Saturday, January 29, 2011

Race to Nowhere

This has been an interesting 2 weeks of dialogue and sometimes very intense conversation following the screenings of the documentary film Race to Nowhere at Hunterdon Central. Amazingly, or maybe not so amazingly, over 1000 parents, students, educators and community members had an opportunity to see the film and reactions were interesting and varied. For those who are unfamiliar with the film, it highlights many of the pressures being faced by our young people today and also their families. The film captures the maniacal pace and pressure to succeed at all costs and the toll it is taking on the lives of our teenagers and even our middle school students.

Daniel Pink, author of A Whole New Mind comments that the film “raises important questions that educators and parents must confront ….a provocative, conversation starter of a film” which is precisely why we chose to be a screening venue for the film. Hunterdon Central, along with most high schools, is desperate to engage parents in meaningful conversation about what is happening in our classrooms and why we need to make dramatic changes in what we are doing. What all of us are doing. The film is an edict on the value or lack of value in the amount of homework being assigned to our kids. What is the quality? What is the quantity? What exactly is the goal of homework?

In addition to pointing a finger at our schools, it points a finger at our parents who have bought into the relentless over pursuit of extracurricular activities and over scheduling of our kids from elementary school through high school. This running from one activity to another that overwhelms their children and decimates any chance for the kind of “family time” that most of us agree is essential to strong family connections and meaningful relationships with parents and siblings.

The film also speaks to the outrageous competition being created by the college application process and the fact that colleges have become “big business,” marketing to our kids and relentlessly piling on requirements for AP courses and Honors classes in order to be considered for admission. In addition, the coupling with exacerbated demands for community service and participation in athletics, clubs and activities has left our teens and their families exhausted, physically ill and depleted.

For more information about the film you can go to

Here is some of the parent feedback I have received –

“Just wanted to again thank you for bringing "Race to Nowhere" to the high school. Many friends and family attended and commented how informative it was. I was very impressed with the students who stood up and talked, my college son being one of them
We were a little nervous since we had no idea he was going to speak, but the documentary has really moved him.”

“I wanted to thank you for acknowledging the stress of our youth by sharing the documentary "Race to Nowhere" at HCRHS. I attended the 4pm viewing with some other educators and parents and we all thought it was fabulous! I cried a few times as it hit me personally as a parent as well as an educator. Watching my senior daughter, suffer from stress over the past few weeks has been painful. She currently has AP Statistics (along with Honors Physics, Honors English and Holocaust) and is waiting for college acceptances. She puts a lot of pressure on herself. The fact that you are facilitating discussions with your staff is encouraging. I know there is a trickle down effect and pressure from gov't on down to see performance by test scores,(College Board is a whole other story) however it is so sad to see so many of our elementary students already with anxiety/stress disorders.”

“Thank you for facilitating the showing of the documentary last night. It was well received and so many people are interested in an ongoing dialogue. My daughter was the freshman who spoke at the end about how overwhelmed she already feels.”

Below is some of what my students have to say:

“The most important take away is homework. From the movie we saw yesterday, it talked about the importance of children growing up and living as a normal kid. With all the school's homework and extra activities outside of school, children have less time to be themselves and grow individually. Kids as young as 9 years are coming home with hours of homework to do and don't have enough time to spend with there friends and family or do any hobbies they are interested in learning. And all of this homework responsibility put on little children has caused them to be overly stressed with getting assignments handed in on time because they don't want to upset their parents or teachers by not doing the work. Too much homework and extra time put in to learning and getting good grades has caused young teens to kill themselves, stop eating, and not getting enough sleep. I think that in order for improvement in staying healthy and taking care of themselves, homework needs to be cut to an extent time. Some schools argue that it is not needed and shows no improvement with a child's ability to learn. If schools keep overloading young teenagers with homework that is not needed to begin with, they will continue to be overly stressed and unhealthy.”

“I thought this was a very interesting film to say the least. What I thought was interesting was that a lot of the students felt the same way about the work they were given. It was pretty unbelievable to see that some kids are so stressed out about school that they begin to get stomach aches and have physical pain. But another thing that was interesting was that most of the parents did the same thing when they saw that his/her child was stressed. They sent their kids to a stress management course to help them out. One high school took a different approach and ultimately took a big risk for a big reward. The high school actually decreased or eliminated homework which brought test scores up in that school. I think that may have worked because when you have a lot of homework most kids just try and finish it really fast so they can get to their next subject to complete their homework faster. But if you have little or no homework it gives you time to think about what you’re doing and finish it correctly. When students try to finish their homework fast they won't necessarily do it all correctly. But I thought giving very few or no homework assignments was a very unique approach to the whole situation. Overall though, the film really shows what's really happening with students in school. But it's not just students. Surprisingly, school not only effects students but also effects the parents. All parents hate to see their son/daughter fail or do poorly and that's how it was effecting the parents. High school also effects the teachers as well. One of the teachers in the film actually quit her job because it was too much for her as a teacher. She couldn't handle what she had to teach and the amount of work she had to give. The film really brought out the key aspects of what actually happens behind the scenes for high school students, teachers, and parents.”

“I really enjoyed the film Race to Nowhere because it was about a topic that I could relate to. There was a lot of information that could be taken away from this film that teachers, parents, and students could ponder. The most important take away piece of information is that students are becoming stressed due to their parents, teachers and education system, and colleges. This aspect of the film was the most important because each one of these people is pushing the students to their breaking points in order to get them to be the “perfect” student/child. Parents are pressuring their children to do really well in school so they can be successful in the future. Teachers and the education system are stressing students out my giving them tons of homework and tests as a way to teach them. The students worry so much about getting good grades on these that they are staying up to late hours of the night studying and doing their homework instead of resting and being able to spend quality time with their family and friends. Colleges are putting pressure on students as well because they are making a mold of what they want in a student in order for them to be accepted into their College. The standards for this mold are over the top. They want students to get good grades, do extracurricular activities, like sports and clubs, and on top of that they want them to do community service. Due to this mold that the Colleges are creating students are becoming stressed because they can not fit the mold and they feel that they will never be able to go to a “good” college. If all these people make their expectations lower or change their education system students will not be as stressed and they will not go into depressions where some commit suicide.”

Reading about the reactions to the film …perhaps you might want to respond ….this makes me think (what?) and makes me wond

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