Saturday, August 28, 2010

School Update- has "No Child Left Behind" Become a Race to Nowhere?

Starting school is an exciting time, and can be stressful for both parents and children. The carefree days of summer are over, and it's time to get back to work. Trouble is, the level of "work" at modern American schools has become rote, overwhelming, stressful and often ineffective in developing the critical thinking skills necessary to compete. For many kids, school feels more like a destination than a discovery, and a race instead of a journey. For many experts and parents, it has become a race -- to nowhere.

Vicki Abeles is the director of the new documentary called, The Race to Nowhere an in-depth exploration of modern family life: including the mounting pressures on kids to perform, unending amounts of homework, little free time - and the drastic toll it is taking on the health and well being of our youth today. The film has enjoyed rave early reviews, and is currently being screened across the country in schools and communities, complete with discussion guides for conversation afterwards. Abeles is starting a movement -- and it is about time.

Abeles saw the stresses and pressures of modern academic life take its toll on her own children, and offers a vulnerable and painful account of her own middle school daughter spiraling downward into suicidal thoughts, and her elementary school aged son agonizing over homework at night when he should be out riding a skateboard. She took action and began to interview parents, teachers and administrators. She was shocked to discover her dilemma is widespread and rampant.

It has been eight years since the "No Child Left Behind Act" was mandated by the Bush administration. For the first time in history, all children were expected to produce equally, a mold we had never put them in before. While some children are academically oriented, others are creative, or more "hands on." What is the end result? Teachers are teaching to the test so they don't lose their bonus, administrators rely on state exam results to receive funding, and kids are the losers. Students learn to spit out information, and forget it 10 minutes later.

Teaching to the test, and overwhelming kids with content, while eliminating recess, field trips or project based learning has created kids who are stressed out, sleep deprived, cheating to get by, not having time to learn how to think. Some call American education "a mile wide and an inch deep."

I have four children in the school system and have seen the changes myself. Teachers seem resigned at the content they have to "cram in" and hate losing the ability to creatively teach a subject they love, or adapt to the varied needs of their students. They are frustrated, fed up, and many are leaving in droves. It takes a special person to teach our youth, and until we value their role as being one of the most coveted in society, we will get what we deserve. In Singapore, the government selects the top 20 percent of graduating seniors, and offers them a full ride, and a stipend to be trained as a teacher, as they consider it the highest valued profession.

One of the primary concerns Abeles addresses in her film is the issue of homework. Sara Bennett wrote the book, The Case Against Homework and said the amount of homework given to kids has skyrocketed in the past several years. Even kindergarteners are given packets of sheet work to complete each week. Kids are asked to sit in school for seven hours at a young age, and then come home and sit for more. As one teacher described, "it is no longer about learning."

Dr. Denise Pope, founder of the Challenge Success program at Stanford University, said that most of the countries that outperforms us academically give significantly less homework. Studies have shown that homework is ineffective and has no correleation to academic performance in the elementary school years. In middle school, one hour is the maximum amount to be effective, and at high school, no more than two hours.

When parents are honest about it, most weeknights are spent fighting over when to get the homework done, and it becomes the dominant family conversation night after night. In fact, in order to keep the peace, many parents often end up editing, correcting or even doing the homework for them -- which is effectively teaching them to cheat. What sort of message does this send? Family time, private time and leisure time have tumbled to the bottom of the priority list.

The Challenge Success website states, "Educators, mental health professionals, and business leaders agree that the pursuit of a narrow vision of success often leaves young people lacking the skills most needed to thrive in a rapidly changing world--adaptability, interpersonal and collaborative skills, and the ingenuity and creativity to solve complex problems."

Dr. Denise Stipek is Dean of Education at Stanford. She has found a dramatic difference in college students in recent years. "Kids today are taught everything in a formulaic manner. If they see a question that was not on their test, they fall apart."

