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04 November 2005 THE HOMEWORK MACHINE by Dan Gutman, Simon & Schuster, March 2006, ISBN: 0-689-87678-5


I asked a few of my middle school friends about homework:


Student One:


"I don't know. Some homework is boring. Well, most of it is boring. I mean just to bring my grade up I have to spend at least two hours on my homework. Well, actually I spend at least three and a half hours because I get distracted by my music and start singing along.

"I think everyone has cheated on their homework. I call my friend and ask for the answers."


Student Two:


"I don't like homework. I feel doing homework is a waste of time. We go to school to do work. We shouldn't have to work at home, too. What's the point of that?

"I hate homework even more in eighth grade because you get more of it to do. I used to often do it. Now I often don't do it.

"I think teachers give homework because student can piss them off so they give us a lot of homework to make us angry.

"I copy other people's homework."


Student Three:


"Doing homework sucks. School things should be done at school. We have to go to school about eight hour a day. Why should we spend the rest of the day doing homework?

"I spend about four or five hours on homework every night. I'm really slow at getting things. Sometimes I don't do my homework because I have sports, chores, or something that is actually important to do.

"I know that I'll have to try in high school and do the homework even if I don't want to.

"I do cheat sometimes. Mostly why I copy is if I forgot to do something. I never copy on essays or anything, but like math or fill in the blank things."


Student Four:


"Homework is useless and a waste of time. What's the point of homework? It's just frustrating and annoying. I think it is unnecessary because it wastes most of your social life. It leaves you no time to play with your friends.

"Yes, I'll copy someone's paper."


Student Five:


"I spend like ten minutes on homework. Sometimes I spend no time on homework."


Student Six:


"I really have always liked homework, except for in second grade because I hated my teacher. I never take or borrow someone's paper and copy it."


Student Seven:


"I don't like it; I never have liked it. That has never changed. But I still have to do it because my parents make me. "I'll get my friend's finished paper and copy it onto my paper."


I've always liked doing homework, myself. Being enrolled in an online MLIS program, where school is almost entirely composed of homework, works really well for me. But I know from doing housework what it's like when you are faced with a task that feels like a total chore and you so wish you could do that task just once and not have to deal with it the next day and the next day and...


THE HOMEWORK MACHINE is presented in the format of characters taking turns narrating into a recording device the progression of events that have taken place over the past school year. The narration is being done at the direction of the police.


The story features four fifth graders from Grand Canyon, Arizona and their initial grouping is reminiscent of the randomness with which the student characters in The Breakfast Club are brought together. At the beginning of the year, fifth-grade teacher Miss Rasmussen creates the group:


"In graduate school, one of my professors told me that the children learn better when they work in small groups. I divided the class into six groups of four kids, and we pushed the desks together in those groups.

"I had no big plan to put Brenton, Kelsey, Judy, and Sam together. I did it alphabetically. All their last names started with D. We called them the D squad."


Of those four, Sam Dawkins (Snik) is the new kid in town, an Air Force brat:


"Somebody told me that the human brain isn't fully formed until we're about twenty years old. That's why kids do dumb things sometimes. And that's why we're not allowed to vote and drink and stuff. So can you really blame us for the dumb thing we did? I don't think so. Our brains aren't fully formed yet."


Judy Douglas is the ever-diligent student:


"The whole thing started because certain people who shall remain nameless did some thoughtless things that I don't need to discuss here.

"This is so unfair. I have almost straight A's and I'm in the G&T program. That's gifted and talented. I would never break the law or do anything dishonest. Things just got out of control. The next thing we knew, we had to go talk to the police."


Kelsey Donnelly is the pink-haired average student:


"Brenton's a dork, but he's a genius dork. I know he's gonna find a cure for cancer or win the Nobel prize of something when he grows up. If any kid could create a machine that would do your homework for you, Brenton is the kid.

"And what's so amazing about it, anyhow? They put a man on the moon, right? They grow babies in test tubes, right? So why couldn't somebody invent a machine that could do homework?"


The brilliant student, Brenton Damagatchi, whose father can get him free computer equipment from work:


"I knew I should never have told Snik. As soon as the words left my mouth, I realized it was a mistake. Secrets are best kept secret. That's why they're called secrets. If I had kept my mouth shut, none of this would have happened."


But Brenton does open his mouth and the events that subsequently unfold cause the quartet to become unlikely friends. The technology aspect of the tale is thoroughly plausible: Scan in the homework assignment sheet. Have text recognition software that transforms the homework into a series of queries. If a particular answer is not available on the hard drive then have the computer automatically retrieve cross-checked solutions online. Have software that stores handwriting samples, thus permitting the computer to print out the completed homework in the handwriting of each of the four students.


Brenton Damagatchi:


"It's not science fiction. It's pretty basic stuff, really. I'm surprised nobody else thought of it before me."


Judy Douglas:


"When that piece of paper popped out of the printer, I felt like I was witnessing a history-making event."


Beyond the central plotline of this fun and thought-provoking story, Dan Gutman has also folded into the mix a whole series of kid-relevant issues including popularity, fads spread online, and the war in Iraq.


Sam Dawkins:


"The red socks thing blew my mind! Think of it. This one kid took his computer and with a few keystrokes got just about everybody in America to do this dumb thing. It was cool! And that kid was sitting next to me. Think of the power! He could make every kid in America hop backward and recite the 'Pledge of Allegiance' if he wanted to."


Kelsey Donnelly:


"When I heard that Snik's dad had to go to the Middle East, I just started crying. I couldn't stop. It's like something opened inside of me. Everybody gathered around me and asked me what was wrong. That was the first time I ever told anybody at school that my dad died. I didn't want Snik's dad to die, too."


I'm just dying to team up with a fifth or sixth grade teacher and set up THE HOMEWORK MACHINE as reader's theater. It's a thoroughly entertaining read that is guaranteed to get kids and adults debating the issues relating to homework.


But for the sake of my middle school friends' sanity and social lives, teachers should remember to have their students write about THE HOMEWORK MACHINE during rather than after school.


Richie Partington




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