As discussed in last week’s blog entry, the Reading Public Schools hosted a showing of the documentary, Race to Nowhere, last Tuesday evening. Over 400 parents, teachers, and students attended this viewing which highlighted the anxiety and strain that our students are under from today’s pressures and demands of society. In the documentary, students, teachers, and parents from suburban communities all over the country talked candidly about topics such as the amount of homework assigned on a daily basis, the amount of curriculum that needs to be covered in an Advanced Placement course, the overscheduling of students, the accountability demands of No Child Left Behind, and the expectation for our students to always get into the “best colleges.” According to the documentary, this increasing pressure has led to an increase in students harming themselves, an increase in student depression, a genuine loss of the love for learning, an increase use of stimulants such as caffeine to stay awake, a lack of sleep, and increased hospitalization of students. Recently, the Boston Globe, published an article describing the film and the follow-up discussion from an audience who saw the film in Harvard, Massachusetts. In the article, similar topics were discussed. One high school senior was quoted as saying, “the culture of anxiety is contagious.”
After the film, Wood End Elementary School teacher Joanne King facilitated a discussion with the audience about the film. The 40 minute discussion focused on topics such as the purpose of homework, the amount of homework that is assigned to students, the pressure of mid-term exams, the overscheduling of students, the amount of memorization versus critical thinking that is expected in certain courses, and the expectation that everyone needs to get an A.
The showing of the film and the follow-up discussion are only the beginning of a community conversation. The pros and cons of each topic should be and will be discussed to identify what is best for our students in Reading. This growing problem is not just a school issue, but a community, parent and societal issue as well which will take a collaborative approach to solving. The main question at hand is how do we create that healthy balance for our students? At the end of the film, several suggestions were mentioned. For parents, they are:
- Reduce performance pressure.
- Avoid over-scheduling.
- Allow time for play, family, friends, downtime and sleep.
- Ask your children how they are feeling.
- Allow your children to make mistakes and learn from them.
- Dialogue with your children about their experiences in school.
- Know the signs of childhood depression. Follow your instincts.
- Attend school board meetings and other venues where education is discussed and policies are established and reinforced.
- Form alliances and organize other parents to join you. As a group, talk to your children’s teachers, school administrators, and attend School Board meetings.
- Challenge accepted homework practices and policies and the imposition of state and national standards that have narrowed curriculum.
For teachers, the film suggested the following:
- Become knowledgeable about research in the area of homework and the importance of play and downtime.
- See what happens when you assign less homework.
- Empower students with more voice and choice in the classroom.
- Find opportunities to evaluate children aside from tests.
- Share your voice on policies impacting education in your school community and at school board meetings.
Students were given suggestions such as:
- Speak to the adults in your life about how you are feeling.
- Make sure you get plenty of sleep.
- Unplug and slow down.
- Make time for things you enjoy.
- Limit AP classes to subjects you enjoy.
- Limit extra-curricular activities.
- Seek colleges that use a comprehensive approach to looking at applicants.
- Learn about the long-term impact of caffeine and performance-enhancing medications.
Finally, administrators were given the following suggestions:
- Develop a “plan of action” to create a positive and healthy educational environment that supports the “whole child”.
- Support “multiple pathways” in school integrating academics with career and technical education.
- Consider a later start time for the school day in high school.
- Address sources of stress for children, educators and families.
- Set expectations with faculty at the beginning of the year: ie. if homework takes longer than a set amount of time, child should not continue to the point of frustration and should not suffer any consequences at school.
- Make sure that elementary school students have recess and older students time for lunch.
- Consider the way your school recognizes students and include opportunities for a broad range of young people to be recognized.
- Consider block schedules which reduce the number of transitions and contacts for students and teachers.
- Re-think AP programs. Work closely with college admissions offices to share how your students are evaluated.
- Ensure that school websites are focused on school communications rather than grades.
- Create calendars to reduce overlapping demands and establish guidelines for tests and projects immediately prior to or after holiday breaks.
- Provide opportunities for open communications between teachers, parents and students.
- Create a vision for change with the emphasis being on engaged learning rather than teaching to a test.
In addition, we have received numerous requests from students, parents, and teachers to have an additional showing of this documentary. The initial showing and the admission fee that was charged was part of a contractual agreement that we had with Reel Link films, who produced the film. We are currently exploring additional ways that we can give more of our community access to the documentary and continue the discussion.
For further information about this film, please go to the Race to Nowhere website.