Monday, January 31, 2011

Race to Nowhere: On Choosing a Route and Destination

I wrote last week about my thoughts on homework's role in education in response to our community's showing of the documentary film Race to Nowhere.  Tonight, Big Sis's homework was some simple experiments with weight distribution--trying to pick up an object with heels against the wall, and determining if her body was more stable standing or sitting.  Her assignment was fun and easy but encouraged deeper thought and some "Aha!"s.  It didn't require glitter or popsicle sticks or a parent's master's degree:  that's what I'm talking about

But the film Race to Nowhere is about more than homework; it argues that "the whole culture needs to revise what is important and what is not."  So this week I explore the role of families in helping kids define What Is Important, and how our schools can support healthy options.

Posted on the bulletin board at Little Sis's preschool is an article titled "Want to Get Your Kids into College?  Let Them Play."  The article's authors, an early childhood teacher and professor of medicine and sociology at Harvard,  allude to a study which shows that more opportunities for imaginative play in early childhood (particularly in groups) yield greater chances of success in school and beyond.  Make-believe activities support the development of self-regulation, and self-regulating individuals are less likely to drop out, commit crimes, and abuse substances.  It turns out that our daughter's preschool, with its multi-age classroom and fairly unstructured curriculum, allows ample opportunity for free playtime. 

Big Sis attended this neighborhood preschool too, which I confess we chose primarily for reasons of convenience and because relatives' and friends' children were happily enrolled there too.  But on Big Sis's first day of kindergarten, when she placed her backpack over the chair at her tidy new desk, sat quietly on her designated square on the mat, and brought home her first official homework, I was grateful for her preschool in all its free-flowingness.  On that first day of kindergarten I could see the remainder of my daughter's life stretching before her, with playtime coming second to All The Important Work She Had to Accomplish. 

At various times I had my concerns about the fact that our daughters' preschool didn't emphasize learning letters, numbers, and sounds.  Some neighbors opted to enroll their children in more academic preschools.  Our kids stayed, though, and not because we thought our preschool was "the best," or even "better"  than others nearby.  Our daughters, while different in many ways, have in common that they're hardwired for traditional public school:  content to sit still and focus on one activity for relatively long periods. My daughters could benefit from a less structured learning environment in preschool.  In a similar setting, we can appreciate that different children might be bored or stressed.  The key is understanding the needs of your own child. 

Race to Nowhere suggests that our current system of schooling, with its perceived emphasis on test scores, GPAs, athletic scholarships, competitions, and college acceptances, is sapping the souls of our students and we've got to fix it.  But many of us educators and/or parents derived a common conclusion from the film:  what's most important in navigating the stresses of school is knowing your own child, and how his strengths and challenges will be enriched or exacerbated by choices you help him make.  The more that schooling is viewed as an individualized journey advancing each student's unique interests and goals, the less it can be characterized as a "race."  If winning is getting into Harvard, most of us are going to lose.  If winning is developing into self-sustaining, contributing, and satisfied members of society, most of us can win.  Redefining achievement and success in our culture has to be part of the dialogue.  And families can begin with how they talk to their children.

A mother in the film acknowledges that "even though we know better, we push (our children).  I want them to have choices."  Choices aren't a prize at the end of teenagehood; children should be guided in making wise and meaningful choices for themselves all along.  Tiger Mom Amy Chua's children are likely to have the choices of "top" colleges--she has pushed them to excel academically and musically--but they aren't permitted to choose their own extracurricular activities nor an instrument besides piano or violin to practice.  There's got to be a happy medium between allowing one's child to choose to do nothing and prescribing one's child's interests--and scheduling his time--for him.  Knowing your child means understanding if you are parent to a child who pushes himself (even too hard) or to a child who needs encouragement to stretch himself.  You adjust accordingly, for the sake of your individual child's health and well being. 

It has occurred to me, as I cook dinner and set the table while my daughter does her homework, that we might shift the focus of our pushing and pressure to our children's acquisition of independent living skills, and spend more time teaching them to make a meal, assume responsibility for their belongings and environment, and interact politely and assertively with others.

As parents we also have to acknowledge that we're the consumers in the system we decry.  It's easy to claim we have no choices:  "Everyone is playing year-round soccer; if my son doesn't, he won't make the team," "Our daughter has to take an SAT prep course or she can't compete with her peers," and "If we don't start ballet now, she'll never have a career as a dancer..." 