In a review of colleges students entering into the prestigious University of California schools, such as UCLA, UC Davis and UC Santa Barbara, fully 50 percent of incoming freshman with top SAT scores and honor roll grades, have to take remedial courses in math and English in order to simply be prepared for freshman level academics. Kids agree they often have to cheat, cram and put all their effort into their college entrance resume as the holy grail of high school.

Dr. Pope conducted a massive study to determine how many kids cheat these days. They devised a test the checked eight different ways a student can cheat and found that less than 3 percent of the 5,000 students surveyed had never cheated at school. As one student complained, "the point of school is to learn, not to always memorize. We have to learn to live without sleeping, eating or having any time off."

What do we do about a problem so large, complex and yet so dire at the same time?

Allow a child to find their passion. Not every kid is destined for Ivy Leagues.
Be an advocate for children and their unique needs. Negotiate for less homework, carve out more unstructured time for play and private time, and try to create downtime in the evenings to relax.
Define Success on Your Terms. Consider the qualities you want your children to have as adults, and allow them to make mistakes. "If we take the play out of childhood, we take away the tools to learn how to be an adult," said Pope.

On a larger societal level, Dr. Stipek stresses, "The United States needs to rethink how we do schooling, and how much we invest in the next generation. If we don't invest up front, we pay for it at the back end in prisons, welfare, health care and all the ways individuals and society suffers."

For all you parents and grandparents are out there feeling anxious about another year of meltdowns, break downs and overwhelm, check out the website for Race to Nowhere and try to catch a screening in your area. New York will be running the film starting Septermber 10th for a week at the IFC Center, and Los Angeles will do the same at the Laemmel's Sunset 5. Let's join Abeles in her movement to restore balance to our children's lives, and start out own discussion here with any comments and suggestions on how improve the balance of education for our children.

*Want to hear more? Listen to Kari and Vicki Abeles discuss the issues on the Lifestyle Mom Radio Cafe from LA Talk Radio.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Reclaiming Spare Time

As summer wanes -- have you been busier than ever, with nary a moment for spare time? As I wrote last week, American's are not so great in the vacation department. To both save money this year, and manage our collective stress madness, I suggested trying out a simple home-grown retreat as a way to recharge the batteries. Part of the magic of a retreat is having spare time.

There is something nostalgic about spare time. Like an old friend you knew once and with whom you somehow lost touch. Spare time sits on the side of a broken fence, wheat stalk between its teeth -- daring us to watch puffy clouds. Or it's floating around the pool instead of hen-pecking at the keyboard. Spare time beckons, yet few can hear the whispers over the whir of cpu's and blare of CNN. How do we rope, lasso and reclaim Spare Time?

For many of us, having a moment or two to spare has been replaced by the unending bleeps of text messages, incoming email, unending tasks and hectic schedules of work and family. Most of us cannot make it through a single hour during the day without checking email. Scientists warn these constant interruptions affect the brain's ability for concentration and deep thought, and we truly cannot multi-task as well as we think we can.

When I was growing up, the TV shows on air included Andy Griffith -- the ultimate in spare time. Remember the theme song whistle during the opening shots; Andy heading out fishing with little Opie? Everyone stood around a lot, talked to each other and managed minor small town incidents. We certainly couldn't have a cop show like that now, with a lot of hanging out, instead of busting up drug rings. Does anyone have time to whistle anymore?

My other favorite childhood show was the Brady Bunch, (which I heard was Michelle Obama's favorite too). They had a LOT of spare time -- even housekeeper Alice. All those kids hung out together after school, went on vacation, sang in a band with matching costumes; and those of us watching had enough spare time to memorize every single episode within the first five bars of the opening scene.

What if the Brady Bunch was set today? Imagine Carol running with her super size Starbucks in her super size mini van, conducting a meeting on her cell while in route to take Bobby and Cindy to soccer practice, Jan to her violin lesson, Greg to football and Marsha to cheerleading. While Mom is multi-tasking, the kids are plugged into iPhones, cell phones, texting and checking emails. No one is talking to each other, unless it is to pick a fight, and they certainly are not singing, "We're Gonna Keep On, Keep On, Keep On Dancin' All Through the Night."

