I saw the independent film, Race To Nowhere, last week. This film puts our country’s current educational philosophy and practices under a microscope and starkly shows the stressful and joyless results, manifested in children as young as six-years-old, that our current trend of over-scheduling and over-testing is having on this young generation. The film’s director, Vicki Abeles, was inspired to tell this story after her own daughter was hospitalized for stress-induced illness. Tragically and ironically, during the course of the film’s creation, a 13-year-old who lived in her area committed suicide over a grade on a math test. The young people interviewed in this film faced the camera and, for nearly the entirety of the movie, told viewers about their hours and hours of homework and their studying for exams, their preoccupation with perfect grades, their fears of disappointing parents and teachers, and their moods, which basically slid between exhausted, frustrated and frantic. Most of them said they hated school. Most of them said they felt so bad on so many levels that they didn’t see the point of what they were doing anymore.
I know I’ve said it before: there is data out there to support just about any point that anyone would want to make. But, as both a parent and an educator, I at least know what I see. One of the more interesting patterns that I’ve experienced is the response that young children have in my art workshops. I teach them the medium of collage, a technique that I use in my own illustrations and, before we make an actual collage, we create hand-painted paper that we will cut later to make pictures. We use all kinds of weird things to create color, pattern and texture: bottle caps, pieces of rug foam, chopsticks, pot scrubbers and other household items that could carry paint in interesting ways. It’s fun, messy and rather open-ended. I don’t put out water so brushes don’t have to be cleaned, not even between classes. I let the paint colors get mixed on the plates where I squeeze them out. I encourage them to experiment with the tools to discover what they will do and, aside from a few rules to help in managing the 20 or so kids who are in the room ready to dive into a bucket of kitchen utensils and trays of paint, my only requirements are that they don’t paint a “thing” (a house, a flower, a car, etc.) and that they fill up the page. I do a kooky, one-mintue demonstration with some of the stuff. ”Ooohs” and “ahhs” can be heard as swirly paint effects come from an old kitchen sponge or a wine cork.
But, even before I can say “on your mark, get set, go,” the hands start to go up. Now I am all for curious questions but I know how these inquiries will start. Four words. I know it because, these days, I hear these four words from children more than any other four words in the world. When I do professional development for teachers, I tell them that these four words tell me more about their school and their classroom than many other things I will experience during our time together. If I could boil it down to one, simple generalization, these four words tell me how creative a school or a classroom is. Or isn’t.
“Are we allowed to…”
And, once one child says the four words, they all follow suit. It makes no difference what qualifier comes after the four words. It could be anything. ”Are we allowed to use two colors on the same piece of paper?” “Are we allowed to hold tools in both our hands at the same time?” ”Are we allowed to make zig-zags (or anything else that wasn’t demonstrated)?” ”Are we allowed to stand?” “Are we allowed to sit?” “Are we allowed to talk while we paint?” What makes it difficult for me is that I’ve kind of launched into this very free-style activity… We’re gonna paint paper! Look at all these funky tools; I wonder what they do? Try them and see! Everybody ready? And then, because they are so accustomed to the regimented, test-oriented classrooms that so many of our schools are made of now, they need– crave– parameters even for something like painting a bunch of squiggles and blobs with a scrub brush on a piece of construction paper. It really kind of interrupts my free-style vibe and it can sometimes make the teachers a little crazy because they either think the kids aren’t understanding or I haven’t prepared them properly–or both. I tell them not to worry.
Then, I tell the kids that the last thing I’m going to tell them is that they can’t ask me any more questions, and they scoot off to begin.
There are kids who almost can’t stand to get their hands dirty and anxiously ask me a half-dozen times if the paint is washable (yes, it is). And, you have the kids who have obviously never gotten much of a chance to explore art supplies and would probably really benefit, in more ways than one, from some tactile activities. They are busy rubbing paint onto the tops of their hands and wrists as if they were putting on handcream, instead of painting the paper. Then there are kids for whom this activity is like unearthing some long, lost vestige from their creative past. By their second piece of paper, they are completely in the zone, like a fish returned to water, a bird returned to the sky. These are the kids I’d like to bring into my studio to paint paper for me. But somewhere around about ten minutes before clean-up, everyone has hit their stride. No one is asking me questions, no one is wandering around the room upset that they have paint on their hands and everyone is busy making paper. Even the teachers. Even the parents who have volunteered to help that day. Too bad the time is almost up. No one wants to stop.
Personally, I think it means we need more fun, messy stuff like this in school.
Last week, the Times ran an article on meditation. Since its publication, it’s been on the top ten list of most read articles and at the time of this posting, it is still #2. The author, health writer, Tara Parker-Pope, reports on her husband’s 10-day mediation retreat and his new commitment to a 2-hour a day meditation regimen. In fact, there are a number of articles on meditation in the Times health section, all with a lively assortment of reader’s responses that give testament to the benefits of meditation and relaxation. These meditation-wellness facilities are big business now, as are retreats where you can spend a lot of money to go get relaxed. I will admit that I am not one who is much for sitting still for very long but I liked hearing that the people in these studies increased the size of their hippocampus.
