Moms (and Dads) on a Mission – San Anselmo, California

(I’ll be gone until Monday)

Last year, I posted a piece by Torri Chappell, a teacher and mother from San Anselmo, California, who wrote about some of the success she had had in advocating for school reform.

Two weeks ago, the high school in her community hosted a showing of Race to Nowhere, a documentary film that I’ve written about before. (I’m an adviser and appear in the film.). Torri was bothered by the discussion following the screening and sent the following letter to her local newspaper.

To the Editors
from Torri Chappell

What really matters in the life of a child? What really matters in the life of an adult? What does it mean to be ‘successful’? Happy? These are the questions that I wish adults would honestly ask themselves and more importantly ask their children.

Last Thursday Drake High School hosted a screening of the new documentary, Race to Nowhere by Vicki Abeles. This film bravely and honestly depicts the negative effects of our society’s push to make our children ‘successful’. It is powerful, heart wrenching and thought provoking. I applaud Drake High School for providing this screening to the community, to which hundreds of people of all ages attended.

Unfortunately, the panel of administrators, teachers and students that was held after the film left many of us in the audience with a new layer of questions and concerns. The format was not designed for a dialogue with the audience but questions could be submitted on notecards and a few were directed at panel members. I found many of the responses concerning but the most disturbing and alarming one was this: When the students on the panel were asked to share what part of their life they were giving up to keep up the pace of the schoolwork and activities that are deemed to be the recipe for ‘success’ they said that they give up family time, family responsibilities and sleep. The adults on the panel were silent. There was no response. In the principal’s closing words there was no acknowledgement of this harsh reality that my family and so many families experience daily. Family and health taking the back seat to academic and athletic rigor.

My heart raced and I wanted to scream, AREN’T YOU LISTENING? Our children are giving up the most important things in life and most adults are just silent. Our community protests loudly and effectively when there is a threat to spray pesticides on our food. Pesticides that would hurt our children. Yet it is acceptable for our children to giving up sleep and time with family in the name of ‘being successful’? Our children are hurting NOW yet there is silence and denial.

My family is the most important part of my life. My children’s health and well-being are at the top of my list. The parents I know feel the same way in their heart and now it is time to break the silence and have our actions and voices reflect what our hearts know to be true.

This is a community problem. Not just a student problem or a parent problem or a teacher problem or an administrator problem or a political problem. We have all played a role in the problem and we should all play a role in the solution. Watch the movie trailer, explore the research, talk about it with your kids, friends, teachers, administrators, political representatives. Most importantly, listen to your heart and DO something. The stakes are too high to remain silent.

7 thoughts on “Moms (and Dads) on a Mission – San Anselmo, California

  1. This gets back to the idea of how we really value children. Torri is right. We worry about how the environment affects our children, we don’t let them cross the street or play outside because we’re so concerned for their safety, we monitor every candy that goes in their mouth and it’s after effects, but when it comes to child stress and anxiety we really couldn’t give a damn as a society. Parents who are concerned about these issues are just overprotective coddlers. Tying children to books and desks is OK. Making them cry every night before they go to bed is OK. Giving up a night of fun and relaxation is OK. That’s considered good for them.

    We need as a society to give our collective head a shake.


  2. I was there, and I have to agree. While I was really pleased that the district offered the movie (and that I heard about it from both my younger kids’ schools), I found the discussion at the end to be less than incisive. And I definitely got the sense that some of the administrators on the panel were feeling a bit defensive.

    What bothered me was they started off by saying what a huge stack of questions they had about homework. Then the district representative talked briefly about how policy now is that homework should be (paraphrasing here) not busywork. Then they ignored the homework issue for the rest of the time, as apparently it had been addressed.

    My boys who’ve been through Drake addressed the homework issue by not doing most of it, and taking the serious grade hit as a consequence. Because despite that stated policy, they did find much of their homework to be busywork. I’ve got two more boys coming up through the schools, and I’d love to see the homework policy become more sensible. If it’s needed to achieve mastery of a subject, then that’s one thing. But if it’s being given for its own sake, then that’s another thing altogether. And there should be other ways to demonstrate mastery of a subject than by doing busywork.


  3. Maya–I agree with you about busywork vs. mastery, but even “good” homework needs limits in terms of its volume. Kids and teens can and should only do so much. Research has shown that anything over 2 hrs, even in high school, correlates negatively with outcomes. I admire your boys’ (and your) courage in rejecting the excesses, but they should not have had to take a grade hit for that. A major policy shift needs to happen.

    Sara posted recently about a Canadian school with an opt-out policy, and I’ve started to think that could be the best possible answer for all involved. It might be a little complicated to implement at first, but the payoff could be huge. I created a focused discussion page on the subject — — and hope you’ll participate. The comments are already shaping up to be thought provoking, and I’m hopeful we’ll end up with a healthy, robust discussion there. Would love to hear all sides.


  4. It is scary how many families just assume that surrendering family life is just what they have to do in order to participate in school. If we don’t build family connection when our children are small, how can we possibly expect to have connection when they are grown. I am all for opting out of homework in whatever way necessary. We have our 6th grader homeschooling this year because we knew the middle school homework load would be too much. It’s what is working for us. And asking myself, “is this working for us?” has been my most guiding parenting question by far.


  5. Gut instinct is usually the way to go, Bernadette. If something doesn’t make sense on a gut level, then it just won’t work.
    “Organizing” seems to be the big theme this year for my child’s Grade 3-4 class, especially around the issue of homework, but I don’t know why it’s such a big deal. As a mother to a school aged child, and a full time employed person, I have to be organized. But I don’t know why suddenly at age 8, my little free spirited, devil-may care girl who barely knows what day of the week it is….why is organization so crucial to master? It’s not as if some major responsibilities are coming her way any time soon. If I could get her to pick clothes up off the floor, and make her bed at least once a week, I’d consider her really organized. Maybe my expectations are low compared to other parents, but I think they are realistic for an 8 year old who is out of her home for 9 hours + per day and who gives her full attention to school when she’s there.


  6. I am a mom of a toddler and I can already feel the knee jerk reaction of my marin mom friends to get their baby ahead somehow. It’s the old desire to compete, you know survival of the fittest, that gets people to react more readily. Being better than the Jones’ is a real problem here.

    Last years Easter Egg hunt at the MV community center sent that message home to me loud and clear. These parents mean business, at the expense of any other child’s’ happiness. (My toddler got one egg as we watched parents dive, jog, and wrestle for more and their kids baskets had at least eight)

    The ability to research and learn a new way of doing things, a new healthier model of teaching our kids seems like a difficult task for these parents unless it means a rocket ship fast forward button. Worrying about the community when you are fighting so hard for your own kids future doesn’t seem to be a part of the pie.

    I am a successful professional who went to all public schools (even through college) and I have to say that most school for me (up through high school) was less than satisfactory and felt like glorified babysitting for adults. (most of my unhappiness had more to do with the social experiences) In spite of this I was a great student, I was the nerd who sat in the library doing all my homework thinking that it was important. I didn’t go straight to college from high school, and I am very glad that I didn’t. And I’m not sure what to think of school in general for kids, esp. if your kid is unhappy and treated badly in social circles. I don’t regard it highly.

    I loved college.

    I suggest researching a new teaching model, perhaps something that is successful in Sweden? We are going to have to revisit many aspects of our society, and rebuild them to something that is more successful and enjoyable for all.


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