New Documentary Sheds Light on Life’s Immeasurable Skills

New Documentary Sheds Light on Life’s Immeasurable Skills

Six years ago, Hilltown Families joined in on the national education-centric conversation sparked by the documentary Race to Nowhere. Addressing the standards- and achievement-based culture pushed within American schools during the past decade, Race to Nowhere spotlights the intense and frustrating damage that can be done when students are forced to exist within such an environment. Featuring anecdotal evidence alongside hard facts, the film paints a fascinating yet horrifying picture of the climate within which students are expected to thrive.

Our mini-series, Experiencing Education, featured short essays that delved deep into the ideas addressed in the film – that we’ve taken the joy out of learning, and that our supposed system for success is doing far more harm than good. Titled “Lost and Frantic in the Race to Nowhere” and “Curly Willow Education”, this Race to Nowhere-inspired series put our education system’s shortcomings into a local context, sharing the educational experiences (and their results) of a young adult whose education was molded entirely by America’s achievement culture. This series sparked the interests of the producer of Race to Nowhere, Vicki Abeles.

Now, at a time when education has begun to work its way to the forefront of the hearts and minds of everyone from politicians to the students themselves, the directors of Race to Nowhere present a sequel to their groundbreaking film, Beyond Measure, and begin to delve deeper into possible solutions to the problems they have identified.

Read the rest of this entry »

Curly Willow Education: Bonsai or Freedom?

Willow Children

People become who they are based not on the transformations that we impose on them but based on whether or not their needs are met. Just as my willow will die if I fail to water her, a person’s interest and enthusiasm will disappear if it is not stimulated, and just as my willow would not be herself if I chose to trim her branches bonsai-style, people cannot be themselves if we force them to be confined to learning through and about only certain things.

Recently, I acquired a branch from a curly willow tree.  The trees, known as Salix matsudana ‘Tortuosa’ to botanists, are lovely.  Their branches bend and twist as they grow upwards, rather than outwards, from the trunk.  The leaves are small and green and in the fall turn a brilliant yellow.  Native to China, the tree’s winding, coiled branches make it ideal for bonsai- the art of perfecting and controlling something that is already beautiful.

For now, my branch lives in a glass bottle on my kitchen table.  Her stem is thick and she has five small branches that, if they were human appendages, would almost certainly be fingers.  Eventually, she will shed her leaves and sprout roots.  Once I plant her she will grow more fingers that will flow from long, twisty arms.  Her roots, once small, will grow to be thick, sturdy legs ending in long, earth-suckling feet and toes.  Life will spring from her every cell.  She will absorb sunlight and rainwater, and will feast on the nutrients in the ground beneath her.

I will help to provide for my willow the water, sun, and soil that I know she needs in order to grow from a mere branch into a big, triumphant tree.  I won’t trim her branches like some people do.  I will watch her grow without scrutiny, and I will wait patiently to see what wonderful surprises she has in store.  Will she have a plethora of branches and leaves for shade?  Will she have perfect nooks for birds’ nests?  Only time will tell.

In caring for my willow, I have realized that she’s a lot like me.  She’s a lot like any person, really.  Just as I will care for her, the people who cared for me helped to foster my transformation from a wriggling infant into purpose-filled (semi) adult.  They provided me with the things that they thought I would need, and they created for me the environment that they thought would help me to become the best possible version of myself that I could possibly be.

In my last post, Lost and Frantic in the Race to Nowhere, I discussed how the results-driven culture that we exist within as Americans negatively effects young people.  Our public school system, which I see as a direct manifestation of this culture, does not truly succeed in providing its students with the metaphorical water, sun, and soil that they need in order to succeed.  Instead, it acts as a person practicing bonsai.  It sees the beautiful willow children for which it is responsible for and trims them, providing a strong suggestion for what they should be like.

I have been asked by many people since I last shared my thoughts what I think we should do to change the culture within our public school system.  Honestly, I’m not entirely sure.  I have spent the last few weeks anxiously pondering the dilemma, wondering why I can’t come up with a solution if I feel so strongly about the problem.  I think that the conclusion that I have come to is that I can’t come up with a solution because there is no “fix”- there is no magic formula for creating an ideal environment in which our current goals can be achieved.  What we can do, though, is change our goals.

The goal of public schools today is to teach students as much information as possible.  We measure how much they are learning by giving them all the same test, and if they don’t pass, we teach them more.  And more.  And more.  We think that the more we teach them, the more they will succeed.  I think it is obvious, however, that this isn’t necessarily true.  People become who they are based not on the transformations that we impose on them but based on whether or not their needs are met.  Just as my willow will die if I fail to water her, a person’s interest and enthusiasm will disappear if it is not stimulated, and just as my willow would not be herself if I chose to trim her branches bonsai-style, people cannot be themselves if we force them to be confined to learning through and about only certain things.

