These were the words of my son petitioning me this morning from his bed. These words came from his mouth, which was attached to a head, a head as hot as coal. A head which could not be lifted from his pillow.
“Just give me some Advil, and I can go!”
His concern: An overdue tech project that needed to be completed in school. A CO2 car he has designed and engineered that still needed to still be sawed, glued, and painted.
This project counts as 60 percent of his grade. How do I know it is 60 percent of his grade? He has told this to me at least 10 times since coming down with the flu.
He is also worried, of course, about falling behind in math. And Science. And how will he ever catch up and HOW he will get ready for midterms.
He puts this pressure on himself to not to stay home and recover from the flu but to GET TO SCHOOL no matter how he feels. No matter the consequences to his own health or those around him.
My son is not yet in
Harvard college or even in high school.
He’s only a 14-year-old kid.
He’s only in the 8th Grade.
If you can’t even stay home and rest up from the flu in the 8th grade with a clear conscience, then what does that say about our culture? Is there any wonder we are in the midst of an influenza epidemic?
Now, we all think we have THE most important jobs in the world.
Unless we are at death’s door, don’t even think about skipping work or school.
Even I have come under this delusion of mind over virus.
Last week, in I went to teach afternoon instruction because I felt I HAD to be at work to show my commitment. I was not hacking and coughing. I HAD a prescription for an antibiotic in hand (seems like, if you have flu symptoms and don’t rest them, the darned germs morph into something else, wouldn’t ya know?).
I was just a little stuffy.
And my eyes were sunken in because I had barely slept for two …. no three nights because my sinuses were killing me but
Life goes on and we muddle through.
At the copy machine my boss asked.
“What are you doing here?”
“I’m just making copies for this afternoon. Then, I’m going to take my antibiotics. Then I’m going to teach. ”
Fortunately, I have a boss who does have the voice of reason.
“You will do no such thing. You look like hell. I appreciate you want to work but you shouldn’t be here. Now go home and get some rest.”
So rest I did and I am better now, a week later. Even so, my energy is not fully back.
So, when it was my son’s turn to fall ill, I did not let him succumb to our hyper-achievement culture.
He’s home. He has a fever that spikes back as soon as the latest ibuprofen dose wears off. But he is resting and doing his work and playing his guitar when he feels up to it.
Will he go back to school tomorrow? Don’t know. We’ll just have to see.
Fess up: have you ever went to work/school when you know you were too sick?
For six years, I have walked the life of a middle schooler at my children’s curriculum nights.
Some years, my husband and I conquered and divided, splitting up the night walking the walk when we had a sixth and an eighth grader. Last night we walked through my son’s eighth grade day by visiting each class in periods boiled down into 10 minute snippets.
In years past, teachers with a twinkle in their eye would discuss the actual curriculum they covered in addition to how to get in touch with them and where to find the latest assignments online. In past years, teachers used their precious 10 minutes to explain why they are passionate about teaching their subject to our children, something to which they have dedicated their life’s work. They went on about how they would rev up our child to learn about the Industrial Revolution, or get them juiced up about geometry.
They talked about TEACHING. Plain and simple.
Last night, something was different. Last night, it seemed that the teachers in my beloved school district had been bitten by the dreaded TEACH TO THE TEST zombie.
With each class I visited with my husband, the evening was not about the curriculum, but making the grade. How much homework and classroom work counted toward the grade and most of all, how much those tests counted towards the grade. Suddenly, the school district that I have loved for its emphasis on academic excellence was more about how teachers were qualified to help our kids get the best grades possible.
Are academic excellence and excellent grades the same thing? Am I out of line for feeling this way? After all, I live in one of the toughest and highly rated school districts in the country, right? The going should be tough, it SHOULD be about performance and grades, right?
Now, I know. This is school. This is hard work that’s being asked of my child and I am glad my child is being challenged, but I want teachers to challenge my kids to learn, not to feel pressure and anxiety about taking tests.
Maybe our teachers are not to blame for this shift in emphasis.
What scared me about last night is I had a feeling that suddenly in my district, the teachers seem like they are under the testing gun more than in years past. The teachers seem now to want our children to succeed not for their own sake of LEARNING, but to show their own accountability for how well our children perform on tests and labs so they can keep their jobs. Teaching jobs are hard to come by these days, that I understand and appreciate.
Perhaps the class with the most soul sucking sound was my child’s math class. A cold fish of a woman with mousey brown hair prattled on about maintaining not a PASSING grade in this almost double-accelerated class, but a 85-90 percent grade to stay in the class. The word assessment came from her mouth almost two dozen times. Not once did she talk about how she was going to teach to me this most difficult subject to GET my kid and the kids of others EXCITED enough to learn and get this grade. I suddenly felt like a middle school student all over again in math, anxiously waiting for the bell to ring so could BOLT!
