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Role Reversal: LFHS Students Moderate Film Discussion with Teachers

"Race to Nowhere" becomes shared experience between students and teachers.

Lake Forest High School sophomore Ingrid Lustig knows she will be nervous standing in front of the classroom this afternoon (Feb. 18) facing not her peers, but teachers.

The sophomore is one of 25 students selected to help lead a classroom discussion with teachers after they view the film, “Race to Nowhere,” which questions the ideals of America’s educational system, and deals with such touchy subjects as homework loads, advanced placement classes, school stress, burnout and teen suicide.

“I think I’ll be nervous if I have one of my teachers,” Lustig said. “I don’t know if I would be comfortable saying the teacher gives me too much homework. I think it will be good for them to hear from us, and that we feel safe to tell them how we feel.”

Lustig would normally be home today enjoying the long President’s Day weekend. The film screening dominates the Teacher Institute agenda, following in the footsteps of multiple screenings of the film in both Lake Forest and Lake Bluff.

Movie’s Impact

Lustig has seen the documentary twice, and admits her reaction to it became more tempered the second time.

“The first time I saw it, I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is my life,’” she said. “The second time, I put it back into realistic terms. All the students in the movie, their conditions are a little extreme, with things like eating disorders, severely depressed. I’m not any of that. I could find little tidbits that I could identify with.”

However, she did relate to one girl in the movie who suffers from stress-induced stomach aches. Lustig said she has dealt with stress-induced migraines.

“The movie has definitely propelled the conversation forward,” Lustig said. “My parents were talking to me about stress all the time, but we didn’t know what to do about it. One of my friends who saw it, she thought she was the only one who felt stressed, and we had this discussion and everyone said they were so stressed.”

Classmate Ellie Doyle, who will also help moderate a classroom today, said the movie struck a chord for her as well.

“This boy was talking about college, and when he got there he didn’t have any idea what he wanted to do with his life,” Doyle said. “He was focusing on just taking the best classes and getting the most credentials. You don’t really have any idea what your passions are when you get there. I could definitely relate to that because I feel like that’s what’s going to happen to me.”

Freshman Andrew Jacobs, who shares the same middle school background as Lustig and Doyle in Lake Bluff, liked that the movie didn’t point a finger at any one causal factor for the succeed-at-all-cost mentality accentuated on screen.

“The movie doesn’t just blame the students, the teachers, the school districts, it’s blaming everybody,” Jacobs said. “It’s saying that we all have to work together on this. At the end, it shows what each of us has to do, which I thought was really nice.”

Homework Dilemma

All three students said homework drives many of their classes, and could relate to the movie’s point that school occupies much of their day even after the final bell rings,

“I think they said in the movie, ‘Since when do schools have the right to dictate what our lives are like after school. We have 7 hours of school and 6 hours of homework,’” Lustig said. “The whole day is school.”

Added Doyle, “I thought that was so cool because it seems so normal to us.”

Jacobs hasn’t felt overwhelmed by his high school classes, and actually believes it was harder in middle school.

“In seventh grade, the load was the greatest,” he said. “We had a block schedule, so we had two nights of homework on one night. I like when homework is an extenuation of the lesson they have been teaching throughout the day. That’s when homework is OK. Sometimes they try to cram in an extra lesson through the homework so it becomes busy work.”

Doyle said in her chemistry honors class, homework is only collected occasionally, but that students learn its benefits.

“I don’t know anyone across the board that doesn’t do the homework,” she said. “You learn through the homework. My teacher is really homework oriented. She will teach us something, but she will really extend it to homework so if you don’t do it, you won’t do well.”

The AP Attraction

Both Lustig and Doyle are enrolled in an AP World History class this semester, but unlike the movie don’t sense a major push by the school to enroll.

“It’s more peer pressure,” Doyle said of the AP lure.

Added Lustig, “You want to feel smart and be with the smart kids, so you take an AP class. I took it because I really like history, but I’m struggling in the AP class anyway. I probably could have just taken an honors course, but the AP part appealed to me.”

Both sense a difference between an AP class and a regular class. Expectations are higher, the material moves faster and the students they are surrounded by are smarter and create a more participatory climate.

“Everyone wants to learn and everyone is there and wants to do well, versus a regular class where you are taking it because you have to take it,” Lustig said. “I kind of wish every class was like that even if it wasn’t without the stigma of AP.”

Testing: The final product

The movie made Doyle look closer at the structure of her classes, and came away convinced the emphasis is on the test.

“If it’s not on the AP test, we don’t learn it,” Lustig said. “Even if it’s something cool.”

Jacobs is not as convinced.

“I feel like the focus has been put on there, but it’s put there by you,” he said. “I don’t feel like the teacher puts the focus on there, but you know if you want to get a good grade in the class, you must focus on the test. Everything must be about the test. I don’t think it’s intentional. I think it’s just there.”

Stress Release

All three students believe participating in one of the many extracurricular outlets at LFHS provides a much-needed outlet. Jacobs went out for swimming this winter and is contemplating water polo in the spring.

“Swimming is like the most fun I have all day,” Jacobs said. “That’s what I look forward to all day.”

Lustig and Doyle both participated in sports last year, but not this year. Their focus is more in the theater/music area, though both have taken a break this semester to focus on their classes.

“It’s also a big social thing,” Lustig said. “You wouldn’t make friends if you weren’t in anything. The people who don’t do anything probably get better grades than we do, but we have more fun.”

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