“Race to Nowhere” is a powerful documentary that has brought to light the negative and frightening consequences of high-pressure schools, where numerous hours of homework, stringent (and not necessarily illuminating) AP courses, and high GPAs are the ultimate goal. The film continues to be screened around the country stirring up conversation and awareness among students, parents, teachers, and some administrators who are beginning to realize the high cost of too much pressure on both physical and mental health. The film is emboldening individuals and communities to advocate for change.
An announcement I received for upcoming screenings includes the story of Elle DelGrosso.
Elle was a junior in high school when her hair began to fall out. She was taking a full slate of AP courses and brought home stellar report cards. She competed on field hockey and lacrosse teams. She had her eye on becoming Valedictorian. To outsiders, she looked like the perfect student. But her hair told a different story. Deep down, Elle knew it was just one visible casualty of a high school climate that valued the appearance of perfection above health and a love of learning. “All I know,” she says now, “is that I could not stand the idea of receiving a report card with anything on it but As.”
Now, a year later, Elle credits her school’s screening of “Race to Nowhere” as the moment that gave her the courage to speak out about the stress she was under–and to make changes. “After that presentation, I vowed to… stop only worrying about how I looked on my transcript,” she recalled recently in a speech at her school. She dropped her AP course load in favor of classes and activities that inspired her. Following her lead, her school soon dropped APs as a requirement for valedictorians. And most importantly, Elle’s entire understanding of education changed. “My goal became to learn for the sake of gaining wisdom… not to receive an A.”
Before our family made the decision to home school during Natalie’s middle school years, I did a lot of reading about different ways of learning. I read articles and books by education specialists, teachers, and students. One of the books was The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing by Alfie Kohn. Mr. Kohn gave me the courage to stand by what I believed to be true. Basically, homework reaps little benefit before the high-school years, and can do much more harm than good.
Homework can benefit older students, if relevant to the next day’s coursework and in quantities that still allow children the time to rest, play, read, and spend time with their families.
Flash forward two years: Natalie is a sophomore in high school. She LOVES school. She even LOVES her homework. The high school she attends makes health a priority. Making health a priority means they want to make sure the students get enough sleep each night. That means not assigning too much homework. Are the students getting enough sleep? Not all of the time. Why is that?
Using 4 pm as a start time: Add up sports or fitness activity (90 minutes), other extra-curricular activities such as music, theater, art, reading (60 minutes), dinnertime (45 minutes), household chores (30 minutes), and then two hours of homework (120 minutes). This brings us to 9:45 pm.
If you’re in bed and lights are out by 10 pm, you are getting the recommend amount of sleep for teens, i.e. 9 hours. (Most adults need approximately 8 hours.) However, if anything disrupts the Math of Hours – school event, sports event, family event, extra homework, doctor or dentist appointment, etc – sleep is often cut short. The occasional one night’s disrupted sleep is expected and manageable. Repeated bouts lead to lower energy, decreased attentiveness, weakened immune system, and less cheerfulness.
Due to two evening school events, there were two weeks like this last term. It affected all of us. We were tired and a little grumpy. Natalie caught a cold. I wrote to the Head of School letting her know how the Math of Hours had ended up playing out in our home. It took a few emails to arrive at a solution. But our family knows how important good health is to quality learning and we have decided to speak up when we see health or learning being compromised. I decided not to give up. Ultimately (after a few emails back and forth) our belief in the school’s commitment to healthy learning and living was reinforced by the school’s solution: to ask teachers not to assign homework on days when a significant portion of the students is expected to participate in a school event.
Do your own Math of Hours. See if you are giving yourself the rest you need to accomplish good work. And if you are a parent of a student, don’t be afraid to speak up for healthy learning and living! Remember, little good is accomplished by any of us when we feel tired, grumpy and sick. And never forget: even small changes add up, one by one.