October 21, 2018

The School Project Nightmare

The fourth grade take-home assignment seemed fairly straightforward: take a huge hunk of butcher paper, lay your kid down on it, and trace a life-size version of their favorite American tall-tale protagonist.

My daughter selected Johnny Appleseed. She carefully colored in his plaid shirt, and Abba helped pencil in the work boots and shirt collar. She then colored his demin pants in a pleasant shade of indigo, and cut out a hole for her face.

“Good work,” we told her, then took a few photos, rolled it up and sent it back to school.

A few weeks later, we were strolling around the classroom during open-school night and saw what other children had brought in. Johnny Appleseeds with cut-out denim scraps artfully arranged on their pants, an aluminum foil belt buckle and a real corncob pipe.

Another gal had brought in Annie Oakley with a red taffeta dress, parasol and sparkly heels. Paul Bunyan with real bandanas and a huge golden belt buckle. Do you think these kids really came up and executed those life-size images? I don’t think so.

Maybe this is only a problem at our public school, I thought, because so many of the parents hailed from the creative and entertainment worlds. I began to talk to other parents at private Jewish day schools and Beverly Hills public schools. The same parental over-involvement was in evidence everywhere.

At one elementary school in Beverly Hills, the fourth-grade kids were asked to design T-shirts depicting a recent book they had read. Whereas my friend downloaded and printed out a simple airplane T-shirt transfer, other parents went over the top. They hand-embroidered characters and wove in dazzling patches of silk. Others purchased expensive paint sets and created tasteful depictions of Harry Potter performing his magic.

In short, the parents had taken over the kids’ projects. As a result, the other kids, who lacked such resourceful and artsy parents, felt like second-class citizens. Their own kid-inspired creations, no matter how good, wouldn’t be able to compete with grown-ups.

It’s time for all of us to stop this collective nonsense.

To be fair, sometimes the schools are the main culprits. One Jewish day school on the Westside assigned each fourth-grader a different county in the state to study.

My friend’s daughter had the bad luck to get stuck with a small rural county no one has ever heard of. She had to unearth many miniscule details, such as its annual rainfall and topographical features. None of this information was available in the Junior Almanac or on kid-friendly Web sites where you can be guaranteed not to run into porno.com. The mom felt she had little choice but to spend hours on the Internet and in the library.

Schools also sometimes ask for more than is humanly possible if you’re not Martha Stewart. Another friend said the final straw in ridiculous school projects was when they were asked to make an “edible” book report (what ever happened to two-page longhand reports, anyway?). My friend ran out to the store and bought graham crackers, icing, miniature marshmallows and licorice strips, all with the intention of creating a log cabin for “Little House on the Prairie.” By the time the house collapsed a third time, she turned to her daughter and said words we all need to memorize, “Forget about it!”