Friday, March 5, 2010

The Journey to Somewhere

I have a few close friends who just screened a new documentary that is sweeping Northern California. It is called "The Race to Nowhere". It is a collaboration of some incredible educators, psychologists, authors, parents and teens about the pressure many teens feel in our fast paced culture. Being in Chicago, I have not been able to see this movie yet, but I viewed the website and watched the trailers. The focus is on an area in Northern California and I have had the privilege to hear many of the speakers and participate in some of the workshops and seminars in the past few years given by this group. My friends were very distraught after viewing the movie as it deeply affected them and had them question if their kids were over-scheduled, felt too much pressure, and had too much on their plate.
I understand the deep concern for today's teens and I woke up at 5:30 AM this morning with this thought in my head. How about the concept of "The Journey to Somewhere"? I guess my frustration with so much of the information is that we keep talking about what we are doing wrong, not how to make it right. I am extremely frustrated by my own children's award winning school district in regards to creativity, homework, science fair ...the list could fill this page. The pressures are being exerted in an unbalanced way. I do think there are some very easy solutions especially at the elementary level to help promote healthy habits for healthy families.
I went to our principal when he first began to discuss homework and his overall philosophy. I came with ideas. If the teachers are making homework logs, have them truly look at the meaning of their homework. If it is reinforcing concepts learned at school make it short and interesting. Have the pen and pencil homework in the elementary grades 15-20 minutes, so there is time for more meaningful learning experiences. If the child plays an instrument have part of the homework be to practice 15 minutes a night (or whatever the family designates). If the child does not play an instrument they should listen to at least 2 songs a night and try to challenge them to listen to jazz, classical, pop, oldies etc... All those kids have to do is write the title of the songs, just a little cultural exposure. Maybe an occasional assignment related to the music could be asking questions such as: How did it make you feel? Did you want to get up and dance? Did you want to close your eyes and relax? Have one night of homework be designated to playing a family game – and I’m not talking about a video game. I actually offered to buy a deck of cards for every family in our school, so no one would have excuses. The game could be simply a game of "Go Fish" or an ongoing game of Monopoly. If everyone is very busy there could have a 10 minute time limit on the game. Just like having dinner together, it will get your kids in the habit of being with their family, their permanent support group. Of course, every child should go to bed reading a book or being read to. Kaiser's 2009 study showed how important it is for kids to be completely unplugged at least one hour before bed in order to have good sleep habits.
I do not think this homework concept has to change that much in middle school. The difference can be that the Spanish teacher's assignment is to read Spot books in Spanish. Bake and write down five ingredients in Spanish. My high school daughter, Karly, had a great assignment in her Spanish class. They are learning commands and they had to pick something to teach the class. She picked making Tollhouse Cookies. She had to write every direction in Spanish; bake and make the cookies; present her directions in front of the class and actually hand out the cookies. This was a fun meaningful way to practice commands and directions. Why can't those be broken into small steps in the younger years.
In regards to all the extracurricular activities, I think each parent has to listen to their child. The verbal and non-verbal cues. Sports and dance clubs do take time, but unfortunately to make teams you have to play sports. Team sports, theatre, music all help you engage more in high school and help teens make better choices. But when do you start the intensity? Is starting your child in an intense travel sports program at 8 years old worth the sacrifice of balanced family time when they could start the same program at 11 years old?
I guess my main point is that I think so many of the books and obviously this movie leaves parents feeling terrible. We have to get back to basics and talk about simple things we can begin TODAY in each of our homes and in our schools that can begin to help.

My frustration as an educator for 25 years, and a mom with four kids in every corner of the education system, is that there are simple changes in parenting, education and community that we can implement right now.
I need to see this movie, but I have heard a lot from this group and I am just scared as the saying goes, "people are going to throw the baby away with the bathwater" Hard work, passion for sports, music whatever can be very healthy. We just have to figure out how to keep it meaningful.
There is so much more to think about and say, but I have to start to drive carpools.

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