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It’s not whether you win or lose… it’s how you run the race.
Jonathan Martin provided us with a detailed summary of his reflections after viewing Race to Nowhere, a documentary film that highlights the lives of high school students, parents and families, and teachers and administrators, all in the context of a system that is broken and failing our children. As Jonathan stated, it is “emotionally manipulative,” and the first sentence of the About the Film description on its website indicates that it indeed features “the heartbreaking stories of young people across the country who have been pushed to the brink, educators who are burned out and worried that students aren’t developing the skills they need, and parents who are trying to do what’s best for their kids.”
I didn’t know what to expect from the film, and I actually wasn’t prepared to take notes, but about 20 minutes in, I knew that I needed to write a reflection on the film’s contents. I covered the fronts and backs of scrap pieces of paper I had in my purse with seemingly incoherent scribblings. (I had owned my iPhone for about 1 hour prior to attending the screening, so, unlike Jonathan, was not yet skilled at taking notes on my phone in the dark. 🙂 The quotes below are my reflections as I remember them and may be paraphrased.
These are my take-aways:
- Children are trying to balance lives that few adults would be comfortable balancing. Something that resounded with me was a student explaining how people always want to know from her, Aaand… “I’m a member of the student council.” And? “I have straight A’s.” And? “I play sports.” And? Why aren’t you doing any community service??!
- We are basing students’ successes not on how happy they are, but rather on a systemic assumption that they need to get into a good college and make a lot of money, which will lead to happiness.
- Why cant happiness be a metric used to determine the success of our schools? Why just reading and math scores? Focusing on academics alone does not respect the child.
- We have a “tremendous preoccupation with performance.”
- Our educational system is an inch deep and a mile wide. What is important is NOT “knowing a whole bunch of things.”
- We’re always preparing kids for “what’s next.” Think about it: “In middle school, you will have to do X, so in sixth grade, we’re going to make you do X to prepare you.” “In fourth grade, your teachers will expect you to write in cursive, so in third grade, we’re going to learn cursive.”
- Due to the pressures of No Child Left Behind, we teach students formulaically so they can pass a test, but if they encounter something unlike that which is on the test, they fall apart. The tremendous pressure to produce leaves out time for critical processing. Cheating has become “like another course.”
- Kids want to know exactly what’s on the test and not go beyond it. We give them study guides! We base our teachings off of those guides!
- Teachers feel like “yes men” doing what the district, state, or government wants, even if it’s not best for kids. One teacher cited the example, “like teaching them what a semicolon does.” She went on to explain the need for us to teach students critical thinking, problem solving, and how to work in groups. This passionate teacher explained that she wants for her students to be learners. She stressed that if you’re not teaching what you love, you can’t do this job. “I’m a mother to my students. I see them more than they see their families.” This teacher’s frustrations with the system and feelings of helplessness eventually caused her to resign.
- The tutoring industry has exploded because we are treating all kids like they need to be in the top 2 percent academically. Children are nervous about upsetting and disappointing their teachers if they don’t perform. And that they may “lose recess” for incomplete work.
- “At what point did it become okay for school to dictate how a child will spend time outside of school?” It’s not about learning anymore.
- There is no correlation between homework completion and academic achievement in elementary school. (This was my absolute favorite line of the movie.) In middle school, there is a slight correlation, but past 1 hour of homework, it lessens. Past 2 hrs of homework time in high school, the effect lessens. Reference made to Sara Bennett’s and Nancy Kalish’s work, The Case Against Homework.
- We all need to educate ourselves about the effects of homework. Why do we insist upon assigning it? Teachers think it’s necessary to cover content. Parents expect it.
On passion-based learning:
- Our kids have grown up in a “world of training wheels” and have been coached from a very young age. They don’t realize they can fall off the bike and pick themselves up.
- Instead of taking 5 classes, think, here are 3 classes I’m really interested in taking. One student expressed his belief that college is going to be a place where I “start to learn.” What does that say for his high school experience?
- “Smart” has so many different meanings. The system is ignoring a great group of kids that is talented artistically, visually-spatially, etc. “Absolutely no appreciation for that kind of talent, or thinking.”
- What creates the opportunity to be innovative? What does it take to create a creative human being? Children need time, so we must provide that downtime. Play is children’s work. It’s a tool to figure out how the world works. They’re not able to figure out what they love to do or find their passions without that freedom.
I was surrounded by a very emotional audience at the screening I attended. The movie was shown in the high school auditorium of a neighboring school district, one whose name is synonymous with wealth and high academic achievement. We have often looked to this district for ideas about how to implement programs and structure schedules due to their documented successes. The parents in the audience were likely those of high school students, and it was clear, from only 30 minutes into the film, that they would start to reconsider the types of discussions they would have with their children about learning and achievement. I wonder how this movie’s message made them view their roles differently?
There was a member of the audience with whom I’ve interacted on several occasions in her role as consultant. She has spent hours with our administrative team, reviewing the RtII framework, discussing data at great lengths, and yet, her best intentions noted, not once did we mention a child by name, or discuss actual, meaningful learning. I wonder how this movie’s message made her view her role differently?
I’m actually overwhelmed composing this post, as I decipher my notes to try to articulate just exactly what I’m feeling about this film’s message. I agree with the conclusions shared at the end of the movie that we need to rethink how we “do schooling.” What do we want to invest in? What matters most? The quality of teaching is what matters most.
We have to start asking ourselves how films like this, articles we read, success stories we hear, problems we encounter, and convictions we hold cause us to think differently. And then we have to do something about it.
There is no easy fix to the flaws in the system, because the inherent problems are so complex. But there is so much that we are doing right in schools across the nation and beyond. What I’d love to do is create a Race to Nowhere-esque documentary that captures and celebrates the extraordinary learning that’s going on within and outside of our classrooms each day. (Many of us do this with our blogs. But is it enough?) We need to share our successes with a wider audience. We need to inspire each other and start to build a collective body of knowledge that can help lead us in the direction of a finish line worth crossing.