After math was technology, the final class of the evening. I had had it. All I wanted to do was blow this class off, not caring if I would get a detention for cutting. All I wanted to do was to go home and crawl under the covers, thanking the Lord I was no longer a middle school student.
So glad I stuck around.
Waiting for us outside his classroom was my son’s tech teacher.
“You coming in? Excellent!” He beamed.
I won’t say his name, but this man talked about his life. He talked about growing up in his dad’s auto mechanic shop and how he fiddled with car engines. In this class, they were going to MAKE and DESIGN stuff! Grow hydroponic plants! Use design and mechanic techniques that required precision and discipline to make a product! Yes, there would be homework and tests, but these benchmarks took a back seat to the teacher’s EXCITEMENT about what he was going to teach to our children.
So glad I didn’t cut your class, Mr. Tech teacher.
After we got home, I guess you can say I was in a crummy mood. I argued with my husband as we lay in bed about my seemingly bad-ass negative attitude about middle school. On a whole, weren’t the teachers lovely and didn’t they convey to us what our son would learn that year? My husband. I love him because he is the glass half full kind of guy. Yes, maybe.
I finally fell asleep. Only to be woken by my eighth grade son at 2 a.m. His throat was killing him and he had a cough that sounded like a sick seal. Felt his head. No fever.
“Honey, you sound sick, and if you feel this way this morning, we are going to the doctor.”
“NO MOM! I CANNOT MISS SCHOOL. EVER!! I’LL MISS TOO MUCH.”
“Okay, how about coming home after school and missing track practice. You need your rest.”
“NO MOM! I CANNOT MISS PRACTICE. EVER!! I WON’T QUALIFY FOR A MEET.”
Those last two sentences, fear-filled sentences about missing even a day of school, even an HOUR of school to go to the doctor, confirmed my feelings about curriculum night.
I gave him a cough drop and a kiss on his head and sent him to bed. But I can’t say that I slept well.
My daughter came down from her bedroom to talk to me the other night.
No, this sentence warrants a six-column headline:
My daughter came down from her bedroom to talk to me the other night
After all, she is 15. Aside from emerging for meals, school, and showers, she lives in her room.
In another astounding development, my brilliant, confident and extremely disciplined daughter came down to ask me – her mom (!) to help her study!
She asked me to help her study! She still needs me!
This week marks her first set of high school midterms. I admire her extra efforts for studying for them. Math and science is dad’s department. But current events and English, that is my domain. We began to review for her social studies exam. But as we started to review the material – and please – JUST the material – the thought-provoking documentary Race to Nowhere came to mind.
As she crammed the names and positions of 40 current world leaders into her head, was she truly gaining an understanding of current world events? I am a news junkie, so I couldn’t help but wonder – she was memorizing names with faces, but was she learning?
My daughter thrust into my hands a four-page study packet that had 40 mug shots of leaders of North America, Asia and Europe. Also included in the lineup were that week’s Republican candidates who were vying for the nomination for this November’s presidential election. We started with those:
I asked: “Can you name the candidates who are running in the Republican primary?’
“Sure: Gingrich. Romney, and, um — Santorum!”
Great, she had them down. And Perry had just dropped out. But for me, these answers aren’t good enough. After all, in by the time the 2016 Presidential election comes around, she’ll be old enough to vote. So I press on:
“Who is this Newt Gingrich and what position of government did he hold in the past? What was he known for doing in this position?
“I don’t care, mom, that’s not on the test! Just names and positions, Mom.”
I could in some ways empathize with her. The Social Studies midterm was just one test in a slew of tests she will face this week. She still had to conjugate lots of verbs in Spanish for another test. And tackle some tough algebra problems for yet another. Names and faces of world leaders, that’s plenty to know. But is it?
I pressed on.
“Who is the secretary of state?”
“Easy. Hillary Clinton.”
I couldn’t help myself: “And what does the secretary of state do? And what was she before she was secretary of state?”
“Not important, it won’t be on the test! Next leader, please….This is why I like to study with dad more than you!”
“Who is the leader of Venezuela?”
“No problem, Ces, Chavez…. he has a mustache!
“Yes. Now, which other world leader is he getting into bed with and why is this a problem?”
“Into bed with?!?”
“It’s just an expression. It means getting buddy-buddy with.”
“I don’t know! Who cares, it’s-“
“….I know it’s not on the test. But he is getting cozy with a leader in the Middle East in a country that starts with an I-“
“Okay, I know this one, the president of Iran is Ahmadinejad.”
