Different Learners by Jane Healy, Ph.D.

When I was asked to promote Jane Healy’s book, I hesitated because one, I hadn’t read it and two, I have never written a book review. But since I am a huge fan of two of her past books (Endangered Minds and Failure to Connect) I was curious to read a book with a title that is intentionally ‘label free’. Within minutes I was hooked. Jane has done it again. She has the ability to turn science into practical, usable information while she is slowly selling you on a more holistic approach to supporting different learners.

My training as a PCI Certified Parent Coach has taught me to embrace the family as a living systems model and look beyond the child’s behavior (that’s generally why parents seek coaching in the first place), but I look at the whole family, environmental issues, day to day stressors, the child’s learning environment, etc. Jane completely supports that approach when trying to determine if a child has a learning issue and whether it is the result of genes, brain chemistry, environment or lifestyle.

I found myself nodding in agreement with her firm stance on limiting media in a child’s life and how we need to get our kids outside more often enjoying and exploring nature. And stress – painfully I have watched the detrimental effects on my own children. Jane makes several convincing arguments for why we need to slow it down, especially for students who learn differently. So many of them give up.

Jane does an excellent job describing the latest research on the brain in language that even I could comprehend – never did develop that analytical side of my brain! She talks about medication and rightly questions the amount of drugs prescribed to children. As parents we want our children to fit in and find success in school, but often medication is prescribed too quickly as a remedy. As Jane says, “In my opinion, expediency, convenience, or outside pressure are very lame reasons for messing around with your child’s brain chemistry.”

In her chapter “How Your Child’s Brain Works” she devotes the last few pages to motivation. I hear too often, ‘If he were just more motivated . . . “ So we tell our child to get motivated which Jane feels is “a waste of breath”. Jane has a few more thoughts about motivation – this is my favorite:

“One major reason for ‘motivation’ problems is that school curricula are often too rigid to accommodate a student’s need to learn differently and to repeat things for mastery. Policy makers, take note: expecting all students to achieve mastery without adequate support is a recipe for the ultimate motivation problem, dropping out.” (my emphasis)

I particularly liked her chapter on stress. She outlines the stressors our children face in this culture such as school, bullying, and social networking – factors that clearly contribute to an overload on the developing brain. I’m glad she advocates for slowing it down especially for teens. As parents we can become oblivious to what I describe as the silent stressors in our children’s lives such as Facebook, texting, and the Internet. I appreciate that Jane gives parents permission to set appropriate limits on the use of media while providing up-to-date research on screen exposure and guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics.

The Appendices are as important as the rest of the book so don’t overlook those at the end. Jane provides a list of known learning disabilities. And she walks parents through the process of diagnosis with strong recommendations to get second and third opinions if necessary. And if you are like me and have a hard time with ‘psycho babble’ she recommends finding an advocate for yourself and your child.

Parents will find this book user friendly as well as a ‘call to action’. For all of us who are parents with different learners – Jane is our ‘Oprah’. She completely understands what it’s like to both be a child with learning differences and a parent who is struggling to get answers. Here’s one ‘call to action’: She encourages parents to advocate for those parents who cannot advocate for themselves. After reading this book those who learn easily will have a deeper understanding for parents of children who learn differently.  “We say we care deeply about our children’s learning. But do we care enough to do what needs to be done?”

From all of us, . . . thank you, Jane.

Arrowsmith Program for Learning Disabilities

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Have you heard about the Arrowsmith Program? Most parents haven’t. Arrowsmith was founded by Barbara Arrowsmith-Young in Toronto over 30 years ago. Barbara has been successfully changing lives of children and adults with Dyslexia, ADD and ADHD. How is this possible? In one word, Neuroplasticity – the brain’s ability to change.

