Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Post-Race Commentary—Take #2

                In “Post-Race Commentary—Take #1” I focused on some overall impressions of Race to Nowhere and the subsequent discussion. The piece has a rather typical essay-like framework. For this post, I’m going to take a different approach: bullets, fired almost in scattershot fashion. Each will be some point that struck me as telling or worth some thought, and each certainly contributes to the larger discussion.
·         Almost everybody in the film looks so tired.
·         The film points out so many issues that I’m surprised it omits another one: how this can shape a child’s mindset. I wrote about this early in the year in a piece title “Perception and Perspective.”
·         When I’m observing classes, I watch what the kids are doing just as much as I watch the teacher. In the film, except for one snippet, the kids in class are doing nothing but sitting. They’re not doing; they’re not making; they’re not talking. I am confident they’re not listening. Put all that together and I’m sure they aren’t learning…except for some lessons we’d rather they not get about learning.
·         One of my favorite moments: the young woman who says that the worst question an adult can ask is “And?”
·         Another favorite moment: I forget who says it, but it’s the comment about how we teach everyone as if each is in the top 2%. I’d add that too often we push kids to be in the top 2% in more than one area. That’s why we often treat kids, as it’s put in another catchy line, like “little professionals.”
·         That leads to one of my criticisms of the film. At one point we’re shown Bill Gates, Richard Branson and a couple other people as examples of folks with little college who have done wonderful things. People such as them are not the norm; they are not even a minuscule percentage of that top 2%. The overwhelming majority would benefit from a top-quality education and need it to thrive. Plus even for the exceptional, it doesn’t happen without really hard work and perseverance. Read Gladwell’s Outliers to get a good sense of how even geniuses have to grind it out.
·         Similarly, let’s not forget that the film is a documentary, one with a very particular agenda. While I happen to agree with the basic philosophy of that agenda, in many ways the film is excessive. Many of the examples are extreme. But maybe that’s what is needed to force an examination of a real problem.
·         Many people were very compelling, but for me two really stole the show. I forget the first one’s name, but he is the teacher whose father works in a psychiatric ward. His mix of passion and intellect were awesome. The other is Denise Pope, who works at Stanford. I highly recommend her book Doing School.
·         I find it ironic that the film highlights Challenge Success and several people from the education school at Stanford University. I admire them and their work…but Stanford is one of the institutions that students chase in this race. Stanford exacerbates the problem as much as anyplace.
·         The AP biology teacher points out that he cut the homework in half and scores went up. I applaud his courage, particularly in a course where people judge the quality of the teaching by a single measure. But I’d also like to know what type of homework he was giving. I don’t believe homework is necessarily bad and that it should be abolished. I believe fervently, however, that we need to rethink the purpose and type of homework typically given.
What moments in the film stand out to you? How would you boil down the message?

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