Image by Visions By Vicky via FlickrHigh Schools all over Westchester are hosting viewings and discussions of Race to Nowhere, a film that documents the growing stress upon students in the United States.
Many of my friends, old and new, gathered last night in the auditorium of John Jay High School in Cross River to watch this film together. We knew what it was about, and thought it would be much like preaching to the choir. None of us want to see our kids saddled with five hours of homework a night, to see them resort to losing sleep, taking drugs to stay awake, and ultimately cheating, just to get an A that will propel them through the college application mill.
I had so many feelings watching this movie. Anger and sadness for kids who are under so much pressure; happiness that I myself am doing what I love; worry about the unintentional pressure I put on my own kids; and even sadness for my own childhood, where I was under such pressure to "perform" as well.
Wanting to have a personal antidote to this school madness, I felt pleasure and gratitude at being a part of Writopia, where there's value in individual expression, finding the story, and solving the very problems you've created. And indeed, a couple of my own students' parents have called me after they've seen Race to Nowhere, telling me they were glad their child is enrolled in Writopia, that their child is falling in-love with writing, with learning. That's what every teacher wants to hear.
Then again, I'm faced with the fact that Writopia looks fantastic on a resume, and that to motivate our young writers and build their confidence, we encourage them to enlist in the prestigious Scholastic Art and Writing Awards. They might not win, but I believe that chances are they will, and THAT looks good on a college application. I also take pride in the 100% success rate I've had working with the students on their college essays. So does my warm and fuzzy teaching style, the "let's have FUN!" attitude, still end up as a gear in the mill?
While I can take solace in Writopia's non-profit mission and that my students can value achievements that serve their personal expression instead of the No Child Left Behind legislation, I feel badly for all the wonderful public school teachers out there, forced to shelve the values that prompted their careers, and to "teach to the test" in order to stay working. I feel badly for parents who only want their kids to have every opportunity, and badly for the kids who have a higher risk for depression and anxiety.
It has been discovered that homework does not have a direct correlation to achievement in elementary school, and only a modest correlation in middle and high schools. How many adults take home five hours of work with them after they leave work? And most students feel that homework is stupid busy work - who knows better than them that it's not helping them learn? Can you imagine how much of a toll that takes on their overall health? A statistic was cited last night: ten years ago one out of ten college freshman were taking psychotropic medication, and today that number has risen to one in four. A monstrous public health problem.
We live in a society where success is measured by how much money you make. I myself struggle with that paradigm. Now the income gap is widening, and kids think that they're losers if they don't fit the mold that maybe only 1% of people do. Why do we have a system in which every student is mercilessly geared toward a Harvard application? Not every student needs or wants a Harvard law degree or MBA, and shouldn't our future teachers, auto mechanics, carpenters, and writers be able to pursue what they love and have that process be valued?
Even though I didn't require any convincing, Race to Nowhere was a real slap in the face, seeing what we as a Nation are doing to our future, turning our kids into mini stressed out versions of ourselves and robbing them of their childhood. The college application mill we've imposed upon our kids (virtually from birth now) doesn't allow much room for creativity, experimentation or failure.
The most valuable thing my grandmother ever told me was that if you are not free to fail, then you are not really free.
We need permission to fail, to learn from our mistakes, to grow, to be human. This race to nowhere is not helping our children grow up prepared for the beautiful and sometimes bitter twists and turns of life. More than ever, we live in a culture of entitlement and disappointment as our dreams for ourselves fit one narrow paradigm of achievement. We must come to enlarge that paradigm: to value curiosity and abstract thinking, to value all members of our community, no matter what gender, race, sexuality, learning style/ability, artistic temperament, or where they fit on the economic spectrum.
We need to focus on the process of becoming human, rather than being a "product" with X amount of money and material things. We need to understand that failure is part of that process, and that learning to pick ourselves up and dust ourselves off is an important skill. Now who is preaching to the choir? ;-)