Barbara’s personal story is one of perseverance. She had multiple learning challenges as a child. As an adult she figured out how to change her brain with cognitive exercises, and went on to identify 19 different areas in the brain that relate to learning. She then developed 19 cognitive exercises to strengthen each area, and in the 70’s opened the first Arrowsmith School in Toronto. Today there are schools throughout Canada, Australia and the US. You can read more about her amazing journey in The Woman Who Changed Her Brain: And Other Inspiring Stories of Pioneering Brain Transformation.

I was curious why I hadn’t heard about Arrowsmith before. If cognitive exercises can change the brain, why aren’t all schools using some form of cognitive training to help children with dyslexia, ADD and ADHD? And more importantly, why are we still spinning our wheels with a learning assisted classroom model when we could be changing brains and lives with a cognitive classroom model? The first time I saw a cognitive classroom in action I cried. I was crying for the years my son lost trying to play catch-up in public school. I was crying for all the shame and heartache I imagine he felt every day trying to do the work designed for a neuro-normal child.

Arrowsmith isn’t the only effective cognitive program. Other established programs include Fast ForWord, Cogmed and Lumosity. But Arrowsmith is the only comprehensive cognitive program that is taught in a cognitive classroom. I believe cognitive classrooms represent the future in Special Education. I see a world where neuroscience and education join together to create a shame-free, independent learning environment for our children who learn differently.

If, like me, you are curious about Arrowsmith and curious about whether the program could help your child, check out their website, visit a school in the states or Canada, talk with Arrowmsmith parents. The Arrowsmith parents I have talked with have convinced me that the program not only works but could change the life-long trajectory of their child. And what parent wouldn’t want that?

Why We’re Getting The Homework Question Wrong

Homework was a constant struggle in our home. As a parent I felt obligated to make sure my children were doing their part to keep up with their school work and that included doing homework and turning it in on time. But when I think of the stress that homework added to our lives, I have to wonder if in the end it was worth it.

I have come to my own conclusion that it wasn’t. Most of the homework in my opinion was just busy work and kept my middle daughter up late into the night. For my son with learning challenges, homework was a joke. And after awhile he lost interest. No matter how long he worked he rarely completed an assignment on time. Even with his accommodations he still had homework expectations and that led to a lot of stress and frustration in our home.

Which is why I am a huge proponent of the documentary and grassroots movement, The Race to Nowhere. Vicki Abeles, the film’s director, has just written the article “Why We’re Getting the Homework Question Wrong” which appeared in the Washington Post. She has launched a national petition on Change.org ”which asks the National PTA to stand behind a set of national homework recommendations that would encourage schools to assign homework only when it advances try learning, encourages a child’s self-direction and curiosity, and promotes a healthy, balanced schedule”.

I agree with Vicki – I think it’s time to ramp up the conversation about homework. I encourage you to read Vicki’s article and if it resonates please share it with other parents.

Use this forum to share your thoughts – what do you think about homework? How does it affect the quality of your child’s life? Your home life? Do you think your school district has a policy that is working? Do you have any recommendations?

I look forward to the conversation,

Sally

What if the Secret to Success is Failure?

by Paul Tough, NY Times Magazine, September 14, 2011

 

Dominic Randolph can seem a little out of place at Riverdale Country School — which is odd, because he’s the headmaster. Riverdale is one of New York City’s most prestigious private schools, with a 104-year-old campus that looks down grandly on Van Cortlandt Park from the top of a steep hill in the richest part of the Bronx. On the discussion boards of UrbanBaby.com, worked-up moms from the Upper East Side argue over whether Riverdale sends enough seniors to Harvard, Yale and Princeton to be considered truly “TT” (top-tier, in UrbanBabyese), or whether it is more accurately labeled “2T” (second-tier), but it is, certainly, part of the city’s private-school elite, a place members of the establishment send their kids to learn to be members of the establishment. Tuition starts at $38,500 a year, and that’s for prekindergarten.