My solution, as it were, for schools is simply to allow more freedom.  Who is to say that one method of learning is better than another?  Who is to say that one topic is necessarily more important than another?  Honestly, I remember very few of the actual bits of information that I have supposedly learned throughout my education.  What I do remember, though, are the larger concepts and life lessons, and I suspect that the majority of people feel similarly.  People remember things because they matter and because they are relevant to their immediate reality.  It was not learning bits of information that mattered- it was learning the bigger things.  So if it is not the facts themselves but the conclusions that I drew from them that were significant, and it is those things that are helping me to succeed in life (or to begin to, at least), then this is what I want for everyone else.  I want for everyone to get their sun, soil, and water.  I want for everyone to be able to grow fingers from their long, twisty arms and earth-suckling feet from their thick, sturdy legs.

I know that I’m possibly being more idealistic than may be reasonable or realistic, but I truly think that this type of environment can be accomplished- and not just because I have faith.  There are many types of education that approach learning differently than our public schools tend to, and they have begun to succeed in creating the environment that I dream of.  It can be done- it is simply a matter of time and change.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Robin Morgan Huntley, Hilltown Families Intern

A native to Maine, Robin is a student at Hampshire College in Amherst. She is studying education and is slated to graduate in the spring of ’12. Her interests within the field of education include policy and all types of nontraditional education. For her senior project at Hampshire College, Robin will be researching and writing about the importance of connecting public schools with their surrounding communities, especially in rural areas. She plans to look to schools and communities within Western MA and Maine as models of the type of symbiotic school-community relationship that she believes to be critical to the success of rural education.

(Photo credit: (ccl) Urban Combing (Ultrastar175g))

Lost and Frantic in the Race to Nowhere

Lost and Frantic in the Race to Nowhere

Robin Huntley

High school graduation, 2007.

Remember that classic scene from I Love Lucy where Lucy and Ethel are working in a candy factory? They’re supposed to be wrapping candies as they come towards them on a conveyor belt and have been specifically told they’ll be fired if any go unwrapped. At first, they’re calm. The pace is perfect and they’re wrapping like champs. Soon, the belt gets faster and faster and the two eventually realize that they can’t wrap them fast enough. They start grabbing them off of the belt and piling them in front of them so that nobody knows they’re not wrapping fast enough. Eventually they get frantic and stuff them in their mouths, hats, and blouses; their supervisor returns, sees no unwrapped candies on the conveyor, and thinks they’re doing fine. Meanwhile, Ethel and Lucy can’t even breathe because their mouths are full of chocolate…

As a student, this is the kind of environment — where expectations are too high and the pressure so great that people will do anything to meet them — within which I, and countless other students in my generation, have received our education.

As a college student, I have spent the last four years of my life being more lost than I ever imagined I could be. This spring, I am supposed to be graduating from Hampshire College. Instead, I’m taking a semester off, working 40 hours a week for barely more than minimum wage, and doing an internship where I frequently get more out of my work than I do from my homework. Hopefully, I’ll graduate a year from now, but given my track record it‘s possible it might not happen.

Judging by my resume and academic history, I should be the opposite of the student I have become. When I was in high school, I had a 3.8 GPA and was the editor of the school newspaper and literary magazine, was an active member in the Gay-Straight Alliance and Environmental Club, was stage manager for six or seven theater performances a year, figure skated eight or ten hours a week, had a weekend job, and volunteered at a soup kitchen.

These days, however, I don‘t even flinch anymore when I fail a class. A lot of the time I don’t do my homework, and I frequently sleep straight through anything that happens before noon. I’m not in any student groups, I no longer figure skate, and I don’t really volunteer much anymore. It’s not that I’m not interested — I love what I’m studying, and I really do love Hampshire. The problem is that until very recently, I was never given the opportunity to let learning be something that was completely my own.

I recently saw the movie Race to Nowhere: The Dark Side of America’s Achievement Culture, a documentary about what the current educational climate has done to its students. The movie was made by a concerned mother who had watched her children suffer from school-related stress and had seen homework and tutoring take over their family time. What sparked her decision to do something about it, though, was that a student at her daughter’s school committed suicide. A thirteen year old middle school student. She killed herself out of desperation; she was depressed, stressed out, and anxious and couldn’t find any other way to change her situation.