The temptations that prey upon our time are in a different stratosphere as they were a generation ago -- hence spare time is relegated to the back pasture of our lives. However, I suspect a lot of the activities that consume all hours of the day and night are not as important as we think they are, and learning to step back and evaluate priorities could help generate some vital time... to do nothing. Maybe Dr. Laura could use some spare time from her radio show to chill out a bit.

Here are a few tips to reclaim Spare Time:

Email Self-Control -- Declutter your inbox by unsubscribing to anything you don't need or read regularly, and try not to continue long email conversations that aren't necessary. One of Therese Borchard's tricks is to take weekend breaks from her computer. Imagine! This is a great way to scrounge up a ton of free time -- think of it as email Sabbath, (Reading this column, however, is an acceptable exception).

Social Networking is junk food, plain and simple. Let's face it -- Facebook is the Doritos of friendships and Twitter is a super size box of Fries. Both are tempting, and both are ultimately not all that healthy. Take the time for some "slow food" -- home-cooked friendships that require face-to-face time. If you are IM'ing someone in your office, get up and try walking over for a change. Facebooking your best friend? Pick up the phone or stop by; imagine how you look from space, hunched over terminals sharing the daily chatter.

Find the "in-between" moments of the day to embrace as spare time. Driving is a great opportunity to do some deep breathing, turn off the noise in your head, and notice the scenery around you, rather than listening to talk radio, eating, or talking on the cell phone. Find the moments in the shower, doing dishes or walking the dog to flatten out as buffer zones of nothingness.

Force yourself to be bored. Remember being bored? It is the MacDaddy of spare time. Kids today think five or six seconds of spare time equals being bored, and many adults' tolerance for unfilled moments is not much better. Set aside several hours once a month with nothing particular to do and see how it affects you.

Sometimes Spare Time saunteres into our lives when we least expect it. Spare Time roped me in by force recently and it was not comfortable. To rebel, I chose to fill the time with all sorts of backlogged projects like putting together good will donations, painting peeling trim, and clearing up the yard. At long last, I surrendered (the key) and just hung out. It became rejuvenating and felt great.

We are not wired to go 24/7 with mental chatter. Sometimes just listening to the wind blow is enough to keep you from going over the brink. How does good ole' Spare Time show up in your life these days? Love to hear your comments, and please click on Become a Fan to receive weekly notices, or follow me on Facebook and Twitter.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Can't Take a Vacation? Make Your Own Retreat

Americans are hardly in a tropical vacation getaway mood this summer. Many do not have vacation benefits, scores are out of work on a 'never-ending' vacation, and others are too afraid to take time off for fear of job security. As I wrote in an earlier post, American's are the worst vacationers, and the United States is the only developed nation that does not offer paid vacation as a required benefit. Millions do not have paid leave, and have not taken a vacation in years.

Despite the obvious benefits of getting out of the office, evidence continues to prove that when an employer offers paid vacation time to employees, it can dramatically improve performance, increase productivity and reduces stress. Funny thing is, while it is easy to point the fingers at the "big bosses" out there who are withholding paid vacation, many workers who have such benefits don't take a vacation at all -- and accrue weeks of unused time.

What if your employer offered unlimited paid vacation, with no strings attached -- too good to be true? Rosemary O'Neill and her husband, Ted, own a small business called Social Strata, and decided to do just that -- for all 10 of their employees. Initially, they wanted to help one employee who needed time to care for her injured husband, and decided everyone deserved the same option. Did their staff take off to Mexico for a month and abuse the privilege? Hardly.
"The staff were all surprised at first, because it really came out of the blue." said O'Neill, "But then there was a really warm feeling as everyone digested what it meant in reality. Everyone has expressed that they feel trusted and respected, and that was a big part of our goal."

Social Strata requires everyone to take two weeks off each year - removing any pressure not to take a vacation. Their flexible policies represent a small but growing segment of companies throwing traditional work hours out the window, with great success. Netflix has offered unlimited paid vacation for nearly a decade.