Randolph, by contrast, comes across as an iconoclast, a disrupter, even a bit of an eccentric. He dresses for work every day in a black suit with a narrow tie, and the outfit, plus his cool demeanor and sweep of graying hair, makes you wonder, when you first meet him, if he might have played sax in a ska band in the ’80s. (The English accent helps.) He is a big thinker, always chasing new ideas, and a conversation with him can feel like a one-man TED conference, dotted with references to the latest work by behavioral psychologists and management gurus and design theorists. When he became headmaster in 2007, he swapped offices with his secretary, giving her the reclusive inner sanctum where previous headmasters sat and remodeling the small outer reception area into his own open-concept work space, its walls covered with whiteboard paint on which he sketches ideas and slogans. One day when I visited, one wall was bare except for a white sheet of paper. On it was printed a single black question mark.

For the headmaster of an intensely competitive school, Randolph, who is 49, is surprisingly skeptical about many of the basic elements of a contemporary high-stakes American education. He did away with Advanced Placement classes in the high school soon after he arrived at Riverdale; he encourages his teachers to limit the homework they assign; and he says that the standardized tests that Riverdale and other private schools require for admission to kindergarten and to middle school are “a patently unfair system” because they evaluate students almost entirely by I.Q. “This push on tests,” he told me, “is missing out on some serious parts of what it means to be a successful human.”

The most critical missing piece, Randolph explained as we sat in his office last fall, is character — those essential traits of mind and habit that were drilled into him at boarding school in England and that also have deep roots in American history. “Whether it’s the pioneer in the Conestoga wagon or someone coming here in the 1920s from southern Italy, there was this idea in America that if you worked hard and you showed real grit, that you could be successful,” he said. “Strangely, we’ve now forgotten that. People who have an easy time of things, who get 800s on their SAT’s, I worry that those people get feedback that everything they’re doing is great. And I think as a result, we are actually setting them up for long-term failure. When that person suddenly has to face up to a difficult moment, then I think they’re screwed, to be honest. I don’t think they’ve grown the capacities to be able to handle that.”

Randolph has been pondering throughout his 23-year career as an educator the question of whether and how schools should impart good character. It has often felt like a lonely quest, but it has led him in some interesting directions. In the winter of 2005, Randolph read “Learned Optimism,” a book by Martin Seligman, a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania who helped establish the Positive Psychology movement. Randolph found the book intriguing, and he arranged a meeting with the author. As it happened, on the morning that Randolph made the trip to Philadelphia, Seligman had scheduled a separate meeting with David Levin, the co-founder of the KIPP network of charter schools and the superintendent of the KIPP schools in New York City. Seligman decided he might as well combine the two meetings, and he invited Christopher Peterson, a psychology professor at the University of Michigan, who was also visiting Penn that day, to join him and Randolph and Levin in his office for a freewheeling discussion of psychology and schooling.

Levin had also spent many years trying to figure out how to provide lessons in character to his students, who were almost all black or Latino and from low-income families. At the first KIPP school, in Houston, he and his co-founder, Michael Feinberg, filled the walls with slogans like “Work Hard” and “Be Nice” and “There Are No Shortcuts,” and they developed a system of rewards and demerits designed to train their students not only in fractions and algebra but also in perseverance and empathy. Like Randolph, Levin went to Seligman’s office expecting to talk about optimism. But Seligman surprised them both by pulling out a new and very different book, which he and Peterson had just finished: “Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification,” a scholarly, 800-page tome that weighed in at three and a half pounds. It was intended, according to the authors, as a “manual of the sanities,” an attempt to inaugurate what they described as a “science of good character.”

It was, in other words, exactly what Randolph and Levin had been looking for, separately, even if neither of them had quite known it. Seligman and Peterson consulted works from Aristotle to Confucius, from the Upanishads to the Torah, from the Boy Scout Handbook to profiles of Pokémon characters, and they settled on 24 character strengths common to all cultures and eras. The list included some we think of as traditional noble traits, like bravery, citizenship, fairness, wisdom and integrity; others that veer into the emotional realm, like love, humor, zest and appreciation of beauty; and still others that are more concerned with day-to-day human interactions: social intelligence (the ability to recognize interpersonal dynamics and adapt quickly to different social situations), kindness, self-regulation, gratitude. (read entire article)

Fast-Paced Cartoons Could Slow Children’s Problem Solving and Executive Function

By Paul Nyhan, Birth to Thrive Online

It’s not just about curbing the amount of time young children spend in front of the TV that matters … but monitoring what they watch. In fact, when it comes to children’s television programs, it turns out some shows may slow the executive functions of preschoolers, researchers reported today.

