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Northfield eighth-graders do their homework on petition for less homework

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“A lot of people think we’re trying to get rid of homework, but we’re not,” said Ameilia Pelletier, 14. She and friend Elizabeth Sweeney, 13, co-wrote a petition against homework that’s garnered more than 400 signatures.

The idea of an anti-homework petition may rouse notions of teens just trying to shirk their studies, but the petition itself is the product of hours upon hours of work by the two eighth-grade A-students at Pioneer Valley Regional School.

“To do all the research took about three hours each night for two weeks,” Sweeney said.

Their principal, William Wehrli, recognized the effort the students put into their petition.

“I think it’s great for students to take the initiative and work on something they feel is important,” he said. The petition reads like a research paper.

Sweeney and Pelletier back up their arguments with citations from eight sources.

They explored correlations between school-related stress and teen drug abuse, the relationship between back problems and overloaded bookbags, and a link between too much homework and student illnesses.

They also make the case that homework takes away from other extracurricular activities. It can get in the way of family time, create conflicts with after-school sports or jobs, and keep students from pursuing personal interests, according to the petition.

Both students lead busy lives. Sweeney plays volleyball and rows, takes piano and flute lessons and plans to participate in the school’s winter musical.

Pelletier runs track and plays softball, baby-sits and has to go to physical therapy sessions twice a week for knee problems.

Both students also spend time volunteering, and would like to seek after-school jobs.

“That doesn’t leave a lot of time for homework,” said Sweeney. “It’s a juggling act.” PVRSD Superintendent Dayle Doiron said she thinks extracurricular activities are important for students to become well-rounded people, and many PVRS students participate in them.

“It’s important to participate in those things, and not solely focus on one to the detriment of the others,” she said.

Pelletier and Sweeney said they’d have more opportunities to do so with less homework. Though they agree that some homework is essential to reinforce classroom learning, they feel some of it is busywork which could be scaled back or eliminated.

“In one class, we had to color in Bingo cards,” said Pelletier. “That was two weeks ago, and we still haven’t used them.

The two were able to win their parents’ support, after they saw the work they’d put into the petition.

“I was originally a little skeptical,” said Chris Pelletier, Ameilia’s father. “But they made some compelling arguments. After reading the petition, I had a change of heart.”

“It also got us to do our own research,” said Ameila’s mother, Heather Pelletier. “The more we read, the more we agreed that things need to change.”

Though the school does well on standardized tests like MCAS, Wehrli said that’s no reason not to examine or change the way things are done.

“It’s very easy to say ‘Well, this is how things have always been done,’ and keep doing them that way, but that doesn’t make it a good idea,” said Wehrli.

His boss agrees.

“I think this is a legitimate topic to take a look at,” Doiron said.

She, too, recognized the work Pelletier and Sweeney put into the petition.

“I think they’ve taken it as a serious responsibility,” she said. “I’m glad it’s getting some good attention.”

The students conclude their argument with a request.

They’re asking teachers to limit the out-of-school assignments to special projects, reading, and quick assignments meant to reinforce inclass learning.

They propose that this be done on a trial basis, suggesting that test scores before and after the experiment be compared to measure its effect.

“The next step is for them to bring the signed petition to me,” said Wehrli. “Then, together, we can create a plan for the next steps.”

He said that will involve meetings with teachers, students and parents.

The girls also proposed that teachers meet to coordinate assignments, so students don’t wind up with several big projects all due the same week.

Wehrli said that’s a definite possibility. He also suggested that teachers could give assignments on a weekly basis, rather than daily.

“They could say, ‘Here’s the week’s homework, manage your time and have it all done by Monday,’” he said. “That way, they could choose which night to read 100 pages of ‘The Great Gatsby,’ for example.”

Wehrli said the girls’ petition, and the process it starts, teaches a valuable lesson.

“They’re learning how to elicit change in the world,” he said.

The petition may be viewed online, at homeworkpetition. wordpress.com. Its authors said they look forward to online comments on the petition, from both those who agree and those who do not. They’ve also created a Facebook page for the petition, at www.facebook.com/ HomeworkPetition.

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