The genius of this concept is giving responsibility for renewal and self care back to individuals. Some employees with unlimited paid vacation elect not to take time off for three years, and then take a 90-day dream trip. Others use the time for paternity leave. Ultimately, a vacation is a state of mind. The purpose of a vacation is to leave your routine and slow life down a few notches. Some choose a fishing trip, others go antiquing in quaint towns and many rejuvenate with physical sports in the surf and turf.

Why is it so many American's don't take vacations anymore? Maybe because typical vacations have become as complicated as the rest of our lives. The reality for many is that a vacation requires planning, organizing, packing, buying crap, arguing with the spouse, fighting with the kids and coming home more exhausted than before. With life so frenetic these days, our tolerance for stress is maxed out.

Jon Kabat-Zinn argues that in an age of 24/7 connectedness, we're hardly ever connected to ourselves. Maybe we aren't taking vacations because what we really want is a retreat -- simple, quiet time to leave everything battery operated and screen flicking behind, to be alone, be quiet and recharge the batteries within. Aahhhh.

But wait! Taking a retreat can be scarier than a vacation. What? No phones, computers or checking in? What will happen? Our addiction to email and 'checking in' has become a near obsession. I have asked audiences recently how many times per day they check their emails. Five years ago it was a couple times per day. Now, even the older population confesses to checking emails nearly hourly at this point, and feels anxious if several hours go by without a quick peek, let alone days.

Even though we resist, "getting away from it all," it is vital to our health. The brain needs time to rest in order to channel deep thinking, get creative, imagine new projects and be inspired for daily tasks. With the "dog days of summer" officially over, there are just a couple of weeks left. Haven't taken a vacation and feeling a little stressed, or depressed? Consider creating a retreat just for you. Start with just a few hours, and then build up to a full day, or even an entire weekend.

First: a question. If you had four hours of uninterrupted time all to yourself, with no chores to finish, tasks to accomplish or people to see -- what would you do? Think carefully. Often the answers are exactly what you need to do for your retreat. Some common answers include: take a bath, read a book, go for a hike, or walk in the garden. I am consistently amazed that most of the answers people come up with are absolutely free!

Now that you have an idea or two, here are a few tips to plan your retreat:
  • Determine how much time you want to take. Be realistic. Sometimes it may be only 30 minutes! Even a little bit goes a long way.
  • If you plan to be unavailable for longer than a few hours, program your email with an automatic vacation reply. Sort of sneaky, but it helps your brain unhook and relax.
  • Prepare your space. If you are going away, leave computers and PDA's behind. If staying at home, cover all TV's and computers with lovely fabric and pull the batteries out of the cell.
Ok. Retreat time has arrived, what to do now?
  • Indulge in silence. Silence is a lost art. Try to take time to simply be still. Notice the sensations or urges that come up to be occupied. Just let them go and BE.
  • Choose one or two of the ideas that are deeply relaxing to you, and spoil yourself. Take a bath with candles, a cup of tea and bath salts. Going for a hike? Bring along some paper and stop along the way to contemplate, jot a poem or draw a picture. Let the right brain take over for a while.
  • Do something indulgent, like watching TV in bed with a bowl of ice cream in the middle of the afternoon, or create a homemade altar space to meditate.

Taking a retreat is not always easy -- just being with ourselves? Scary. Jennifer Louden, best selling author of the "Women Comfort Book" series, recognized she had to escape the rat race to THINK, and decided to take a month-long retreat from the world this summer: no emails, texting, Facebook or checking in. She felt she had to step away from daily obligations in order to access the deeper contemplative tools needed to move from one project to the next. She captures the fear of letting go beautifully in this post from afar, called "A Pile of You."

How about you, HuffPo readers? Have you escaped the world to be alone with yourself this summer? How did it go? Love to hear stories of what happened, how to truly unwind on a vacation or retreat and ideas to share. Enjoy!