When the film “Race to Nowhere” was released in 2009, it was received with both a collective gasp of shock and a world-weary nod of recognition from thousands of parents, teachers, and school administrators. The film examined the pressure-cooker atmosphere faced by students in an increasingly competitive academic environment.
The demands of college-level AP courses, extracurricular activities, year-round sports, and parental expectations are pushing teens to the breaking point, something the film’s director, Vicki Abeles, witnessed first-hand. When a family doctor attributed her 13-year old daughter’s stomach pains to school-related stress, Abeles took up her camera and started filming.
“Race to Nowhere” raised awareness and inspired grassroots efforts to limit homework, say no to the craziness of college admissions, and for some kids, to admit that the stress of chasing A’s was causing depression, physical illness, and suicidal thoughts.
The more things change….
But despite the fact that more people are questioning the value of a college education, an undergraduate degree is still seen by many as a necessary step on the road to a successful life. With spots at top colleges in fierce demand, high school has become even more intense for those who see the Ivy League or its equivalent schools as their only choice.
Some schools have taken steps to conquer the stress of high school. They deploy therapy dogs in the hallway or offer on-site massages and between-class-breaks. Others offer yoga and relaxation training to alleviate stress. School systems are scaling back homework. Teachers are refusing to administer standardized tests and students are refusing to take them.
Introducing an antidote to Generation Stressed:
When students come to SVS from more traditional school environments, they’re almost always amazed by how different it is here. By the fact that at SVS, they have the time and space they need to learn about their interests and find out about themselves. That there really are no required classes or tests. That who they are is much more than a GPA or a transcript. And then there are students that leave SVS to try “real school” for a year or two. Keeping up academically isn’t an issue. Making friends isn’t either. What they struggle with is realizing that their peers are more concerned about grades than actual learning. Or to paraphrase, “In order to be a good student…all you needed to do was take the AP classes, get the best grades, and that was that…they taught study skills and resilience more than they taught about curiosity and inquisitiveness.” *
At Sudbury Valley students have all the time in the world. To read, dance, play music, make art, make friends, solve problems, or to do what to the outside world might look like absolutely nothing. But rest assured, in this crucible of freedom, some absolutely magical transformations take place.
It’s not as though SVS students never face stress, anxiety or worry. Or that they coast along without ever meeting a challenge. Leaf through the theses SVS students write before they graduate and you’ll be blown away by their strength, resilience, and determination. But they aren’t motivated by an external voice that tells them what success requires. They’ve created their own template and they’re designing their own lives.
* Excerpted from “Sudbury Valley School Through the Eyes of Students.” (Sudbury Valley School Journal, Vol. 42, Number 1, Fall 2012, p. 3) Subscribe to the Journal at our online bookstore.