"I couldn't cope."
"School is so much pressure; every day I wake up dreading it."
"We are on a race to nowhere."
The comments came from high school students whose interviews were featured in a bold documentary, Race to Nowhere. The film takes its name from that particular, pointed comment, which succinctly captures its focus on the growing problem of stress in our educational system.
It's a problem that stands out in a system already beset with a multitude of difficulties. Students, teachers, parents—all are increasingly finding themselves boxed in by stress.
Students, with entry into "the best" colleges and universities as the ultimate prize, are pressured to excel academically—while also, incidentally, perfecting a personal resume of "extras" (music, sports, service activities, etc.) for review by college admissions committees.
Parents, convinced "the best" colleges are the way to assure success for their children, push them to achieve high grades and opt for advanced placement classes.
Teachers, with government-mandated standards putting a school's funding on the line, find themselves driven by subject matter on standardized tests to the exclusion of other learning opportunities and experiences they'd like to offer.
Terri Izatt, a Nevada educator whose creative approach to teaching has included creating a national "Lit Trip" destination for Google Earth and organizing "Ag Day" field trips to working ranches, expressed her frustration at the lack of time for such projects. "I hate that I spend more time 'teaching to the tests' than I do trying to get students to love learning, to try to get them to want to learn," she said.
"What kind of individual are we trying to create?" another teacher asked.
"Things that get our students to think are pushed aside," yet another said.
Two Marywood faculty members, Dr. Joseph Polizzi and Dr. David Palmiter, are reaching out to increase awareness and offer help through some innovative initiatives, including collaboration with a respected community center and a local school district.
Since Race to Nowhere producers opted to offer screenings at regional venues (community centers, schools, churches) in an effort to promote grassroots involvement, it seemed serendipity might be at work, bringing several good ideas together.
As it happened, Waverly, PA, Community House Director Maria Wilson had been talking with Dr. Polizzi about producing a lecture series at "the Comm," which has been a gathering place and venerable center of area activities for 91 years. This series would bring current academic thinking to families.
"Topics had to be current," said Dr. Polizzi. "Speakers should be local academics who had a reputation for exceptional work."
Dr. David Palmiter, whose just-released book, Working Parents, Thriving Families: 10 Strategies That Make a Difference, has received enthusiastic reviews and national attention, seemed suited to fill those criteria.
Dr. Polizzi and Dr. Palmiter seized upon opportunity, and the result has been the development of the "Family Film and Lecture Series," beginning with a special showing of Race to Nowhere—followed by an open discussion moderated by Dr. Polizzi at the Comm early this spring.
Audience members—parents, teachers, and students alike—were ready with insightful commentary about the "culture of achievement" the film had shown being thrust upon students.
A parent observed that "parents are not getting that every child has a gift, and gifts are different."
The same idea was expressed by a teacher, who noted that his wife was also a teacher, and they both had often been struck with the reality of the fact that "every kid cannot be in the top two percent."
A student pointed out that the film hadn't mentioned that many students are also employed, and that creates even more demands on their time.
A teacher confirmed the accuracy of something the film had inferred: that high school has tended to become a preparation for college application—rather preparation for college itself.
That attitude had been poignantly emphasized by a student featured in the documentary who proclaimed, "I passed French. Thank goodness, I'll never have to speak French again."
The documentary and discussion set the stage for two follow-up presentations by Dr. Palmiter, which focused on issues faced by families under stress and pressured for time.
The topic, "Remaining Close to Your Child When You Have No Time," followed by "Promoting Self and Relationship Care When You Have No Time," clearly reflects Dr. Palmiter's concern for the impact of stress on family relationships, especially when the adverse factor of time (or lack thereof) enters the equation.
Serendipity—or perhaps the simple physics principle of momentum—continues to apply: that is, a good idea in motion tends to stay in motion.
Most recently, Dr. Polizzi and Dr. Palmiter have found an opportunity to share their knowledge and understanding of the debilitating effects of stress through a project to aid an area school district. Both faculty members are beginning work with the Tunkhannock, PA, School District on professional development workshops that address creating a positive and sustainable educational environment.
"Teachers are a mission-driven lot," Dr. Palmiter said. "I'm a big fan of parents and teachers."
"I want to open the door to the idea that there is more to learning than standardized tests," Dr. Polizzi says. He is doing his part to inspire tomorrow's educators to develop innovative teaching strategies that would help their future students escape a rigid test-driven box. Dr. Polizzi recently arranged an "Urban Education Excursion," taking upper-level education majors and master's students to visit two outstanding inner city schools in New York, observing how these successful schools are meeting the needs and goals of their diverse student populations.
"We have to change the ideology of what makes a good educational system," a teacher interviewed for Race to Nowhere had observed.
Such a goal will surely involve thinking and acting outside—and even beyond—the box, something that both Dr. Polizzi and Dr. Palmiter are already doing with enthusiasm.
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