The documentary tells the stories of many students who felt similarly. They suffer from eating disorders, depression, and crippling anxiety. They have given up things they loved in order to cope with the amount of stress they feel. They have, quite literally, won the race to nowhere. I felt sad and frustrated for the students as I watched the movie, and I remember feeling outraged that such a thing could happen to anyone. But then, somewhere towards the end of the movie, I realized that Race to Nowhere could have been made about my life. I too have struggled with depression, self harm, food issues, and anxiety. I have had a stress-related headache nearly every day for as long as I can remember. I have had panic attacks over everything from meeting new people to writing a history paper. I fight a daily battle with my imperfect body which insists upon having curves that no amount of starvation or deprivation will do anything about. I was horribly depressed in high school. And now, still, even though I’m a much happier and healthier person, I can’t seem to be able to get through college.

I am the product of a generation of parents, teachers, and policy makers who have pushed students so hard that we’ve never been able to develop a sense of self. We’ve been told that in order to succeed later on in life, we have to be good — no, excellent! — at every single thing that we do. We’re young when people tell us such things, and we really take it to heart as a result. We learn to formulate our own ideas of ourselves based on other peoples measures of us. And as we get older, it only gets worse. The stakes get higher, the pressure increases, the work gets harder, and we have increasingly more responsibilities. School and extracurricular activities (the ones that supposedly help us become more well-rounded people) take up all of our time — we never get the chance to really develop our own interests because we’re too busy doing things that someone else wants us to.

And where does that leave us afterwards? It leaves us sticking our metaphorical chocolates down our metaphorical blouses. Or, in other words, lost and incredibly frantic.

It is obvious that the test-driven, high expectations environment that we so frequently provide our students not only doesn’t really work but is incredibly unhealthy. Besides, does it really matter if your sixth grader gets an A in math every single trimester? When she’s forty, or thirty, or even twenty, it probably won’t matter at all whether or not she aced a test on fractions. So let’s lighten up. Why don’t we ease the pressure a bit and lets kids be kids; let them learn by playing and by exploring the world. Let them choose what’s important to them rather than prescribing it. Let us find our own paths. We will certainly be happier for it.


JOIN THE CONVERSATION

There will be a screening of Race to Nowhere on Thursday, April 14th at 6:30pm at the Williston Northampton School in Easthampton at the Williston Theater. Tickets are available online through the movie’s website. The screening is sponsored by The Williston Northampton School’s Parents’ Association and a portion of the proceeds from the screening will fund programs at The Williston Northampton School. The film will be followed by a panel discussion led by faculty members. See the movie and become part of the conversation!


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Robin Morgan Huntley, Hilltown Families Intern

A native to Maine, Robin is a student at Hampshire College in Amherst. She is studying education and is slated to graduate in the spring of ’12. Her interests within the field of education include policy and all types of nontraditional education. For her senior project at Hampshire College, Robin will be researching and writing about the importance of connecting public schools with their surrounding communities, especially in rural areas. She plans to look to schools and communities within Western MA and Maine as models of the type of symbiotic school-community relationship that she believes to be critical to the success of rural education.

Race to Nowhere: How the Pressure to Perform is Impacting Our Kids

Race To Nowhere is a groundbreaking documentary film that examines education, childhood and the unintended consequences of the achievement-obsessed way of life that permeates American education and culture. Unrelenting pressure, whether from well-intentioned parents, teachers, national leaders or from children themselves, is creating a generation suffering from unprecedented levels of stress, depression and burnout.

TAKE ACTION

Race to Nowhere invites you to add your voice to a growing movement of educators, parents, medical professionals, policy makers and concerned citizens who want to see real change in education policies and practices.

Too many students in all grades in the U.S. are under undue performance pressure and stress, get too little sleep and exercise, have too much unnecessary homework, and attend schools that are overly focused on standardized test scores, grades, and/or college admissions. Too many teachers are unable to engage in quality teaching because they have inadequate resources or are under too much pressure from federal, state, district and board mandates that force them to “teach to a test” as they attempt to “cover” an unrealistic volume of content.

As a result, students are no longer in classrooms that challenge them to solve complex problems and think creatively, to work collaboratively on projects, to explore issues with real-world connections, and to develop the real skills needed to succeed in the 21st century and the global economy. Many students are exhausted, anxious, disengaged, unhealthy and unprepared for the future.

Click here to check out their petition to be presented to the  U.S. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, members of Congress, as well as members of state boards of education, state legislators, and local boards of education.  Parents are also encourage the use of this petition in their local school community.

And HERE for other ways to get involved. They are currently addressing the best way to create a nationwide group of volunteers to support the film, screenings and a vision for change and are also looking for school administrators interested in joining their advisory board.

%d bloggers like this: