Off the treadmill

A third-grader with stomach aches. A sleep-deprived high school student suffering from stress-related symptoms. A teacher frustrated with her job and leaving the profession. A psychotherapist who treats anorexic and self-abusing teens. The grieving parents of a 13-year-old who killed herself.

What do they have in common?

All are reluctant participants in the race to nowhere.

More than three hundred parents, students and teachers turned out to watch a documentary film by the same name Nov. 17 at Godwin High School, sponsored by the school's PTSA. The film was followed by a forum that featured a panel composed of students, teachers, a guidance counselor and an admissions director. The discussion was
moderated by Godwin's principal, Beth Armbruster.

Godwin parent Charles Moncure – who underwrote the cost of showing the film after seeing it at Deep Run H.S. last year – said he got behind the effort because his 15-year-old daughter is "living 'the Race.'

"[She's] staying up until 1:30 or two a.m. doing homework for AP classes, then getting up at seven to go to school," says Moncure. "We don’t know how to get her off the treadmill."

Epidemic
The film traces the development of what it calls America's achievement culture, from the stepped-up pace of education following the 1957 launch of Sputnik, to the 1983 publication of A Nation at Risk and the results-oriented focus brought on by No Child Left Behind and the standards movement.

It's a culture that has led to an overemphasis on rote learning and test results, say educators, at the expense of teaching children the ability to think creatively and conceptually, to act independently, and to solve problems.

The demand that so much content be taught has led to a loss of good programs in favor of test preparation and has spawned an epidemic of cheating – not to mention a nation of exhausted, overscheduled and overwhelmed children.

"Too many childhoods have been taken over by test scores, performance and résumé-building," writes Denise Miller, chair of the Parents Council of Commonwealth Parenting, which sponsored a viewing of "Race to Nowhere" at University of Richmond in October.

Citing increases in depression, prescription drug abuse, and stress-induced illness among youth, Miller emphasized in a recent Richmond Times-Dispatch commentary that children today are loaded with too much homework, which deprives them of time for the unstructured play, socializing and family time that they need for healthy development.
Yet homework has been shown to be unrelated to achievement in elementary school and only negligibly related to achievement in middle school.

As Dr. Wendy Mogel, author of Blessings of a Skinned Knee, points out in the film, “I’m afraid our children are going to sue us for stealing their childhoods.”

‘Bleeding underneath’
Throughout the film, students as young as eight years old describe stomach aches, headaches and other stress symptoms related to the pressure they feel from schoolwork.

Vicki Abeles, a California parent who made the film after seeing her three children suffer from what she calls "the relentless pressure to perform," says that Race to Nowhere was inspired by "a series of wake-up calls."

"I wanted to give my kids opportunities I didn't have growing up," says Abeles in the film. "I didn't think when I had kids that the only time I'd see them would be 20 minutes at dinner.

"How did we get to a place where our families had so little time together?"

The film demonstrates repeatedly that children and their families are not the only casualties of 'the race'; educators, mental health professionals and the public at large are also affected.

One teacher in the film speaks tearfully of her decision to resign after finding the demands of her school district to push content and test scores too much to bear.

What she wants to teach her students, she says, are life skills and job skills: how to work in a group, how to think critically, and how to solve problems.

"But those get pushed aside," the teacher says. "Good programs are cut or done away with to teach to the test.

"I wanted to get kids to love learning, but from day one it was very clear that that was not what the district wanted me to do. "

Another educator, who teaches doctors- and dentists-to-be, notes that her students lack many necessary thinking skills – but feel entitled to know what's going to be on tests.

If all they are learning in school is how to cram and fill in blanks on tests, the teacher wonders, what will these future doctors and dentists do when confronted with disease – or anything else that doesn't follow the script?

A psychotherapist in the film describes treating anorexics and "cutters" who are accomplished students but feel swamped with school work and get as little as six hours of sleep a night – an amount that is grossly inadequate for still-growing teens.

"They look good on the surface," says the therapist of her patients, "but they're bleeding underneath."

The film is dedicated to 13-year-old Devon Marvin, who committed suicide one weekend after displaying none of the usual symptoms of depression. Her anguished mother indicates in the film that an F grade on a math test was the only possible explanation for her daughter's distress.

A straight-A student, Devon had been "really torn up" by the F, says her mother. "

A stupid math grade," she repeats dully, with a bewildered shake of her head.

Discussion
In the discussion that followed the film's showing, Godwin Principal Beth Armbruster noted that every faculty member at the school had watched the documentary.

"We've really marinated on it," said Armbruster, pointing out that one response so far had been to build in some play time on PSAT day that included team-building exercises and "silly games." The play time was so successful, she said, that some have suggested it be scheduled once a quarter.

When an audience member posed the question, "Is the Godwin principal prepared to advocate for no homework in Henrico County schools?", Armbruster replied that while she would not advocate for no homework, she would promote no homework over breaks. In fact, she added, "We've already done that."

A parent in the audience asked Deanna Hudson, director of school counseling, why counselors weren't doing more to discourage students from overloading their schedules.

But teachers on the panel agreed with Hudson that the pressure to take heavy course loads is often self-induced, as students strive to pack as many classes as they can into their schedule.

"I've had four kids this year drop an AP class for a study hall," replied Hudson, noting that she reminded the students as they made the change, "Didn't we talk about this [overload] last spring?"

David Lesesne, dean of admissions at Randolph Macon College, spoke also to the issue of self-imposed pressure. Too many students, said Lesesne, take the attitude, "I have to do the max. I have to be perfect." He advised the students in the audience to approach the college search not as "What's the ideal school?” or “What window sticker do I want (on my car)?" but as "What's a good fit for me?"

"Don't think there's only one dream school," said Lesesne. "And don't enter the [college application] process thinking everything is riding on this."

Hudson drew laughter as she backed up Lesesne by saying, "I've been married twice, so I don't believe there's one soulmate out there for someone. The same thing goes for college."

Lesesne added, "And when you get those letters back from colleges, remember, it is not a measure of your self-worth." A colleague of his at an Ivy League school told Lesesne that 80 percent of applicants could do the work; but schools are forced to turn away strong applicants because they simply don't have the seats.

Several panel members also reiterated the theme that students should push themselves less, enjoy themselves more, focus on genuine learning over grades, and pursue subjects that interest them – advice echoed fervently in the film by Matt Goldman, co-founder of the Blue School in Manhattan.

"Kids come to the table with this love of life and love of learning," says Goldman, who is also founder and CEO of the Blue Man Group.

"How about we not take it out of them?

Read the Citizen and HenricoCitizen.com for details about a Jan. 18 event related to "Race to Nowhere." For details about the film, visit racetonowhere.com.
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The Open University of The Shepherd’s Center of Richmond will present Lunch and Life, a four-week series open to all persons 50+ at no charge, at St. Mary Catholic Church, 9505 Gayton Rd. Today’s speaker, Father Michael Renninger, pastor of St. Mary Catholic Church, will present “Angels, Saints…and Old Blue Eyes! Spiritual Themes in Popular Lyrics.” A bag lunch will begin at noon, with beverages and dessert provided by the church; the speaker will start at 12:30 p.m. For details, call 355-7282 or visit http://www.tscor.org. Full text

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