I haven’t had a life altering experience with the more soothing forms of yoga, like hatha, and it is not easy for me to stop the tape in my head and just think about breathing and nothing else. Once, I had a yoga teacher tell us to pretend we were wallpaper. I tried, I really tried, but my mind wouldn’t do it. I am pretty sure that a 10-day meditation retreat would not be for me. I even had trouble with the “Do Nothing For Two Minutes” site. But, when I first started running in 1998, every mile was a new goal. I remember when I was trying to get to being able to run five miles at once and it seemed like I’d never be able to do it. So, I came up with a mantra in my head that became synchronized with each step and each breath: I run strong, I live long. Whenever I felt like I couldn’t continue, this phrase would loop in my head. I run strong, I live long. I run strong, I live long. Most of my art work is nature-inspired and cutting leaves for the collages I do seems monotonous to everyone who has ever seen my work. Doesn’t it drive you crazy? All those leaves? You must want to pull your hair out. Quite the opposite. I’ve often thought it would be interesting to take my blood pressure when I’m in a leaf-cutting groove; I bet it would be low. I’m also the kind of cook who loves preparing meals but prefers to “wing it,” and I especially love making soups. When I’m in my kitchen, music playing, maybe having a nice glass of wine, chopping away at vegetables and concocting something in a big, beautiful boiling stockpot, I’m as much in the zone as my friends in the classroom with their painted papers. Maybe even as much as the meditators on their 10-day thingy. Running, making art, cooking… these are my meditations.
The week before last, Tara Stiles’ “Rebel Yoga” program was a featured Times article and it stayed at the top of the most-read list for the entire week. Stiles got a lot of flack from yoga aficionados for her loose adherence to the “rules” of yoga. I’m with Stiles, though, and say, for fitness, do what works. Maybe it’s hatha yoga or running ten miles–just move your body, make up your own rules. As for relaxation, that’s a personal thing, too. It could be making soup, digging in a garden, even playing a video game. The important part is that you are taking time out of the regimented routine of a day to do something that you enjoy and, importantly, where you make the creative decisions about what to do, how to solve the problem. What worries me about kids like the ones featured in Race To Nowhere is that they arrive to adulthood after years of all work, anxiety and pressure with little or no relaxation. How will they ever come to enjoy digging in that garden or making a pot of soup if they’ve only ever had to endure? It begs the question, how do we justify all this rigor?
The film reported that top level universities spend two years doing remedial work with college freshmen and sophomores. Two years! Why? Because they’re not ready for the critical, higher level thinking and problem solving that college level coursework requires. They’re just really good at taking tests, but the information that they remember is lost just as soon as the test is over. Plus, they’re completely burned out. I’m really, really happy that our district high school hosted this film. Over 1,000 parents attended. Afterwards, there was an open microphone for anyone who wanted to comment. What is now a familiar complaint from 40 and 50-something professionals out there in the world of work was brought to light again that night by one of the parents in the audience, an engineer who worked for a big firm here in New Jersey. She said that her firm was having a hard time making new hires because these new college grads can’t do anything without being told exactly what to do. And, when they aren’t told exactly what to do, how many pages to prepare, how many slides to have, how many calls to make, these “adults” are immobilized and need help.
Here’s what I think:
Kindergarten should be for play. Elementary school should be about discovery. Junior high should be about strengthening a developing mind and those wonderful “aha!” learning moments that make it clear the wheels are turning and the kids are engaged. High school should be about collaboration, problem solving and getting ready for adulthood by being challenged to think about the possible, and also as a segue into college, a place where learning has the power to take you to your life’s passion, meaning, and work. All of these years in school should be fun. All of these years should make us excited about learning. Education is power. It’s the key to independence, both personal and financial.
I will admit that there is a contagious pressure in the air right now and, sometimes, I fall right into it. Kids hate to have an adult ask them how school is going. They think it’s all we think about and they might be right. But there is nothing more satisfying to me, as a parent, than to have my kids come home and, without asking them, tell me about their day. Funny anecdotes, stories of things that went wrong, stories of things that went right, and the things they learned. Not every school year has been this way but, thankfully, there have been more that have than have not. I think learning is one of the best things in the Universe. I have seen how it can change people, myself included.
If we keep forcing our kids to race to nowhere, if we continue to make the learning required for testing well the only objective, if we never let them get their hands messy and paint pictures of nothing, if we rob them of their childhoods and make them sick with anxiety by first grade, then we’d better get ready for something we haven’t quite experienced in a whole generation of young adults, those who will be our future teachers, doctors, and business leaders. They might make straight A’s and test into the highest ranking schools in the country but I’ll be willing to bet that they’re still going to be raising their hands to say “are we allowed to…?” And, the notion that they can straighten this all out sometime later in their adulthood with a weekly yoga class or a yearly meditation retreat is insanity.
TRY THIS WEEK: Relax.