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For 14 years, my family saved cardboard shoeboxes. After throwing out the crinkled tissue paper, putting our shoes in our closets and fighting over the Archie comics that our local shoe store handed out, my three siblings and I would go to the basement to shove the shoeboxes carelessly into the closet. It was where all good shoeboxes went to die -- the Shoebox Burial Ground. Unlike the trash or the recycling bins at the town dump, the sacred closet offered its inhabitants a second lifetime, a chance to make a difference in this topsy-turvy world. Only when sent to the basement could the useless cardboard goods of our house be resurrected. It was from here that the shoeboxes were finally informed of God's greater purpose for them on Earth. They were to become dioramas. Shoeboxes weren't the only materials used. Toilet paper rolls became binoculars for reports on Christopher Columbus. Leftover coffee grounds were used as dye for realistic-looking Constitution reproductions. And, of course, sugar cubes were crucial to my personal reconstruction of the Parthenon. (It was eaten by a fellow classmate who foolishly failed to realize that epoxy glue was not edible as he had his stomach pumped hours later. The doctors felt he was delusional when he cited ancient Greece as the cause of his illness.) Years of dioramas, mobiles, oral reports and video projects mark our collective childhood. As children of the '80s, we have suffered through a lot of things that third-graders today don't have to endure: slap bracelets, Tony Danza, Milli Vanilli TrapperKeepers and Garbage Pail Kids. As of early October, though, there's just one more thing that can put even more salt in the "everything-always-gets-better-when-we-leave" wound. Homework. As a result of a school board ruling earlier this month in New Jersey, kids aren't allowed to have the one thing that unifies elementary school students across the ages. These kids aren't allowed to get homework the way we did -- so farewell, Shoebox Burial Ground. In Piscataway, N.J., the school board limited nightly homework and prohibited teachers from grading their students' assignments. According to a recent article by Kate Zernike in The New York Times, the amount of homework prescribed for students has varied over the years. In the 1930s, homework was limited or banned (in California by state law) because it was declared "child labor." In the 1950s, educators feared there wasn't enough homework and that America would lose the "space race" as a result. The homework rules in Piscataway have been changed for an entirely different reason: It's not the students who are complaining, but the parents. Point blank, they're just sick and tired of coming home to help make another goddamn diorama. Even for the parents, it's just too much. As educators grapple with the issue of how much homework is too much and how much is not enough, it's hard not to wonder about what will happen to students who don't have to save their cardboard shoeboxes. On the upside, it is the parents who don't want the homework, not the children who are balking at the challenge. On the downside, the parents' desire to get a free pass out of helping their kids with homework because of their own work-related anxiety may set a bad example for students. Worse yet, without the endless projects, the drilling of information and the interactive, experiential learning that happens when parents and children work together on sugar-cube models of the Parthenon, will students be able to absorb and learn as much as they have in the past? If I may quote the sages, in The Simpsons, Homer Simpson says to Maggie, "If something is hard, honey, it's just not worth doing." Is it not worth helping our children with dioramas just because it's hard? Is this the final dumbing down of America? At this point, it's no longer about Styrofoam planets and yarn. It's about America's educational future.

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