Category Archives: Kids and school

“Race to Nowhere” Revisited: Two Innovative Approaches to Homework

So glad that the film, “Race to Nowhere”, is still in wide circulation and that it was shown three times in the last week, twice at our high school and once at a local church.  The documentary, which I’ve written about before, touches on all kinds of things that are very relevant to today’s parents– over-stressed kids; restrictive teach-to-the-test teaching methods that don’t teach kids to be problem-solvers; an unrealistic approach in America toward “college readiness”; in-school cheating; and teen suicide, among other topics.  Love the film or hate it, it definitely gets discussion going about things that definitely need to be discussed.  When I saw the film again last week, many parents stayed for a panel discussion that followed and probably wished that part of the program could have lasted longer. I know I wished the “experts” present would have touched on the subject of homework a bit more– the studies mentioned in the movie, that show that grades can increase with less homework, are compelling.  But in the five days since, the discussion has continued, and I’ve heard about a couple of innovative approaches to homework going on right here in my district that I wanted to share with readers.

The first I heard about as I was walking out of the high school auditorium where the film was shown.  A friend who is a mom and first grade teacher told me that, rather than assign homework every night in several subjects, she gives students (and parents) a list of choices at the beginning of the week– four subject categories, like reading and math, and several types of assignments in each category.  The assignments vary to include the traditional, like worksheets, as well as more hands-on project-based assignments, to account for kids’ different learning styles.  Students choose one assignment in each category, and the assignments are due at the end of the week.  My teacher friend told me that kids love it, because it gives them choices, and parents love it, as it helps them help their child better fit homework with their extracurricular and family activities.  In other words, the kids have the freedom to do homework on a “less-busy” night rather than be forced to do homework every night.  HOORAY FOR THIS! I swear, it’s the first time I’ve ever heard schools taking into consideration that these kids have lives outside of school.  (The line in the film that always “gets” to me goes something like this: “When did it start to be okay that school gets to dictate what happens in our lives and in our families after the dismissal bell rings?”)

Then a couple days later, another mom told me about a math homework approach being tried at the jr. high and high school levels.  A teacher introduces a concept to the class.  The kids’ homework is to further learn that math concept online, via video that the teacher has downloaded to a website, and then they work on the assigned problems in class.  The teacher can go around the room and use that 50 minutes of classtime to work with students one-on-one if they need help, and spend more time with students who don’t understand the concepts. So, the usual way of doing things is “flipped”– learn the concepts at home (if you didn’t understand them when the teacher showed them first in class), do the “busy work” in school. Sounds a whole lot smarter to me, and avoids kids trying to get help from math-challenged parents in solving a math problem, or copying homework from friends (some are pressured to do this since they will get detention in jr. high if they don’t turn something in), or worse, the parents doing the homework for them! And a stressed-out kid would probably rather watch an online video to refresh a math concept than hunkering down over 20 problems at 10 o’clock at night…

I know that some would say “no homework at all” is the best policy, but based on comments I’ve heard around me, I don’t think it would be easily accepted, by parents or teachers.  But I think creative approaches to homework would be.  I applaud any teacher/school for re-thinking their approach to homework like those mentioned above and I hope more and more of this starts happening.  Do you know of other creative homework ideas? Please comment below!

Homecoming 101: Short Dresses and Stripper Poles

Some words of advice for parents of high school girls who are going to Homecoming (and this probably comes too late for most of you since we’re right in the middle of homecoming season): be prepared to spend a lot of time shopping for “just the right dress” if she’s going to the Homecoming dance, since most of the dressy dresses that have been offered in retail stores for teenage girls over the past several years don’t pass dress code.  In a school, that is.  Or probably by your own standards as well.  But they’d fit right in at a “gentleman’s club”!

I remember being amazed two years ago during Allison’s freshman year how so many dresses she tried on were so short, they didn’t pass when she stood up straight, arms hanging down at her sides to do the fingertip test– school dress code dictates that, standing that way, dresses or shorts can’t be shorter than the tips of the fingers.  Heck, these dresses were barely covering her underwear– and she’s not a tall person! And many more dresses that she tried on barely passed.  Ummm, could you maybe wear shorts with that? Pair a dress like that with the ultra high heels the girls favor these days and the look has “hooker chic” written all over it….When our exchange student shopped for a Homecoming dress with her friends last year, I forgot to remind her about “the fingertip test”, but looking back on our early language barriers, I’m not sure she would have understood anyway…  “Shocked” is only one of many words to describe how I felt when she got out of my car to walk to the “group photo shoot” at the civic center fountain on the night of the dance.  It was the first chance I’d had to really see the dress on her.  I was sure we’d be getting a phone call a few hours later when school officials would refuse her entry to the dance (we didn’t).  Another local high school had just been in the news for refusing admittance to 50 girls– here it comes again, I thought.  I was embarrassed to join the group of parents gathering to take photos (including dads, some of whom I’m sure were drooling), many whom I didn’t know since Cleo was a grade ahead of Allison.  Gee, some “host parent” I turned out to be, huh? I thought.  I wanted to raise my hand and scream, “Yep, I’m the doofus that allowed that!!!” And I also wanted to scream, “Hey, she’s European, what did you expect??”

But no, sadly, Europe is not the only place with “relaxed norms” about kids and early sexualization.  Elsewhere in American Homecoming Fun Facts, I offer you exhibit B: stripper poles.  And yes, I get the doofus parent award once again… 

Years ago, I heard about the growing popularity of renting party buses for Homecoming and the “poles” on board.  Kids go to dinner and then the dance (and often, an “after-dance event”) in groups, and some rent expensive party buses to get them from place to place and split the cost 15, 20 or even 30 ways, depending on the size of the group.  And I’d heard that sometimes girls got “carried away” with the poles on board.  But as I’m hearing this I’m picturing a painted up school bus, like the Partridge Family bus or the On the Border restaurant bus that used to tool around downtown Dallas at lunch, providing free transportation to hungry office workers. And I’m thinking the poles are just jokingly called “stripper poles” by the kids, and that they’re actually the narrow metal poles usually located at a couple places on the sides of bus aisles, for people to hold onto if they can’t find a seat, and I’m thinking that girls can’t put on much of a show with those.  And besides, I’m thinking that surely there’s an adult on the bus besides the driver…What a doofus I am!  Recently when planning an event, I looked at party bus websites for the first time.  And you know what? They’re not painted up school buses.  They’re large luxury “limo vans” or motor coaches…and you know what else?  Almost every bus rental company proudly lists “stripper pole” as a feature on each of its buses…and from the photos I saw, the poles are not meant to steady yourself if you can’t find a seat, they’re not located along the sides.  They’re often right in the middle of a semi-circle of bench seats, so the “audience” is surrounding it, ready for a short-dress show. (Check out an example of a typical party bus by clicking here.) And, parent chaperones are either not present for the evening at all or ride in cars near the bus, so they have no idea what’s going on inside.  ARE YOU KIDDING ME? Do all these supposedly conservative parents here in North Texas not know that the inside of these buses/Hummer limos not only have stripper poles, but that they look like something off Girls Gone Wild, with “Flat Screen Plasma TVs, Surround Sound Audio System, Wrap
Around Leather Seating, Wet Bars, Colored Lights, DVD/CD/MP3 Players, Ice Cold A/C, Wood Floors, and Ample Cup Holders”?   No, I’m not saying that all the kids are giving each other lap dances while on board– I’m saying why give your money to a company that doesn’t mind if they do? I’ve heard enough stories to know that those kids are not all sitting on there singing camp songs… why give kids the opportunity to “perform” in that way?

I went through page after page of party bus websites.  Is there no bus rental company that offers anything a little more toned down? Well, one did offer a bus with a “removable pole”, but based on my past record of naivete’, it probably is removable so it can convert to a limbo contest…

Putting the Fun Back Into Kids’ Fundraisers

A lot has been written and debated about kids and fundraisers (I once wrote a section cover story for the Dallas Morning News about the topic eight or nine years ago), but things don’t seem to change much over the years– basically, as kids add more activities to their schedules and a family’s life gets busier, not only do they/we have to think about practices, team photos, physicals, release forms, concerts/games/tournaments, private lessons, parent meetings, parent volunteering (Who wants to be the Snack Mom? Um, how about The Prop Pop?), “buttons”/car decals/yard signs, and possibly traveling to out of town events, a lot of activities come with fundraisers.  Either the school hardly funds the activity and the organization must raise funds in order to do what they want/need, or they’re independent and don’t get any school funding, or the group’s wants/needs are so lavish and/or numerous that a school couldn’t possibly help meet those needs– and the kids (and parents) must hit up friends, relatives, neighbors and anyone else under the sun to “pony up” and help them out. Don’t get me wrong– fundraisers can be great lessons for kids in salesmanship and economics, not to mention marketing. We’ve had some positive experiences with them in our household.  But often these opportunities can get lost due to the fact that a lot of the time, several fundraisers are happening at once. How can our kids possibly do well at any of them when that’s the case?

If they’re already burdened down with homework overload, lack of sleep, and too many extracurriculars, do we dare expect them to keep up with numerous order forms and sales goals? How can an organization itself do the best it can to meet its goals when it’s scheduling a fundraiser at the same time as every other club/group/team? Do these organizations not ever think that, with the power of the Internet, there might be a way to set up a local calendar where they could all check in and space their fundraisers? Schools constantly send the message to kids during orientations that “yes, you can be in more than one activity”– so why don’t they make it easier to do that? Is it right to ask grandmother to buy raffle tickets, popcorn, overpriced giftwrap, and candy bars all at the same time, following it up with a letter that asks her to “just write a check” for yet another organization?

No, of course not, and so in our house, some fundraisers we flat out refuse to encourage our kids to do, while others we support.  But sometimes, they feel like losers when they return a blank order form–  the teacher or coach (or overhyped fundraiser salesperson) goes spaz over awarding Joe Blow and Suzy Doe their trip to Six Flags, while your child doesn’t even qualify for the light-up yo-yo… and sometimes, if no sales are made, parents are required to write a check for a minimum amount or your child cannot participate on the team or is given some other type of “punishment” (no joke!).

I like the fundraisers that are “events”– car washes, carnivals, auctions, bazaars…a genious one I’d never heard of before is coming up soon for us: a shred-a-thon, where the area school band booster clubs are teaming with a document shredding company. Neighbors and friends are encouraged to bring their old files, etc. to a parking lot on a Saturday, and for around $5 a box (or something like that), they can have their documents shredded in front of them. What a win-win situation– everyone has old files they need to clean out and don’t want to just put in the trash, the kids need to raise money…and if people are allowed to then use their shreds as cushioning when shipping holiday packages (or dump them into the school’s recycling bin, where they earn money per pound recycled) , it will be even better… 

Another good idea is to have a bazaar or farmer’s market type event to bring together all the groups that are selling things by order form– how great would it be for a mall or shopping center to offer space, free of charge, for kids to do this sometime, maybe near the holidays? People would already be in a shopping mood, and they can stop by your table to see what you’ve got and help out kids at the same time. That chocolate would look so much better on display than in a box! And, they’d be bringing all those fundraising kids and their families to that place of business, families who would most likely do some shopping there themselves

Yes, fundraisers can be good experiences if the adults in charge look at the bigger picture, that our kids’ world is not the same world as the one in which we grew up, and come up with new, less-stressful ways of raising money.  But of course, you have to be prepared to volunteer, possibly even be the one in charge, if you decide you want to help your kids’ group make that change!

Button, Button, Who Wears “The Button”?

Recently we officially became a “two-button” family– i.e. both of the kids are now in extracurricular activities which generate photo buttons of their faces, for parents/grandparents to wear when attending those activities.  The Mom version is usually blinged out with colorful ribbons, beads and plastic charms surrounding it and/or hanging off the bottom; the Dad version is usually “just the photo”, to be more manly of course, so they’re more likely to wear it.  But, sadly, my husband Andy is currently a no-button man living in a two-button world.

I understand his reasons completely, mainly not wanting to buy into every “parent pride” merchandising opportunity that comes along, like yard signs (got ’em), expensive ads in printed programs (“You go girl!! We love you SOOOOOO much!!”) and personalized car decals (got those, too, although Allison is still too embarrassed by our vehicles to allow us to put them on the back windows).  He also thinks wearing photo buttons is a bit excessive and over-the-top.  If you know me, you know I think things in North Texas are generally always too over the top and reluctantly go along with a lot of it.  But the buttons? I embrace them whole heartedly, for lots of reasons. For starters, the kids really want us to wear them. Just this week I heard Emmie ask excitedly, “Mom, are you going to wear your button to the volleyball game?”  For many years, they’ve looked forward to being in these activities and feel good when it’s finally their turn to have “button wearers” out there supporting them.  Second, they’re cheap. If you’re going to buy any of this parent pride stuff, the buttons are the least expensive, and sometimes booster clubs provide them free of charge. Third, they’re a way for people to know that your kid is out there, and to look for him/her.  At a large school (our high school has over 2,000 kids), it’s easy for a kid to get lost in the crowd of team photos and posters that promote only the seniors or upperclassmen. I’ve walked by many friends at the games who see my button and say, “Allison is on the drill team? That’s great!” and then they’ll look for her on the field, and maybe even stop to say a kind word to her as well if they recognize her in line at the concession stand or pass her while walking out after the game.

Still, Andy refuses to wear his specially-made buttons.  Should I organize an intervention, have a group of button-wearing parents surround him and demand to know, “WHY DON’T YOU WEAR THE BUTTON?  YOU MUST WEAR THE BUTTON!” just like in the Seinfeld episode where Jerry refuses to wear the AIDS ribbon?  Should I put adhesive on the back of the buttons and secretly stick them on his back at one of the games, when he’s not paying attention?  Should I talk the pre-game tailgate picnic servers into giving extra helpings to only those who wear the button? Seriously, getting to have another free spicy burrito just might do the trick for Andy… although he’d probably take off the button before he entered the stadium…  

Guess I should be glad he at least wears “the shirt” to football games– a red polo-style with the words “Drill Team Dad” embroidered unobtrusively on the front left side– and sits next to me in my sparkly “Drill Team Mom” T-shirt and my blinged out photo button pinned under one shoulder.  It’s a pretty big step for him to do that, when you think about it…now if only I could come up with something for him to wear at Emmie’s volleyball games…

Musings on “Meet the Teacher”

Around here, late August not only means The First Day of School but also very soon after, “Meet the Teacher” night.  Growing up, I remember we had “Open House” in the middle of the semester, so we could show off our work to our parents and introduce our teachers (if they hadn’t already met them by then) but I don’t ever recall anything like this:  About a week or even a few days after school starts, parents of elementary and secondary students get to “walk their child’s schedule”, without the child present, visiting each classroom via a “special bell schedule” and sitting in class while hearing a brief presentation from the teacher.  Each presentation takes only about 10-12 minutes, and you have five minutes between them, so you may or may not get to personally meet the teacher on Meet the Teacher night (and if you take the time to do this, you might be late to your next “class”.)

At an elementary school, it’s easy. The parents generally get to stay in one classroom the whole time (unless you have more than one child attending the school).  In jr. high and high school, it’s a full two hours of walking the halls and trying to find the classrooms.  But no matter what level of school, all the parents sit in desks. Yep, that’s right, we put our (sometimes) fat adult bodies into those made-for-kids desks (“Ow! My back!”), complete with dried gum stuck beneath the seats, all lined in rows, facing the teacher.

Sometimes, the experience can only be described as “weird”.  Like the time the teacher talked to all of us parents in the same singsong manner she used with her young students (made me wonder if we were going to get a juice box and take a nap).  Or the time the teacher pointed her finger at us and gave us all a lecture like she was talking to her misbehaving students (I badly wanted to throw a spitball at her, but I held back). 

But sometimes it’s sorta fun, like one big “Fast Times” flashback moment. When the bell rings, you get to pass through the halls and wave to all your homies (er, I mean other parents) who you haven’t seen all summer, just like it used to be in your first week of school.  And, ya gotta think those Dads who are going through mid-life crisis are totally digging imagining that they’re young again as they sit in those classrooms, especially if the teacher addressing them happens to be young, female, and pretty…

At Allison’s school’s “Meet the Teacher” night last Monday (our 16th “MTT” to date), I had fun imagining, for a brief moment, that I was in high school again…only notice I said brief, since the guy sitting at the desk in front of me had a graying bald spot on the back of his head. And there was no “U.S.S.R.” on the world map.  And the teacher was talking about the new cell phone policy…. I took notes on what the teacher was saying, only I wondered what would happen if I wrote a “love note” and passed it to Andy instead…

Guess I’ll never know.  The bell rang and he had to leave to go play in a church softball game.  I was stuck navigating the halls alone, and was late to the next two “classes”, which I went far out of my way, in circles, to find.  Oh, well, at least it was good exercise. But I hope it doesn’t prompt any of those recurring dreams so many of us have once in awhile, of being back in school and forgetting our locker combination, or coming to school and not realizing we are wearing only our underwear…

A Prom Where Everything’s Legal (well, almost everything…)

I don’t know exactly when/where I came up with the idea. Maybe it started in the shower.  I think it really took hold while driving in my minivan a few years ago, listening to an all-70s radio station, high on coffee so my brain was firing pretty good… and suddenly it hit me—wouldn’t it be a great fundraiser for a school PTA to host a dance just for parents? Not a party, not a dinner, but a dance.  I mean, think about it—I’m always hearing moms complaining that there’s nowhere to go out and go dancing anymore.  You either have to be into country music; or hanging out with 20-somethings at clubs with weird, one-word names like “Liquid”, listening to a professional DJ spin something called “House” (no thanks); or opt for a smoky bar with a local band that needs to turn down their amps (and spend more time practicing); or attend a wedding reception, something that happens less and less the older you get. A dance just for parents would be perfect.   And then my brain really got going, and hit on the idea of a prom theme. Why not? I could envision the possibilities…people digging out their old prom attire and attempting to wear it again or going to secondhand stores and finding something really tacky; music from many different decades; a slideshow on the wall showing attendees’ old high school photos; tacky souvenir portraits taken in one corner (with a balloon arch and a plastic palm tree?)…And think of all the things we could now do that were taboo at our “real” prom…drink, stay out all night, sleep with our date…


The more I thought about it, the more I realized I was onto something.  People would be excited about getting to go to a prom with their spouse/significant other, especially if they didn’t go with him/her in the first place, or getting to go again even if they did go together, or finally getting to go to a prom if they never did at all…When I ran the idea past Andy, he said it would be a good fundraiser maybe for a junior high or high school’s PTA, since they actually have dances for students, but as I mulled it over even more, I came to the conclusion that a parent prom was perfect for an elementary school, for the simple fact that since elementary kids are too young to have dances, the parents ought to have one instead.  Elementary parents are a younger bunch, anyway, and might be a lot more excited about doing something like this. I also found out that having a prom for parents has been done successfully in other towns (Seth Myers mentioned one a couple weeks ago on Saturday Night Live’s “Weekend Update”).  Of course, when you get an idea for anything, you usually end up being the person who gets to make it become reality—  so I’ve just spent the past school year as our elementary PTA’s Vice President of Ways and Means, and our Parents’ Prom is this weekend.


Reactions from area adults have run the gamut from curiosity and skepticism to enthusiasm and sheer giddiness, and luckily those last two emotions have moved over 100 people to buy tickets. People really are digging out old prom wear and finding old photos. (My own high school dance dresses, amazingly found intact at my mother’s house after over 30 years, have enough elastic in them to where a couple actually fit, but they’re so butt-ugly I can’t bring myself to wear them…I mean, whoever thought powder blue was a flattering color? And I think I’d need full-body Spanx in order to wear any of them successfully, anyway!)  People are inviting friends who don’t even have kids at our school, and they’re excited, too.  People are ordering corsages, planning where they’re going to go for dinner, sending song requests to the DJ, lining up babysitters …

I think everyone’s kids are totally embarrassed by the whole thing (“Mom, I’d better not see any photos of that on Facebook!!  Pleeeese tell me there won’t be any cameras there!!””) but any money we raise will go to their school, so they’d better get over it. Not only do I plan to take a lot of pictures, I especially look forward to having one of my kids snap a photo of us just before we walk out the door.  I can see it now.  “Say cheese, Mom!  Um, no, I mean, CHEESY!”

Whose pep rally is it, anyway?

Excuse me for wondering, but weren’t high school pep rallies originally designed for the students and staff of a school to “rally” behind their sports teams and get them fired up to win? Later they were expanded to include pep rallies for everything from final exams to “just say no to drugs”—but, back in the day, I don’t ever remember the audience expanding to include parents.  I mean, why would kids want their parents at school, anyway? Don’t parents have a lot of other things to do during the day? Around here, apparently not.  Because as soon as my teen became a sophomore and a full-fledged member of the high school drill team, I discovered that not only did parents attend pep rallies, there was a whole section of the gym reserved just for them.  And it wasn’t just a bunch of stay-at-home moms filling the stands.  Working moms, too.  And dads–  lots of them.  From 9-10 in the morning.  And because so many parents attend, your kid doesn’t understand if you don’t…

“Mom, you’re going, right?” Allison said last fall.   

“Parents attend pep rallies?” I asked, surprised. 

“Yes, everyone goes! You’ve got to see one, they’re amazing!!  You’ve never seen anything like this,” she informed me.  So I went to a few, and I enjoyed them, because the drill team often debuts new routines at pep rallies and I like to see my daughter dance.  And I’m sure that’s why a lot of parents attend—they want to see their child play in the band, sing, act, dance, pump their fists in the air and run around in a gorilla costume…  But— I just don’t get it all completely.  I could see having one special pep rally where parents and the entire community are invited to attend—like the Homecoming Pep Rally.  But do we parents really need to add one more “must do” every other week to our already busy schedules?

Yesterday was the “Senior Pass Down” pep rally, held every spring to honor the graduating seniors who are “passing the torch” to the juniors on their teams, clubs, etc.  Allison wanted me to attend, but I told her I really didn’t think it was a good idea, especially since I would see her perform the exact same routine many times at the drill team show in two weeks, and I had a ton of things to do. Plus, I don’t have a senior, and I don’t know many seniors, either.  “But we’re doing our jump splits on a gym floor for the first time,” she informed me. (Gee, stop the presses and prepare a banner headline.) “And the Pass Down is so cool and so sad,” she said. 

“Yes, I can understand it would be, for you,” I said.  “It’s your school.”

I love my child as much as the next person loves theirs, but I also don’t think I need to watch her (and her school’s) every move in order to show that love…and I don’t think kids should be brought up to expect us to.  It’s unhealthy to be a helicopter parent and unhealthy to set up the dynamic where you do whatever your kid asks you to do.  I felt sorry for the mom I overheard last week lamenting the fact that after she dropped her daughter off at team practice at 7:00 a.m. on Pass Down pep rally day, she was then going to “have to” wait for two hours for the rally to start, since she didn’t work close by.  Yet her child, like mine, wasn’t an upper classman.  Would the child’s self esteem have been damaged that badly if Mommy hadn’t been there?  I don’t think so. 

Haven’t we all heard by now, from everyone from Dr. Ruth to Dr. Phil, that when parents set up their families to where they revolve totally around their children that they lose in the long run? Their kids act like entitled royalty and have a hard time coping in real-world jobs.  Many marriages suffer when a family’s schedule is so jam-packed with kid stuff that the parents never make time for themselves, to take weekend trips alone together or even just go to a movie.  And helicopter parents have a much harder time handling empty nest syndrome once their youngest child graduates.    

I come from parents who knew how to “get a life”, who didn’t worry if their child spent all day playing outside in the neighborhood and who went out with a group of friends every Friday night.  Who never felt the need to help with homework or be in constant communication with their child’s teachers, or attend every sports practice or music event.  But who were always there when it really mattered—a shoulder to cry on for the big break-ups, a smiling face in the audience for the big shows.  And I think most parents at the time were like that– after all, they were called the Greatest Generation.  But with helicopter parents setting the standards these days, what are the rest of us supposed to do?  Look like freaks in our kids’ eyes?

I just keep on doing what I do, and hope that one day they’ll understand.   And besides, we never completely “miss” an event nowadays anyway– thanks to the hundreds of photos and video that are shared online…


Race to See “Race to Nowhere”

A few months ago, Allison started saying what many teenagers have probably often said:   “I hate school.  School is stupid.  They give us tons of homework and make us memorize a bunch of useless junk that we’re never going to use—what’s the point?” And I reacted the way many parents probably react:  “Yes, some of it does seem stupid and useless but you have to play the game.  You have to study and do good on tests so you can move on and get to college, where the real learning happens.  I didn’t like all of my classes, either, but my goal was to get out and move on.”

But that conversation kept nagging at my brain.  Even though she was tired and burnt out when she spoke, her words had a grain of truth in them.  Maybe she’s right, I thought (and don’t kids have a way with cutting to the truth?) Maybe there is something inherently wrong with the way we educate our kids … but the overwhelming nature of that thought eventually put it out of my head.   I barely have time to do my laundry, let alone change the world.

Then last week, my PTA president invited me to a screening of the new documentary, Race to Nowhere.  And I decided I can no longer be complacent when it comes to education.

I challenge every parent of a child enrolled in public school to see this new film and see if you feel it’s like This Is Your Life, or gives you, as I call it, a “Killing Me Softly” moment.  I cried.  I’m sure the teenager sitting next to me thought I was a total freak.  On second thought, that kid was probably crying, too, only on the inside.  Because the documentary examines our current state of being when it comes to education, and it’s not a pretty picture.  Hours of homework each night for kids starting in early elementary grades;  tired, stressed out, overachieving, overscheduled kids; parents who are hyper-obsessed with achievement; administrators who are worried about  federal mandates, rankings and scores; burnt-out teachers who are required to “teach to the test”; and the alarmed professionals who are seeing the effects of it all—kids cheating, kids using drugs, kids committing suicide, and kids who aren’t really prepared to be the next generation of great thinkers and problem solvers.  And, families who hardly spend any quality time together any more (“Since when did school dictate what happens after the bell rings in the afternoon?” is one memorable quote from the film).  While documentaries often come under scrutiny for being skewed one way or the other in order to bring the audience to a certain opinion, this film, made by a concerned mom, is spot on.  I see its content every day, every week.  Young children who once loved school and now hate it due to the homework.  Parents who talk about their kids and stress all the time—just this past weekend at a dance competition, I shared a table with a total stranger from another community who started telling me about how stressed out her 17-year-old daughter was, getting only 3-4 hours of sleep each night and putting herself under tremendous pressure to make all A’s.  Friends of mine who are talented teachers have been telling me for years about not being able to teach outside the box, and no longer enjoying their jobs.  Allison has long said that kids copy homework and cheat on tests in order to keep up their GPA.  Parents all around me, myself included, have become more and more achievement focused and worried that if their kids don’t make all A’s they won’t get into a good college. 

But I never put it all together before, all those pieces, and that’s what this documentary does.  It’s a sobering wake-up call.  In our race to “beat other countries” in academic excellence, we’re actually doing the opposite.  We’re raising kids that aren’t taught to be independent, critical thinkers, but rather, kids that are told what to study, what to memorize, and then they promptly put it out of their minds when the course is finished  (one teen in the film is jubilant that her last French test is over and she’ll “never have to speak French again”).  Some points from the film were particularly eye-opening:

-In Asian countries where they have high achievers, they do not have the amount of homework that American children do.  In fact, many teachers don’t give homework at all.  They teach what needs to be taught in the classroom, and their countries offer incentives to draw top students to becoming teachers. In one segment of the film, an American AP Biology teacher decided  to see what would happen if he gave less homework—and his classroom scores actually went up.

-The top money earners in our country did not attend a “top college” and many didn’t even graduate.   In fact, they show that attending a top college does not give students an earnings boost over those that attend an “average” college.  Nor does taking all AP courses in high school.  Higher earnings were affected more by qualities such as determination and (surprise?) the ability to think outside the box.  So if people are under the impression that they’d better go to a top school in order to earn big bucks, they are essentially believing in a myth.

The documentary does not leave the audience feeling hopeless, however.  It (and its website, offer many suggestions that can be implemented immediately by parents, students, teachers, and others. (The parental suggestions include things like not enrolling your kids in all AP courses and making time several nights a week to eat dinner together.)  Its sister website,,  offers further ways people can get involved to make changes (and also lays out the research behind the statistics in the film).

I hope that everyone gets a chance to see this ground-breaking film—it’s currently on a 6-month public screening tour, and it’s exciting that it’s being shown at schools and theaters across the country.  (In the Dallas area, it will be at the Lewisville Studio Movie Grill this Sunday, March 6.) The Race to Nowhere website has a map so you can quickly see if it will be in your area.  Eventually, DVDs will be available for purchase.

“I’ll Do My Homework Later”: Helping Kids Battle Procrastination

It’s tough sometimes being an anti-helicopter parent, who seeks to help their children learn life lessons by not jumping in and taking over everything.  It’s like standing by and watching a train wreck, after you’ve warned the engineer several times of danger ahead.  To borrow again from the train metaphor, lately our house is like “Procrastination Station”, and even though I keep warning my kids, the trains keep wrecking. 

“Emmie, get your schoolbag packed before you go to bed,” we’ve told her many times, but no, she decides to do that two minutes before she’s supposed to leave for school in the morning.  Often, lunch money and/or needed supplies get left behind, and unless I happen to be going by the school during the day, I won’t bring the gear to her.  “Allison, break your reading assignment down into small chunks and do a little bit every day,” we tell her, but no, there she is a month later, the night before the book report and its accompanying poster and Power Point are due, panicked because she never finished the book, and staying up until 5 a.m. to try to complete the assignment (and true to Murphy’s Law, last-minute children will always have technical difficulties trying to load that Power Point onto a USB flash drive or print that report on the printer, adding to the panic). “Emmie, your science fair project is due in a month and you’ve got to get started now,” we tell her.  One week later: “Emmie, your science fair project is due in three weeks—don’t wait until the last minute, since your experiment involves people, and they may not be available when you think they are.” This week: “Emmie, your science fair project is due next Tuesday, and you only have a couple free days until then to conduct your experiment. I’m not going to buy your supplies until you’ve written down the procedure and invited your subjects to come over to the house.”  I’m mentally biting my knuckles.  Even our 17-year-old exchange student from France has issues with procrastination—she’d much rather text or go on Facebook than do homework, and she’s still putting off studying until late in the evening, then sleeping too late and having to rush almost every morning in order to make it to school on time.  What’s a parent to do?

I checked online to read what the “experts” have to say, and it turns out I have already been doing, or at least thinking about, some of the things they recommend:

Help Kids Break Things Down Into Small Parts.  Check. 

Model Positive, Self-Regulatory Behavior.  Also known as “Set a Good Example for Your Kids”.  I’ve been thinking a lot about this one lately.  Yeah, I juggle a lot of things in my life, and some people are impressed, but I’ve realized lately that my kids often see the downside of that: me running late to my own appointments, and being late in picking them up from school or activities; me having a desktop that can rarely be described as “organized”, me waiting until company is coming over before I do a major house-cleaning, then it’s an all-day, crazed and panicked effort; me being too busy to fill out parent paperwork on time and getting reminder emails from the teacher…yes, there are definite areas where I could be a better time and organization role model for my kids! 

Limit Electronic Media. Those who read this blog a lot know we already do that, and it just so happens that a few days ago we decided to set even more limits. Our house rules now include, in addition to “all Internet shuts off at 11”, more limits on TV watching and cell phones.  Timothy Pychyl, Ph.D., who specializes in the study of procrastination and writes a blog called “Don’t Delay” at, calls the extensive use of electronic media by students “cyberslacking on the procrastination superhighway” and likens it to a serious compulsion, such as gambling. I agree.

One piece of advice I hadn’t thought of, at least lately, includes Help Your Child Set Up A Daily and Weekly Planner (I see hand-written schedules and To-Do lists often sitting around the kids’ rooms but I’ve never shown them other “systems” they might want to try, to prioritize and get organized).

Of course, as much as we parents may bite our knuckles, the best time planning teacher is a tough mistake.  Kids need to be able to feel the gut-wrenching panic and anxiety that are usually the outcomes of poor planning (and what it feels like to get a poor grade as a result) in the hopes that, on their own, they won’t want to repeat that and will be motivated enough to “plan ahead next time”.  (There are great resources to help them do that, which speak directly to them. has a section for older kids called It’s My Life, with lots of tips on time management.  A funny book for kids entitled See You Later, Procrastinator, by Espeland and Verdick, gives kids “20 Ways to Kiss Procrastination Good-bye”.)

But what if your child is, in the words of clinical psychologist Linda Sapadin, a crisis-maker? “Crisis Makers like to live on the edge, and tend to get bored unless they perceive an ‘emergency’,” she says in her book, Beat Procrastination and Make the Grade .“Crisis provides motivation, so Crisis Makers will frequently choose to wait until the last minute to meet deadlines, only to then heroically pull it off. They don’t like to tackle projects in pieces, over time. They prefer to do it all at once, and their ‘mad dash to the finish line’ can be very disruptive to family life.”  Umm, has she been spying on my family? I can think of at least one of my children who fits this description to a T. For this type of child, she suggests setting “fake” or “family” deadlines for a project, i.e. an earlier deadline than the real one, the point at which family members will no longer be available to help troubleshoot with the printer, answer questions, etc.  Or, the point at which the child must be done or else they don’t get to do something they’ve been looking forward to—an outing, a party—parents can fill in the blank. “Rather than fight your child’s need for an adrenalin rush… use it as a motivator,” she says. Expanding on this idea, I could even see purposefully scheduling something fun on the very night before a big project is due, so that the child will try hard to get their project done at least a day earlier in order to participate.  Sounds like something all my kids might like. 

But I think for next Tuesday’s Science Fair turn-in, I better make the family deadline three days in advance. Because Emmie has decided to do her project with a fellow classmate…who is also a fellow procrastinator, only with a busier schedule.

(Is that a train whistle I hear in the distance? )

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A Couple of Updates

Not just a dash— now it’s a mad dash

Remember my September post about the passing period between high school classes, about how at our kids’ school it’s so quick, kids don’t have time to use the restroom or go to their lockers any more?  Well, I did bring up the subject to the Director of Health for our school district, who chairs a committee of which I am a member.  He told me he would bring it up to his supervisor and get back to me. In the meantime, our high school initiated a new tardy policy in early October called Bell-Lock-Sweep, and if female students weren’t “holding it” before, their bladders surely must be busting by the time school lets out nowadays (and they’re no doubt stocking up on Super Plus Plus tampons as well).  The new policy is so strict that kids are literally running scared (well, more like walking VERY fast) to class.  If they stop to catch up with a friend or (worse!) pause for a drink of water, the time lost could be devastating. Now, there is no way they can use the restroom (and wash their hands) unless it just happens to be next to their classes– and even then it’s iffy.

Basically, with Bell-Lock-Sweep, when the bell rings after the five-minute passing period, all the classroom doors lock. Anyone who doesn’t make it into their class is then “swept” (herded) by a hall monitor or assistant principal toward a computer located in the hall, where a tardy slip is printed out and an email and computer-generated phone call are immediately made to a tardy student’s home.  The classroom doors are not unlocked until seven minutes have passed.  After three tardies (total, not per class), detention is given.  First a three-hour after-school detention, then two three-hour detentions (one on a Saturday morning), and after that, one, two, and three days of in-school suspension, which is basically all-day detention where a student is not allowed to attend any of their classes.  

Since this policy is so different than at her school in France, our exchange student, Cleo, has had a tough time with it. She recently hit the 6-hour detention mark after being required to shut down a computer after one class ended, and then she rushed to the restroom before another class started. As she headed to class with the bell about to ring, she saw her teacher in the hall, also walking to the same classroom, and thought she might be safe.  “I’m sorry, but you’re going to be swept,” the teacher said.  “There’s nothing I can do.”  An obvious question is, “Can’t students use the restroom after the bell rings?” And the answer is, some teachers allow it, and some don’t. With only 50 minutes per class period, some get pretty stingy. (Our 16-year-old, Allison, has one teacher who gives students only two restroom passes for the entire semester!) 


The school district Health Dept. chair recently got back to me on the issue.  He’d gotten feedback from several people, including a principal (from another high school) and the district director of school nurses, and basically they said that if the short passing period was a problem, they weren’t aware of it, that they’d received no complaints about it.  And the head of district security said that if passing periods were lengthened, it could cause security issues, that kids were more likely to get in trouble. The principal said that kids could at least use their 30-minute lunch break to use the restroom. But Allison says most of that time can be easily taken up by waiting in the long lunch line, and that ever since the new tardy policy’s been in place, she’s seen some students go through the line and frantically stuff food in their mouths as they rush to class…

Maybe things have to get worse before any other parents complain…maybe parents are just ignoring how much influence troubled kids have on some schools, and how the schools adopt ridiculous prison-like rules as a result, for all students.  Maybe Depends should start marketing to teens…

My eyes were opened even more to the idiocracy of it all when I recently took a tour of Dallas ISD’s Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing Arts. There, classes last 90 minutes, a block schedule much like at college, where M-W-F classes are different from Tues-Thursday. The passing periods were generous and their lunch break was a breath of fresh air. Literally.  A jazz combo was setting up on an outdoor patio and my friend and tour guide explained that students could each lunch outside if they wanted, while listening to music. The whole atmosphere at the school felt like the students were treated with more respect, and given more freedom.

What a concept, huh, for kids who are about to be on their own?


More Fundraising Fun

Remember the post about how kids need to get more involved in their fundraisers? In late October we told Allison we would require her to sell at least 15 poinsettias in order to go on a planned spring choir trip. I didn’t think she’d try to sell even one, but she ended up selling 30.  Wow, huh?! Only I never thought about who would have to deliver those 30 poinsettias!  Since she doesn’t drive yet…the delivery van driver is me! And she can’t go with me, ‘cause she’s been involved in mandatory after-school activities until 10 p.m. every night this week, and the flowers will die if I don’t get them all delivered pronto…