I personally hope she won’t have to spell that one…
“And why is this a problem? What do these countries both have a lot of that we depend on?
“I don’t knoooooww, mom! Sugar? This will not be on the test!”
“Oil, honey, they both have oil and they are both consider the US as an enemy. Oh, and what other country does Iran consider an enemy?”
“This is not on the TEST!”
But she knows. She knows the leaders of Iran want to wipe Israel off the map. She knows this because it’s what we discuss at home. Just like she knew the leader of Israel was Benjamin Netanyahu before she got that study packet.
So, how many world leaders or members of the US cabinet can you recognize or name? And does rattling off these names make our high school students any more knowledgeable on current events?
On a final note, my daughter invited a friend home to study and have dinner with us tonight. Another source of midterm stress: the English composition.
“This could be on ANYTHING, mom. We just won’t know what we are going to have to write about. I mean, the topic could be: What are the social implications of when Neil Young walked on the moon?!”
I started the evening at Rochester’s screening of the documentary “The Race to Nowhere” as a columnist hunting for my next big topic. Would this movie light a big enough spark to generate action in the towns I cover? Would this mobilize parents to put an end to the endless hours of homework?
The screening of this independent documentary was widely anticipated in Rochester. For weeks, as in the rest of the nation, Rochesterians have faced the grim news of deep cuts to school budgets. Increased class sizes. Cuts to Advanced Placement classes. Cuts to arts education, even at Rochester’s prestigious School of The Arts.
But this film was not about budget cuts. Or maybe it is. Maybe, the stories in this movie are the direct results of the mess our nation’s education system finds itself. Race to Nowhere is the product of cuts to funding in education: too many teachers forced to teach to the test, classes stripped away of anything creative, kids stripped away of their zest for life and the excitement of learning, replaced by the constant pressure to churn, absorb and perform.
Even though I got my ticket in advance, finding a seat was a challenge. The lecture hall at Nazareth College was packed. But still more educators, students and community members filed in to see a film that is sparking heated discussions and stirring people to act and rethink the cost of constantly pushing our children to always excel, always succeed and NEVER take it easy. We are pushing them fast, according to the movie, to cheating, burnout, stress-related illnesses, and in the most extreme case, suicide.
The film, as our moderator cautioned, did take a very narrow focus on only the most stressed-out kids and teachers. I did not see any joy in these kids lives, and there had to be some point where these kids had a chance to kick back and enjoy, or maybe even once come home and bubble about something they learned in school.
I’m relieved to say that my kids still come home excited about at least some of the learning they do. How can you not get excited about creating a silent screen script as a way to learn about the 1920’s or learning about Beluga whales?
But, as I watched the movie, I felt the tension slowly rise in my throat. I got emotionally caught up in the struggles of the kids and parents on the screen. My thoughts drifted to my own three kids, aged 14, 12 and 7:
……About a month ago, my daughter came home from school “stressed” that she only got an 86 in her latest math test. Only.
My daughter is in the 8th grade in the Brighton Central School District in the Rochester Area. It is one of the most competitive in the country. She’s been enrolled in accelerated math and science ever since the fifth grade.
And my illustrious academic math career? I was never a good math student. I write. There are brilliant mathematicians and engineers who can barely weave together a paragraph. This is because we are wired differently, and that is okay.
So, I am pretty certain that in my New York City Public school, math classes were created for left-brained students like me. Just to shove enough math credits down our gullet to graduate.
So, hearing my daughter say “I only got an 86″ in an advanced math class, evoked little sympathy from mom. But, she wasn’t looking for sympathy. She was truly stressed.
“I HAVE to get AT least a 91 or higher in my next test, or else I’m out of the accelerated math program.” Her emphasis was on “test” and not on learning a theory, or learning how to solve a problem.
I posed the possibility of failure to my brilliant daughter: “There may come a time in your academic life when you, no matter how hard you studied, might get a low grade on a test. A really low grade. What would happen, if you actually failed a test?”
“Fail?! No way. I’m never failing a test. Ever.” And she went back upstairs to study.
“Race To Nowhere” also talked about the overemphasis on Advanced Placement classes. My daughter is already talking about taking Advanced Placement classes at age 14. This is something that I didn’t think about until I was a junior in high school. I took AP English classes and AP biology classes because I was genuinely interested in them and wanted to take them. How it looked on a college application was only the second reason why I took them.
And for my daughter? It’s as if the last few months of eighth grade are already history. Onto looking good for the college application. Onto the next thing.
..My son, a sixth grader, comes home to discuss the Civil Rights Movement and the book, The Watsons go to Birmingham. He also threw himself into his optional science project and studied how airplanes fly. He is a voracious reader and absorbs books from authors like Stephen King, James Patterson, and Anthony Horowitz. With all this reading, he is capable of making excellent inferences and insights in class discussions. He is also in accelerated math and never throws his hands up in frustration because he doesn’t understand something.