A new study found that when a group of four-year-old kids watched “SpongeBob SquarePants,” a famous fast-paced cartoon on Nickelodeon designed for older children, for only nine minutes, they did worse on problem solving, self regulation and other tests of executive function than a control group who played with crayons and markers. What’s perhaps even more interesting is that children who watched “Caillou,” a slower-paced show on PBS designed for preschoolers, performed as well as the control group, according to the study published by Pediatrics today.

While researchers could not identify what factors of the cartoons affected executive functions, “they speculate the combination of fantastical events and the fast pacing are responsible. They conclude that parents should be aware that watching similar television shows may immediately impair young children’s executive function,” a summary of the research said.

It was a relatively small study of 60 four-year-olds, but it’s an important step in the effort to understand the impact of rapidly evolving digital media on children.

The research definitely holds lessons for the early learning community, since another study released two years ago found preschool-age children in home-based daycare watched, on average, 2.4 hours of TV a day, compared to those in centers who sat in front of a television 0.4 hours.

With all of this television watching at many child care providers, perhaps TV use should be part of the licensing process, suggests Dr. Dimitri Christakis, a leading researcher on the subject.

“Quite honestly I think it should be a part of licensing,” Dr. Christakis, head of the Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development at Seattle Children’s Hospital, said during an interview.

Research has shown a high-quality early education can make a difference throughout a student’s lifetime, while “a low-quality education also makes a lifetime of difference,” Christakis said.

“…We know that the preschool brain is very much a work in progress,” Christakis added.

Check out Dr. Christakis’s commentary on “The Effects of Fast-Paced Cartoons.”

 

Get Teens’ Sleep Back on Track

By Karen Weintraub
USA Today

Though his junior year hasn’t yet started, Matt Brown, 15, is already back to waking up early enough to get to 6 a.m. football practice. His mother, Megan, sets her alarm for 5:20 a.m., too, so she can make sure he doesn’t sleep through his alarm — again.

It’s a familiar August battle against biology and habit, after a summer of relaxation and late bedtimes.

Getting back into the routine of waking up early is tough for everyone, but particularly for teens, whose bodies are wired for late nights, and who face the social pressures of after-hours texting and social networking.

Megan Brown, a stay-at-home mom in Darien, Conn., says she wondered briefly whether to “stop the fun” a few weeks ago and ease into the earlier wake-up. She opted instead for short-term suffering.

“We are very much the ‘stay up to 2 a.m., sleep ’til noon’ kind of people,” she says.
Tips for helping your kids get a good night’s sleep

Turn off all electronics at least 30 minutes before bedtime. The light from electronics, including TVs, computers, phones and other devices, can make it harder to fall asleep. And the beeps from incoming messages can wake kids up or discourage them from heading to bed.

Set a bedtime, even for teens. Kids who know they are expected to get adequate sleep are more responsible about it. Limit after-dinner snacks, and don’t make kids do chores, like finally cleaning their rooms, just before bedtime.

Limit caffeine. Caffeine is OK in the morning, but caffeinated beverages within seven or eight hours of bedtime disrupt sleep quality and make falling asleep harder.

Transition slowly if possible. Getting up a few minutes earlier every few days for two weeks makes the transition from summer to school smoother. If it’s already too late, get on a regular schedule as quickly as possible and stick with it.

Don’t overcompensate. On weekends, one night of catch-up sleep is helpful, but a second night of going to bed and waking up hours later will start to reset the sleep schedule and make Monday morning that much harder.

