Precinct 333

Thursday, January 20, 2005

School’s Out For Summer

One of the developments in education I’ve disliked over the last few years has been the practice of assigning “summer homework.” It is more than supplying a summer reading list and telling a kid to stimulate their minds during those weeks – it is actual “to be completed and graded” homework that must be submitted at the start of the term, or work on which a student will be tested immediately upon return from summer vacation. It isn’t really common, and is found mostly in advanced classes for which a student must “opt in”, so I don’t have to worry about it. Teaching average classes in a large school, I’m lucky to know how many kids are enrolled in my class the Friday before school starts, muchless who they are.

Peer Larson and his father, Bruce Larson have decided to strike back, filing suit in Wisconsin to ban the practice.

The Larsons are representing themselves in the lawsuit, which was filed in Milwaukee County Circuit Court last week. Bruce Larson is president of Larson Chemical Corp. in Greendale.

In addition to Peer Larson's Whitnall High School math teacher, Aaron Bieniek, the lawsuit also names the high school math department chair, Nancy Sarnow; Whitnall High School Principal Joel Eul; the Whitnall School District; and state schools superintendent Elizabeth Burmaster.

What provoked this suit? It seems that poor Peer got stressed out by the expectations of an honors math teacher.

The lawsuit emanates from a series of assignments that Peer Larson says Bieniek gave him and his classmates at the end of the 2003-'04 school year.

At the time, Peer Larson says, he was a sophomore in Brenda Hojnacki's class. Bieniek gave what Peer Larson described as a "presentation" for what students could expect in his honors pre-calculus class in the fall.

"He handed out the homework then as well," Peer Larson says. "He told us it was available online to download."

Peer Larson says Bieniek told the students he wanted the homework done at certain points during the summer, and that it had to be "postmarked by a certain date."

He said those dates were approximately at the beginning of July, August, and when the school year resumed.

"Not too many people were exactly happy with it," Peer Larson says. "Nobody really likes to do homework, especially during the summer."

Peer Larson said he completed the first and third assignments, but had trouble doing the second one because it was a lengthy assignment and he was working a full-time job as a counselor at the Indian Mound Reservation Boy Scout Camp in Oconomowoc.

"The second assignment was 16 pages, and that was extremely difficult for me to do," Peer Larson says.

"At camp, there really was never enough time to do it. At the end of the day, I'd be too tired to actually work on any kind of math."

Peer Larson says he could not recall if Bieniek made his phone number available to help the students, but that he thinks Bieniek included his e-mail address and some Web sites that could help guide students through the work.

He says Bieniek agreed to count only the assignments with the two highest scores, but only as long as he did all three assignments, which he says he ultimately did.
He says the whole experience ruined what was supposed to be an enjoyable summer break.

"It provided quite an amount of stress," Larson says. "I barely made the first assignment in on time."

Personally, I think the kid comes off as a whiner. But I also think the notion of three major assignments without direct instruction on the material is unreasonable. School is not in session, and a couple of websites and an email address is hardly a substitute for teaching. But the family didn’t bother to file a formal complaint with the district to challenge the practice – they raised it informally and let it drop. The state reviewed the issue and found it not to be a violation of the law. Rather than work with the school or the board, they file a lawsuit. I guess I don’t see where the kid was harmed, since he was made aware of the expectation in advance and did nothing to get out of the class.

By the way, I wonder if Dad, who runs his own chemical plant, gives his employees the summer off because they need a break? I wonder if he does any work when he is on vacation. And I’m curious if he would hire an employee with the work ethic the son appears to have.

UPDATE: Look at the Milwauke Journal-Sentinel editorial on the suit.

We hope and believe a judge will toss their lawsuit into the middle of Lake Michigan. We are not lawyers, but we are familiar with a legal principle that seems not only to allow, but to compel, throwing it out. It is a principle that lawyers call de minimis non curat lex. If young Larson studies Latin this summer or before, maybe he could learn what it means: “The law does not concern itself with trifles.



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