Nathan’s downfall is that sometimes his completed homework fails to make it from his backpack, down the hallway, and into the teacher’s inbox. So, often, he is graded on missing homework assignments instead of his actual ability to think and solve problems while he is in class. And, like the movie pointed out to me, my nightly conversations with Nathan are not about what he learned, but what he has for homework, and did he do it, and can I see it? And our nights usually end up with him yelling at me to get off his back.
Lastly, the movie touched upon our society’s never-ending need to one-up our friends, family and neighbors with how much material wealth we gain. Making money is the whole reason for working so hard in school, for accepting acceptance from only the top colleges, so one can be gainfully employed and making a LOT of money. That is success.
At seven, my youngest already understands this.
“Mom, are you successful?”
I think about this. I am happily married and have three healthy, beautiful though somewhat kooky children. I have three jobs that touch a lot of people’s lives in my community, though none pay enough that I could actually independently support myself. But, I have been there for my husband so he could be successful. In turn, for his success, I can be home for my kids after school to take them wherever they need to go: be it Bar Mitzvah lessons or orthodontist appointments.
But I know what my son is getting at…
“Let’s face it mom. The “Jonses” are both doctors and they have a pool and a hot tub and a really big house. And we don’t have a pool. And our house is not as big as theirs. So, they are more successful than you are.”
So, I ended the night not a trailblazing reporter, but a weepy parent with knots in my stomach. I was too much in a rush to get home to my kids, NOT to ask them about their homework, or what they got on their latest test, but to give them a hug and tell them to find time to enjoy life while they are still kids living under my roof.
What picture inspires you more.
If public school budgets continue to shave and slash away at the arts, the black and white dots of those “No Child Left Behind” standardized tests are all that will be left of our children’s public school education. Teaching to the test leaves no room for imagination, creativity, real thinking or problem solving. What it has resulted in is burned-out stressed-out teachers and students.
This is according to an independent documentary called “Race To Nowhere” that is sparking a grassroots movement to reshape how we educate our public school students. I look forward to seeing a screening of this independent movie in Rochester, NY, at Nazareth College on April 4. The movie screening is being sponsored in part by a private Jewish day school, Hillel Community Day School.
The film challenges parents, educators, and policy makers with this question: Are we doing right by our children? Is the pressure to succeed in standardized tests really preparing our children to become capable, inspired and motivated individuals ready to tackle college or the workforce?
When school budgets get tight, the arts are the first to get cut. In fact, schools in the Rochester area are seeking to reduce some of their arts budgets by 50 percent.
Is music, art and sculpture really that expendable? Is painting, singing, and playing an instrument such a frivolous part of a child’s education that it should be considered a fluffy extra that can be easily eliminated from his academic career?
Absolutely not, according to Americans for the Arts. Young people who consistently participate in comprehensive, sequential, and rigorous arts programs are:
- 4 times more likely to be recognized for academic achievement
- 3 times more likely to be elected to class office within their schools
- 4 times more likely to participate in a math and science fair
- 3 times more likely to win an award for school attendance
- 4 times more likely to win an award for writing an essay or poem*
When was the last time your child stood at an easel and held a brush full of paint? Or perhaps, in the spirit of abandoning everything for creativity’s sake, she ditched the brush and instead joyfully found herself up to her elbows in paint, as her hands and fingers glided across the paper.
Indeed, art is messy. When was the last time you let your kid get messy at home with some paint or clay? Overheard once in a preschool hallway: “I’m so glad they paint here at school, because at home, we don’t let him do that.”
Might as well draw a dagger through a teacher’s heart.
Video games and television are not messy. But they don’t do much to fire up the brain neurons either.
Art on the other hand unlocks creativity in children that leads to story telling, pattern recognition, and understanding other cultures. It is simply the expression of life that makes life enjoyable. Art enables quiet kids to tell stories. Art calms and centers otherwise boisterious kids. It is a positive way for them to control the environment around them. A blank piece of paper or a lump of play dough can become a whole universe that they can master.
The above picture was created by a very precocious preschooler who patiently sat, cut and created a composition. Imagine what that same child can do when she gets older in an art class?
If a child is not going to be exposed to the earts in their earliest school years, then where will they get the opportunities? If arts are cut in public schools, there are private arts classes that parents can enroll their chilren in most towns and communities. But they cost money. So, cut the arts in public schools, and access to arts will only be possible to the families who can afford them.
And the rest? GThe only drawing less priveleged kids are going to do in school are the dots and circles they create on a standardized test.