Napping is OK as long as it’s consistent and not within six to eight hours of bedtime. Taking a two-hour nap after dinner and then trying to do homework will certainly interfere with a decent night’s sleep, and probably with the homework, too.

Research is now clear that sleep is important in myriad ways. Lack of sleep combined with genetic vulnerabilities can lead to heart disease, depression, a weakened immune system and obesity-related diabetes, says Mary Carskadon, a professor of psychiatry at Brown University and director of Chronobiology and Sleep Research at E.P. Bradley Hospital in Providence.

A good night’s sleep is also crucial for learning.

“It helps you to prepare to learn, and also to benefit from what you’ve learned in the day,” Carskadon says. “It’s the glue that keeps that information and sharpens it in your brain.”

But kids, particularly teens, still get too little sleep. With the hormonal changes of adolescence, body clocks shift later. The average teen can’t fall asleep until 11 p.m. or midnight — and when they need to wake up at 6 or 7 a.m., there’s no way they can get sleep they need, Carskadon and others say. While adults need seven to nine hours a night, elementary school kids should be in bed for roughly 10 hours, middle schoolers and high schoolers at least nine, she says.

Younger children generally don’t have as much trouble adjusting; they haven’t shifted as much during the summer, they still have enforceable bedtimes, they’re generally less addicted to social media, and elementary schools often start at 8 or 9, later than many high schools.

Susan Rausch, like many sleep experts, thinks it’s a terrible idea to start school so early in the morning, because it’s so counter to what teens need biologically.

“If we’re teaching to a test, I’m not sure why we’re not teaching to the biology,” says Rausch, medical director of the Sleep Center at Memorial, a lab and sleep clinic in Yakima, Wash.

Not all sleep problems are out of kids’ control, however.

Late-night texting, TV time and computer use also cut down on the quality and quantity of sleep. Rausch and others recommend turning off electronics at least 30 minutes before bedtime to decompress, and removing the bright lights that can suppress levels of the hormone melatonin and make it harder to fall asleep.

And that catch-up sleep on weekends can make people sleepier, says Richard Seligman, medical director for Presbyterian Sleep Disorders Center in Albuquerque. The first night of extra sleep can help compensate for too-short nights during the week. But a second or third — as many will be tempted to do over Labor Day weekend — will throw off body clocks and make the next few days miserable, he says.

Matt and his sister Mary, 13, both have pretty good sleep patterns for busy teens. They have TVs in their rooms and they text on their phones, but their mom says they haven’t abused those privileges.

She says she freaked out recently when Matt came home from morning football practice with an energy drink. “That can’t be good for you,” she said. But she told him he could use the drinks until classes started.

And the end of lazy summer mornings isn’t the end of the world, she says.

“They’re psyched to get back to seeing their friends and a regular pattern,” she adds. “Summer’s been really, really fun, but it’s time to go back.”

Kids With ADHD More Likely To Be Hit By Cars: Study

Catherine Pearson

Catherine.Pearson@huffingtonpost.com

Children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder may be at greater risk for being hit by a car when crossing the street. A new study suggests that because of differences in their ability to perceive risk, children with ADHD may choose to cross the street when it is less safe, even if they follow safety protocol like checking both ways.

“They are looking,” explained Despina Stavrinos, assistant professor at the University of Alabama Birmingham’s Injury Control Center and the study’s lead author. “But they are failing to see. Just like distracted drivers, they are going through the motions, but they are not actually processing the risk.”

To better understand the potential dangers of street crossing, researchers from the University of Alabama at Birmingham looked at 78 children, 39 of whom had ADHD-C — a subtype that includes both inattention as well as hyperactivity and impulsivity issues — and 39 of whom did not. The children were between 7 and 10, the age at which The American Academy of Pediatrics states it may be okay for children to be unsupervised pedestrians.

In a simulator that mimicked a typical street scene, the children were given 10 different street crossing scenarios. Researchers found that those with ADHD performed as well as non-ADHD participants in terms of looking both ways before crossing. However, when it came time to actually cross, those with ADHD picked smaller gaps in oncoming traffic, had more “close calls” and gave themselves less time to reach the other end of the crosswalk before traffic approached.