Reflexive sign-ups result in students who are overscheduled and overburdened with AP courses and activities that may be inappropriate for them, or just...pointless.  When the passion for soccer wanes, when the SAT scores don't rise, when the ballerina wants to draw pictures at home instead, it's time to reconsider how we're spending our time (and money).  The race is to nowhere when a child--and her family--can't meaningfully link who she is with what she's doing and where she's supposedly heading.  How sad to look back at hours of time on a soccer field (working with a team, strengthening one's body, negotiating success and failure) and determine it was all a waste if there's no college athletic scholarship awarded.  How sad to look back at experiences in advanced high school courses (critically analyzing topics, pushing the limits of one's cognitive skills, negotiating time and demanding studies) and determine it was all a waste if there's no Ivy League college acceptance. 

How sad to recall one's former teacher asking, "You did all that work to go to an Ivy League college and all you want to be is a teacher?"

Childhood and its experiences aren't means to an end; they are stages in a human's development.  Throughout childhood children develop their abilities to identify and choose meaningful activities and pursuits, manage stress, balance work and play, build skills, advocate for and support themselves, and collaborate and coexist, with the guidance of their families and schools.  And therefore we owe it to our children--and this society--to recognize, embrace, and nurture the gifts of individual children and their application to becoming satisfied and self-sufficient adults.  

We're surrounded by friends, family members, and neighbors who pursued individual paths and defined success in a variety of ways, but we often forget about them when we dream for and then design traditional routes to success for our own children.  As individuals we value the artisans, technicians, inventors, mechanics, chefs, assistants, landscapers, and builders whose work we appreciate and admire.  We will value them more as a society when families increasingly validate their children's diverse dreams and schools offer more programs and electives to nurture interests and talents in those areas. 

Race to Nowhere focuses in part on a family whose thirteen-year-old daughter ended her life, ostensibly as a result of the pressures of performing in school and a disappointing math grade.  When I shared with my seven-year-old that I watched a movie about a girl who hurt herself after she did poorly on a test, my daughter nodded.  "I understand, Mommy!  When I got 'basic' on a test, I slapped myself in the face."  Jaws  dropped and my husband and I were stunned for a moment.  This will be the first year our daughter takes state tests, and there is pressure on schools and teachers--and, oops, students--to perform.  In our family we quickly activated Operation Do Your Best and Do Not Stress.  Schools, too, with the support of the state and the media (responsible for reminding us how unfavorably Americans compare to other countries' students), need to put testing in its proper place, and use scores as diagnostic tools to support students needing development of basic skills. 

Perspective is what we can offer our children as they navigate the choices and pressures of school and activities.  Neither we nor our kids are expected to "do and achieve everything," and if we work under that assumption we ought to take a good luck at who is responsible for setting those expectations:  most often, ourselves. 
Few of us, I suspect, pursue in adulthood the activities which "got us into" college and our current careers (heck, I'm not even working in the area of my college major).  For most of us, those sports and activities have been replaced by joyful pursuits for which we require little recognition:  gardening, cooking, photography, travel, reading, writing, sewing, fishing, collecting, entertaining, yoga, hiking.  Shouldn't our children have opportunities to invest in activities for which they may not receive "credit" but may achieve personal fulfillment? 

Let's teach our children to be who they are, versus enlist them in an army of aspiring varsity athletes and 4.0s.  We need club founders and joiners and community volunteers and quiet artists and "average joes" who draw people to them.  There have to be times, while our children are safe in our nests but growing their wings, for quitting, for starting over, for failing, for obsessing, for taking risks and time-outs.  For dusting off and bouncing back.  For taking roads less traveled by or hanging in the slow lane.   

Our daughters have both said yes to dance class and no to Little League this spring. We're disappointed; we love balmy evenings at the ball fields. We want our daughters to catch and throw. And there's the possibility of discovering a daughter's innate talent or love for the sport. 

But we're listening to them this season.  I need to remember to sign them up for dance; for now, we're enjoying the free time.


Ms. F said...

Love it, love it, love it...My senior honors students just finished reading "Fast Food Nation," and I had a local yoga instructor come speak to them about alternatives to the "go go go" lifestyle. After practicing some poses, chanting some "aums," and attempting to focus only on breathing, my students reflected on the experience saying that the absolute hardest part for them was to simply sit and not DO anything. They were shocked that they couldn't even sit for one minute without thinking about something (or many things), and many of them were really disturbed and vowed to work on just BEING. A sign of hope, I think...

Also, thought you might enjoy this article on the educational benefits of play in preschool:

steve jones said...

makes me think about a book skott just checked out of the library...
last child in the woods
by richard louv

always love reading your blog :)