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The endangered “average” child. My thoughts on Race to Nowhere

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.

Why should you See a Movie at a Film Fest vs. Netflix? I’ll Tell You Why

Yesterday, I went to movie at the 10th Ames-Amzalak Rochester Jewish Film Festival. I went on yet another one of these very long beautiful summer days where I have hours of time all to myself.

Just  like last week’s “too much kid free time on my hands” list, I did do some cooking and some heavy-duty cleaning of my kids bedrooms. Then, I heard the voice of Robin Williams in Dead Poet’s Society in my head: “Seize the Day.”

At some point, I did rationalize away the indulgent thought of going to a movie, in the middle of the week, in the middle of the day, all by myself. My husband was working hard in his windowless office all week. Who am I to go out and enjoy a film, in the middle of the day, in the middle of the week? After all, any movie shown at the Festival, between now and August 2, I can eventually see on a DVD rental.  

But I went. And I enjoyed.

The movie, an Israeli film called Eli & Ben, was set in Hezliyah.  Here is the first reason why you should go to a film festival. These movies are hand-picked by diversely populated committees that sift out the best films : Film festival films offer the opportunity to learn about the geography and culture of another part of the world.

How many movies do you know that are set in Herzliya, a coastal town in Israel? How much do you know about Israel outside what you hear on the news? Because of the Jewish Film Festival, I have seen movies set in the mystical city of Tzefat, hip Tel Aviv, a kibbutz, or spiritual Jerusalem.

Foreign film festivals allow you to improve language skills. After viewing enough movies in Hebrew, I start to recognize sentence and verb structure that I hadn’t thought about since college. I only wish that when I visit Israel everyone can walk around with subtitles.  

But the main reason is the communal feeling you get from going to the theatre. Remember how I said I went alone? I really wasn’t alone.  As I settled into my seat at the JCC, I was flanked by two friends that I had met there by complete chance. It couldn’t have worked out better if it was planned.  Unlike going to a commercial theatre, film festival theatres are filled with the pre-film chatter and schmoozing and catching up with friends. The film was then personally announced by the festival’s chairperson. Sometimes, the director himself may be present to introduce the film or answer questions afterwards. During the film, I sat with an audience completely engaged with what was on the screen. Our emotions played off one another as we laughed, sighed or gasped in unison. If I Netflixed the same film, I most likely would have zonked out on the couch before it was even over.

Here is a list of movies I have enjoyed at Jewish Film Festivals through the years. True, most people, even pass holders, are not fortunate to see all of them on film. Whatever ethnic, racial or other niche you find yourself in, go see a good film in the company of others.

Here is a list of just some of the films I have seen thanks to the Rochester Jewish Film Festival. To see descriptions of these movies, or an archive from past film festivals, go to www.rjff.org

  • Ben & Eli
  • Walk on Water
  • Zrubavel
  • Pinchas
  • The Syrian Bride
  • A Late Marriage
  • Live and Become
  • Lemon Tree
  • Close to Home
  • Defiance
  • The Case for Israel
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