“We thought we might see that the kids with ADHD might not look left and right, but they are displaying that appropriate safety behavior,” Stavrinos said. “That points to an underlying mechanism in the executive functioning control center in the brain that affects processing so they can’t necessarily assess the risk.”

In 2009, a Canadian study gave several possibilities for why children with ADHD might have such difficulties, suggesting that they might overestimate their physical abilities when it comes time to weigh risks. That same study also found that children with ADHD might not have actually perceived any consequences for engaging in a risky behavior.

“What this suggests is that our typical programs that say, ‘You must do it this way,’ don’t work,” said Beth Bruce, Ph.D, of Dalhousie University, who wrote the Canadian study. “These studies — and there need to be more — suggest that there is a different way of processing,” she continued, adding that these issues are not necessarily unique to ADHD.

The potential implications of such risk-taking behavior are serious: According to the Centers for Disease Control, unintentional injury is the leading cause of death in children. And a growing body of scientific literature suggests that children with behavioral disorders, including ADHD, are more likely to suffer injury than those without the disorder.

So what can be done?

Parents of children with ADHD should increase supervision, said Dr. Steven Meyers, a professor of psychology at Roosevelt University and a Chicago-based clinical psychologist. He said that “over-practicing” of certain safety behaviors is essential, so that they become second-nature in children.

“It’s not an issue of not knowing what the right behaviors are,” he explained. “The impairment is largely in the area of impulsivity, of disregarding what they know.”

Pediatrician Dr. Alanna Levine added that observed crossing from afar can be a good way for parents to gradually gauge if their child is ready to make the appropriate decision, traffic-wise. She cautioned that the children in the University of Alabama at Birmingham study were not taking medication to treat their disorder at the time, adding that researchers are not yet clear as to what the impact of medication on risk-taking behaviors might be.

In the meantime, Stavrinos said that parents should be aware that differences in the executive functioning control center of the brain may mean their children need a street-crossing program that is unique to them.

“The biggest take-home message is that the things we do to teach about crossing safely may not be enough,” she said.

Love, Understanding and Other Best Practices

The author, Larry Martin Davis, understands the new paradigm of approaching IEP’s and 504 Plans. I have always believed that successful IEP’s demand a collaborative partnership between teachers and parents. Larry agrees and gives teachers and parents suggestions for shifting the focus from what is broken to focusing on the child’s strengths. He uses the problem solving technique, Appreciative Inquiry, as the foundation for his model of Appreciative Advocacy. Appreciative Advocacy is a strengths-based approach to intervention.

An easy read, I thoroughly recommend Love, Understanding, and Other Best Practices for any parent whose child has either a 504 Plan or an IEP.

Larry is an Educational Advocate who helps parents navigate IEP’s and 504 Plans. Contact Larry at larrydavis@specialeducationadvocacy.org.

Kids’ Late Night Texts, Games Could Lead to Attention, Mood Problems

By Kurtis Hiatt from US News and World Report

Texting, surfing the Web, and playing video games before bed could lead to attention and learning problems, anxiety, mood swings, and even depression, suggests a pilot study conducted at the Sleep Disorders Center at JFK Medical Center in Edison, New Jersey. Researchers surveyed 40 children­—average age: 14 1/2—all of whom were treated at the center for sleep problems, USA Today reports. The kids reported sending an average of 34 text messages or E-mails each night, and said they sent the texts between 10 minutes and four hours after parents said “lights out!” Texts or calls also awoke the kids an average of once a night. “These activities are not sleep-promoting, like reading a novel or listening to music,” study author Peter Polos, a physician at the JFK center, told HealthDay. “They stimulate the brain and depress normal sleep cycles.” Roughly half of the children’s parents didn’t know their kids were cuddling up to their favorite media; others knew, but thought, “This is the world we live in, what can you do?” Polos said.

