Following lunch on Tuesday, all students and the adults they were shadowing headed over to the school district offices to break into focus groups. This year's topic for the Youth Commission is "Life Balance," which can be described as how we manage to live with just the right amount of work and play, and the issues we sometimes face in trying to do so. Someone in my focus group mentioned Yin and Yang, which is a perfect way to explain it. The topics of discussion under Life Balance were Friends, Family, School and Extra-Curricular Activities. My focus group talked about School.
We started off by writing down on post-it notes our personal concerns about the four topics. Volunteers shared their ideas and then we posted the notes on different butcher paper sheets. Then we focused in on School.
My first concern was the issue of teachers assigning homework over the weekend and during breaks. I made the argument that those breaks are supposed to be time for us to relax and have time for ourselves. During the week, we are expected to focus on school, the job we have to do if we want to succeed, and homework is a part of that job (and is vital, to a certain degree). But on weekends, we need our time. During breaks, we need our time. Otherwise, there is no time for us to stop processing and just daydream. This daydreaming necessity is key--more about that later (as my English teacher often says).
One of the girls in my focus group was a junior at Horizon, a school for high school students who have children. I'd never talked with or met someone who went to Horizon and it was really interesting to hear what things she was concerned about regarding school. I had never really thought about the students at Horizon because I don't know anyone at the school, but I am glad I had a chance to hear her thoughts. She's a student just like every other student and she has homework and she's learning academic things, but on top of all that she has a child and her adult life is so much closer to her than my adult life is to me. Yeah, I'll be 18 in April, but I won't be fully on my own for another few years. In college, your parents are still supporting you and you're living in a dorm room with other students. For her, though, she has a baby that she has to take care of and she's learning things about life that most people her age haven't faced yet. Her concern was that school doesn't teach you many practical things, like how to do taxes and balance a budget, until you're a senior. Even then, you don't really learn it beyond a very basic understanding. Everyone has to deal with taxes and budgets eventually, but we never really learn how to manage that until we're faced with it outside of school. Others expressed the same concern about the practicality of some of the information we learn and how there could be more emphasis on skills that we will use outside of a school setting. It's so important that she was at Youth in Government Day because she most definitely represents a group of young people in this community. There were four or five other girls from Horizon who attended, as well. Along with Horizon there are three other high schools in Pleasanton: Amador Valley, Foothill, and Village, which is an alternative school. There were a number of students from each school, representing the four grade levels.
Mayor Hosterman sat in on our discussion and mentioned a movie called Race to Nowhere, which talks about the issue of over-scheduling and pressuring children and teens to achieve extradordinary levels of success that just aren't realistic. There's too much structure in our lives and not enough time for us to just be kids. School, soccer practice, homework, clubs, after-school drama, football practice, swim practice, music lessons, tutoring, math homework, practicing for the SAT, studying--list goes on. We rarely have time to slow down and let our mind wander. And that mind-wandering time is vital to healthy development. One girl in my group said her teacher has changed the way she teaches because of the movie. Instead of testing her students right after learning something and then having the students forget what they've just learned, her teachers has them take group tests in which they discuss the topic. She said she actually remembers what she learned now. I'm really interested in watching the movie. Here's the trailer:
My Aunt Laurie is really interested in the issue and was talking to my dad and me about it on Friday night. Here an excerpt from an email she sent to my dad:
"There is statistically significant, conclusive evidence from major health care experts and universities that the pressure is impacting well being while interfering with preparedness for college and life - the exact opposite of what kids, parents, teachers want or expect. One example: depression and suicide in upper middle class and affluent communities (like Pleasanton) is significantly higher than the national average; for girls, it is three times the national average."
Especially given the recent suicide in our community of a freshman girl at my high school, this concept is so vital for people to recognize. I see so much stress around me at school and sometimes I'm the one under stress because of my many committments which take up time I would be spending doing homework. This information makes perfect sense to me. Students fall asleep in class all the time because they stayed up late studying or doing homework. While there is a certain level of procrastination that occurs with the modern issues of Facebook and mind-melting television shows like Jersey Shore, there are students who do not procrastinate and still end up stressed because the mountain of homework we get each night is insane. And we should be able to calm down and watch half an hour of television and still be able to finish homework. If you're an adult, I'll bet you had time after homework to just hang out or explore a hobbie. For many students today, there isn't that time during the week because of the many expectations that we'll be the best in a variety of things, which is not realistic and not healthy.
Another issue is that there's such a vast quantity of homework, but often little quality in the work being done because there's not enough time to put effort into each assignment. If I were to put 100% effort into truly learning the full breadth of knowledge that each assignment I'm given has to offer, I would never finish my homework. I skim my reading pages, looking for bold words to write down. If I don't understand a math question, I often write down the problem and put a question mark, figuring I'll finish it later. Many smart students I know copy homework when it's something involving filling in the blanks or multiple choice worksheets. A lot of it is busy work that has very little value even if you were to put effort into it. A lot of the time the emphasis is not on learning and comprehension, but on test scores and letter grades. You learn the vocabulary in a quick burst of studying, take the test, and then move on, forgetting it later. People scrounge for points when they should be focusing on actually learning and enhancing their knowledge and skills. Large amounts of homework don't add to this; they hinder it. Add sports, clubs, jobs, social time to academic work and you've got some pretty stressed out teenagers who don't have time to daydream, let alone sleep soundly.
My aunt is an advisory board member for Stanford University's Challenge Success program, which aims to address some of these issues. (Check out this page of Facts on How Narrow Definitions of Success Adversely Affect our Children--pretty interesting.) My aunt also created a program called Board Room to Family Room, which "provides an intuitive approach to enhance and deepen the family experience in ways that will inspire and empower mothers, fathers, and children to live authentic lives of success, meaning, and joy at home, at work and in our communities." She does workshops for businesses, parents, and students on how to approach business leadership, parenting, school, parent-student relationships and other topics in a less competitive and more encouraging way. She's currently working on a blog for the program and even attended a Blogger workshop on ways to be succcessful at blogging. I encourage you to look at her website and at the Challenge Success website.
Throughout our focus group discussion there was a lot of criticism of things at school, but also a lot of suggestions for how to solve some of these issues. The focus group time is one of my favorite aspects of Youth in Government Day because it is a creative time for us to think about the issues we face as young people and how our city and school board might be able to help us and future students.
Following the group discussions, everyone came back together and shared out what they'd talked about. Some of the ideas were really interesting, and all of our comments will be submitted to the Youth Commission for possible implementation.
Like last year, I found Youth in Government Day to be an inspiring opportunity. I'll keep in mind the different Parks & Community Services careers that I was introduced to--perhaps I'll end up in a position working for city government when I'm out of college. It is definitely something I'd be interested in learning more about and exploring. I am so fortunate to live in a town that values its youth and takes the time and effort to put on an event like this. Hopefully it offered inspiration, as well as knowledge about our city government and school district, to all the students who participated. I learned a lot throughout the day and hope my posting about it taught you some interesting things, as well.
Thanks for reading!