a part of some social experiment or some teacher’s political agenda,” he said. This survey wasn’t met entirely with criticism, however. In the same news segment, Sarah Rios-Lopez countered, saying, “I want [my daughter] to have opinions. Whether it’s for or against, you have to create those, but you can’t without good information, so I applaud teachers getting out that information. … It’s a huge topic and it needs to start somewhere. If it doesn’t start now, its not going to start.” In response to the news coverage, school officials elucidated on why students were given the assignment, saying it was to help them engage in a civil manner on matters regarding race, sexuality, and religion. It’s worth noting this study has been distributed to various school districts ever since it was first published in 1988. While it may make students (and parents) uncomfortable, it’s clearly designed to start a dialogue…but some parents aren’t interested in their children joining the conversation.
A 2010 homework assignment assigned to middle schoolers in Greenwich, New York, raised major eyebrows from some parents. Gary Cella became incensed after he found his 11-year-old daughter’s reading assignment contained numerous racial and sexist slurs, telling a local NBC affiliate she felt “as a parent of a seventh-grader that words that start with the letter ‘F’ and are four letters in duration and that words that start with letter ‘N’ and are six letters in duration are inappropriate.” When Cella reached out to the school principal, he was told the assignment was intentionally provocative. It was done in conjunction with the American Library Association‘s Banned Books Week. The reason it was assigned? To make students understand (and discuss) why certain classic books are deemed offensive or taboo. [pullquote align=”center”]It is not a question whether or not the content is offensive —of course it is—but it is the intent of why the content is being given to students …[/pullquote] Matt C. Pinsker, JD, a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, says teaching students about free speech is important: “I teach constitutional law, including the First Amendment’s right to free speech and the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause to combat racism. To understand the law on free speech and equal protection, I have my students read U.S. Supreme Court decisions and do practice problems, many of which arise from speech uttered by some of the worst people in this country.” “Of course,” he adds, “what those people said is offensive, vulgar, vile, and absolutely disgusting. However, just like a doctor cannot learn medicine without seeing naked people, there is no way to learn constitutional law about free speech and equal protection without reading these important Supreme Court cases and going over real-world examples.” In instances like these, he notes it’s about getting students prepared for life beyond the classroom. “It is not a question whether or not the content is offensive—of course it is—but it is the intent of why the content is being given to students and that it is done so in a professional manner which is reflective of the real world … .”
Pass or fail?
So, as we’ve covered, when homework causes social outrage, it falls into one of two categories: poor judgment by a teacher or something intentionally designed to push the envelope. Something ill-advised, or something intended to develop a grasp on complex societal issues that well-worn textbooks don’t cover. It’s clear, then, that the most important quality, for both teacher and parent, is the ability to discern between the two. Seawright says there will always be instances when homework assignments touch a raw nerve, because, in the end, “Everyone comes from different backgrounds. Everybody’s interests are different. Everyone’s political and religious views are different.” She adds that when approaching such sensitive topics, it’s possible to teach the concepts while being conscious of the age of the child and proceeding with caution. “I’m for keeping the innocence in the classroom for the kids. I think there’s so much out there right now, and part of what some teachers are missing is that kids grow up so fast.”