Click here to find out more!

While electronic media use can be harmful to children, its influence on kids isn’t all bad, U.S. News contributor Nancy Shute reports. There are extraordinary things to see and share, and parents who make wise media choices for their family are also teaching their children to be savvy media consumers.

From: 3 Ways Electronic Media Harm Kids’ Health and 3 Ways They Help

Here are three ways your family can gain when the media diet is healthful:

1. Through meaningful storytelling. Quality media can help teach essential human values through storytelling, a powerful learning tool

. A great movie or TV show (think Up or Sesame Street) can provide your children lasting lessons on growing up to be good, kind, and wise. Check out sites like KidsFirst and Common Sense Media for reviews of movies and video games.

2. By gaining advertisement literacy. Children younger than age 8 have difficulty understanding that advertisements are designed to persuade them, but older children can become savvy consumers by learning how media are used to manipulate thoughts and emotions. The United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia require that children be taught “media literacy,” and research has shown that it may help mitigate the harmful effects of media.

3. To inspire talks about difficult issues. Watching TV or playing computer games with your children not only helps you understand their interests but provides a great opportunity for teaching your own values. Victor Strasburger, a professor of pediatrics at the University of New Mexico, says he watches Lost and other TV shows with his 17-year-old daughter. “A character on TV is having sex with his girlfriend. It’s easy to say, ‘What do you think about that?’ rather than say, ‘Are you having sex?’ It’s a really powerful way of communicating with your teenagers,” he says.

So the good news for parents is that we do have choices: There are healthful ways for children to use media, and we can exert control over what they watch and for how long. We’re in the midst of a massive experiment, and it’s up to us to create a sensible balance between media and the other essentials of life.

Season of the education film: Do they help or hurt?

From The Answer Sheet, Washington Post

By Sean Slade, director of Healthy School Communities, part of the Whole Child Initiative at ASCD, an educational leadership organization

We are in the season of the educational documentary. Much has been written about the four films coming out for theatrical run and community screenings this fall about the state of the U.S. public education system: Waiting for Superman, The Lottery, The Cartel, and Race To Nowhere. But far less has been mentioned about what happens after the final credits roll.

Frederick M. Hess, director of education policy studies for the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute, summed it up nicely when talking in this Education Week article about the film that has garnered the most publicity so far, Waiting For Superman.

“I think it’s naive to imagine a single movie or book is going to change permanently what the public is concerned about or how it thinks about an issue,” Hess said. “People are busy. They have jobs and kids. They are supposed to be worried about national security and highway safety and Internet stalkers and any number of things. Even if they walk out of the movie fired up, there’s lots of other causes and demands.”

Any lasting effects of Waiting For Superman or the other films will be determined by the success of the engagement activities connected to each of them. “What happens next is what matters,” he said. “Is there a strategy to linking those people into the issue in an ongoing way?”

So what do the films have planned for the day after?

The Lottery, The Cartel and Waiting for Superman — all of which highlight charter schools in a positive light — provide general links on their sites for people to find out more about their school’s test scores or their district’s financial situation, depending upon the film. They tell viewers to contact advocacy groups, donate to similar organizations, and to become a mentor or a teacher, or a watchdog for public finances. The suggestions themselves suggest that the filmmakers believe they have definitively made their points, and all that is left is action. Discussion over.

The film Race To Nowhere takes a different stance. This film, which looks at the pressures faced by schoolchildren and teachers in a test-obsessed era and paints a different picture from the other three movies, tells viewers to continue the debate in their communities, schools and homes and search for answers that work at the local level. This approach presumes that the film is the start of the conversation and not the end. It is also, somewhat ironically, the only film which has designed direct actions and discussions that actually involve students.

The film fits with ASCD’s commitment to the Whole Child and Healthy School Communities in particular but it was the commitment to an ongoing dialogue that prompted ASCD’s executive director, Gene Carter, to write the Forward to the Facilitation Guide that accompanies the film.