It’s noon on Monday, and Charlene Pimentel has been up for more than 24 hours doing homework, trying to catch up from the loads of assignments that were piled on over the past week by her teachers.
She needs to crash – to sleep – but she’s afraid of what her teachers might think of her if she misses class again, having recently experienced a death in her family this month and having fallen behind on homework as she tried to mourn the loss. So, the Boston Latin Academy (BLA) senior pushed through, eating a minimal lunch and then logging on and hoping she wouldn’t crash on screen.
“I’m running on no sleep for the last 24 hours,” she said on Monday in an interview with two other BLA students. “What was I doing all night? I was just studying and catching up on everything that’s built up. I lost a family member recently and missed school for two weeks. I just was trying to catch up and completing the assignments due at 9 p.m., then on to the ones due at 11:59 p.m., and then all the others because I wanted to attend class today (Monday). I didn’t want to attend without doing my work. I feel terrible. I should have fallen asleep, but just imagine what my teachers would have thought of me.”
While homework has been a bane of existence for high-schoolers in Boston for some time, particularly those in the exam schools like BLA, the loads of work, and expectations for finishing that work, has gone into overdrive. Students describe a 24-hour cycle of homework, with due dates seven days a week and harsh cutoffs at 11:59 p.m. – just before midnight when the computerized platforms officially switch over to the new day.
It is why struggling, weary students all over the city call themselves “The 11:59 Generation,” a sardonic toast to the fact that they run on fumes, picking which assignments to complete before 11:59 p.m., and then moving on to other assignments throughout the night-time that they can work on for half-credit.
When do they sleep?
According to Khymani James – the student representative to the Boston School Committee and a BLA senior headed to Columbia University – they don’t.
“We’re up 24 hours all the time, but it’s about the bigger picture,” he said. “It needs to be recognized that I’m here during a pandemic and after a terrorist attack and having family in sick beds and after having to work. I’m here after three hours of sleep after doing your homework. I don’t need my feet kissed, but a round of applause wouldn’t hurt.”
James and Pimentel said the remote system has become so daunting – next to impossible – and when one falls apart and can’t keep up the round-the-clock rigor, they are punished.
“I actually feel like 11:59 is generous; it’s so generous,” said James, who spent more than 24 hours last week trying to complete assignments so he wouldn’t fall behind. “I’m just glad it isn’t due at 9 a.m. because then I’d be up until 5 a.m. trying to get it all done every day. The system won’t accept late work. I have to e-mail my homework every night to one of my teachers. That’s because the ‘Turn It In’ (platform) closes down at 11:59. I have five other classes to think about. His homework needs to come last and no I couldn’t get it in on time. So, to get it in at all, I just e-mail it.”
The stressful situation at the City’s high schools is particularly intense at BLA, which reported a 4 percent increase in the numbers of failing grades in December. That isn’t unique as nationally students have struggled to keep their grades up during the pandemic, and especially those in remote learning.
For James and Pimentel – as well as their group of friends – it’s all about the load of homework and a lack of understanding for what’s going on in the lives of students on the other side of the computer screen. Teachers seem to be in a silo, they said, with some teachers having a totally different set of rules than other teachers. It leads to inconsistency and confusion for a number of students.
James said there’s no time to be a teen-ager, no time to spend with family. He said he’s often gone an entire weekend without coming out of his room and talking with his family – mostly because he’s trying to meet weekend homework deadlines.
“Little do they know I have four other AP classes and I’m trying to spend time with my family and be a teen-ager with a life beyond homework,” he said. “The homework is a cherry on top. So, no, sometimes I’m not going to class and I’m going to sleep.”
Senior Farzana Janon said she feels penalized even when she thinks she’s doing the right thing.
“I put my camera on and participated in class and did everything they said to do, and I still got a 65 percent for class participation,” she said. “I don’t know why that happened. No one explained it…I don’t understand the punitive aspect. Some people can’t do what they ask.”
Pimentel said she hit an inflection point this month when she lost a close family member. While the family mourned the death, she found herself anxious because she was falling behind on homework. That led to some serious social-emotional turmoil, she said, and a re-evaluation of just where she’s headed in her education.
“I was doing my work and not grieving the way a person should,” she said. “That should speak volumes…For me to feel I can’t take time out to grieve with my family, to grieve the loss of a close family member, without the fear that I’m going to fail a class is not right.”
There is no easy answer, and certainly teachers have also been in a bind to figure out how to teach remotely and do so successfully. That has been complicated in urban districts like Boston by state decisions about moving ahead with standardized tests this spring despite the pandemic. However, the students said if the school district and the school leaders would listen to students a little more, there could be an easing of the pressure that has built up during this all-remote school year in Boston Public Schools (BPS).
“We’re just paid lip service,” Pimentel said. “We don’t even have a voice in our own voice. That’s why we are treated like robots. If they took the time to listen and have the discussion, it could be right…But this is child labor in front of me now. And I’m not even getting paid to sit here.”
James said such a statement about child labor and not getting paid is common amongst their friends. He said adults often get offended by that, and shut them off at the mere mention of such a thing. However, he said adults should be asking why a student feels they should be getting paid and why it feels like labor and not learning. If the education system is failing so much that students – especially honor students such as they are – feel they should be paid, then he said the line between learning and labor has been crossed.
For James, the answer lies in the quality of the education, and he has come to realize that many teachers feel piling on homework is the answer. He said many teachers feel like the students aren’t doing anything because they’re at home, when in fact many students like him routinely work more than 18 hours a day on school. It’s a disconnect the students said, so far, hasn’t been acknowledged in BPS.
“It really comes down to quality and not quantity,” he said. “We need less quantitative aspects and more positive aspects.”
He and the other two students would welcome less homework, and more time spent having robust conversations about the material. He pointed out a teacher he had in a previous year who would assign less homework, and use class time to provoke more thought and understanding of the material in deep discussions. That, he said, is more the model that would work during remote learning.
“It’s the subtle differences like this that can make a much larger impact right now,” he said.