“Are you, are you, coming to the tree?”
Chilling. These words, from Jennifer Lawrence’s rebel ballad in The Hunger Games, have burned themselves deeply into this school teacher’s psyche. But why?
You may remember the scene: While running from the Capitol forces, Lawrence’s character, Katniss, stops and sits alongside a river. She sings these lyrics among the mockingjays, harmonizing her voice to the whistle of the birds. The song is glorious. The message is bone chilling.
Watch and listen here:
What does the song represent? And, why oh why, does this song roll, over and over, in my mind, as I walk up and down the aisles of my classroom, watching my students dissolve into their exam booklets, during the long hours as I administer the required state tests? Why does this melody bring such a sense of sadness and hope, all at once?
In The Testing Games that we call ‘American Public Education’, what is our hanging tree?
“Are you, are you? Coming to the tree?”
Many have attempted to decipher the meaning of this question in the ballad. One Huff Post contributing writer, Julie Wherry, describes: “This is the singer beckoning the audience to return not necessarily to a physical place, but rather a state of mind and remembrance of a purpose (to be free) and of who the “real enemy” is.”
Now, that description makes sense to me. The ballad is a beckoning: a call to return to a state of mind, the hanging tree. So, when Katniss repeats, “Are you, are you, coming to the tree,” she is asking, ‘Are you willing to stand up and fight with me, no matter the cost? Are you willing to be brave?’
Are you coming to the tree? I am.
In fact, I would say, I have gone as far as taking out a pocket knife and engraving my name, conspicuously, on the trunk of that tree. The life I have been living, lately, certainly feels like the life of one running to her hanging tree. Let me explain.
I am a public school teacher in Florida. There are a few things you can’t say here, by Governor decree. Climate Change is one.
See, I said it. I am a rebel. Carve that into my tree.
Another phrase highly discouraged happens to involve the same initials – CC. No not Climate Change, but it is something just as controversial these days: Common Core. See. I did it again. Saying those two words in Florida equal a big ‘no no’. Our state leaders have, in fact, in an act of all great deception, I mean wisdom, re-branded those two words. Now, we educators are to use the phrase: Florida Standards.
Works for me – I just call it the F word. You can carve that into my tree, too.
Honestly, though, those words are not my fear. The initials I have carved into my hanging tree – the words that will not only save me, but doom me, involve the letter O.
Two O’s, to be specific … Opt Out.
I know. I know. I am climbing up my hanging tree to say this, but I feel the need to return to what I believe. I believe we should end the toxic overuse of high stakes testing in our public schools. I believe we should end all contracts with testing corporations, such as Panem, I mean Pearson, and spend the billions of dollars on our children instead. I believe we should spend that money on needed programs such as art integration, physical education, diversity and cultural awareness, occupational mentorships, language immersion programs … anything but tests. I believe in authentic education. I believe in local control. I believe the local schools belong to each and every parent. I believe local schools are essential to the success of our country. I believe this is why I went into teaching twenty five years ago and I believe it is time to return to my core.
And, yes, despite the consequences of my admitting this out loud, I believe in the right to opt out of high stakes testing.
There, I said it. Sound the alarm. Burn down the tree.
“Strange things did happen here …”
The meaning of this particular song lyric has also raised many questions. Huff Post Wherry continues: “This is acknowledgment of what humans do to oppress, control, and exploit each other and the atrocities that result when people fight against this oppression for their freedom.”
I agree. It is a strange acknowledgement when you discover the means some will take to reach their ends, especially when their ends, such as privatizing public schools, are so profitable.
But, this line of the song sparks even greater meaning to me as a parent. As a parent, especially, of a child who chose to opt out of Florida’s FSA test this year, I have seen many strange things. I have seen letters full of threats straight from our FL Commssioner. I have seen communities torn apart over the fight for every dollar attached to the testing. I have seen organizations of individuals pit against one another. I have seen brother turn against brother, in the ultimate betrayal of solidarity.
I have seen the tree cut down and chopped into bits.
So, when in the song, Katniss sings of strange things happening, I have to wonder? Could the revolution be those strange things? After all, like the people of the many districts of Panem who have been living with the horror of their Hunger Games for quite awhile, our American public has suffered under harmful education reforms for decades. Just as the Capitol has worked hard to maintain control of the people, and has been very successful in that undertaking, leaders like Jeb Bush and Arne Duncan have made the act of oppressing parents, and students, an art form. Like in The Hunger Games, the idea of revolting, or refusing, just never seemed plausible to the people … until now.
Many would agree, the opt out movement among parents, teachers, and students is, certainly, a strange situation to imagine. Who could ever imagine that American parents would have to face legal threats, and down right intimidation, to exercise their freedom to refuse a standardized test for their child? That concept just seems preposterous, doesn’t it? Yet, that is exactly the strange situation, wherein we lie.
After years and years of No Child Left Behind rolled into The Race to the Top, the American public finally believes they can put an end to the testing insanity. Getting control of their local public schools once again seems plausible. And, while education reformers are intent on shaping students into diligent test takers, ones who will compete endlessly, and blindly, to achieve a higher score and label for life, parents are more intent on protecting their children from these destructive policies than ever before.
Parents know the truth: to force students to compete, knowing their school’s funding, their teacher’s job, and their community’s real estate values depend on their ability to pick the best answer from the better answer on a multiple choice test, is abuse.
It is their personal, unforgivable, hanging tree.
So, in a sense, Katniss is correct: “No stranger would it be / If we met at midnight at the hanging tree.”
Considering the situation, it is not strange, at all, that parents, teachers, students, administrators, and researchers would come together to fight against high stakes testing. Most agree that these high stakes tests, administered repeatedly to students in our public schools, are a serious concern. It is also not strange to consider that, when attacked, individually or as a whole, parents, teachers and others, will join together to fight back against this testing machine.
Like a call to the hanging tree, those opposed to the destruction of public education by means of testing and curriculum mandates, will rally together, win or lose, for the children.
“Where I told you to run, so we’d both be free.”
Read the full series here –> The Testing Games
Welcome back to the Testing Games. This week, in our comparison of current education reform policies to the popular, Hunger Games series, we will dive deep into the heart of the games: The Burn Scene.
The idea came from my ten year old. Driving to school, recently, I turned to my daughter, a self proclaimed, Hunger Games expert, and asked:
“What is your favorite scene in the Hunger Games?”
She responded, “When Katniss says, ‘If we burn, you burn with us.’”
I was speechless. I can not deny: She is absolutely right. That is the pivotal scene of the story. It is the scene in which Katniss, during a fight with the Capitol, uses a bow and arrow to shoot down their hovercrafts. As she retreats back and discovers the Capitol army has bombed a hospital full of children, she turns, defiantly, and yells, “Fire is catching. If we burn, you burn with us.”
It is definitely a powerful scene and begs for comparison in our Testing Games analogies. And, as I must admit, the timing has never been more perfect. You see, we are full blown right in the middle of our Testing Games here in Florida. In fact, my own ten year old daughter recently entered the testing arena: The Florida Standards Assessment (Common Core) State Test.
No doubt, she was well prepared for the test, having sat through a year of test prep, practice, and training. Not to mention, she is in fifth grade. In America, that means she has been playing these Testing Games for years. Thus, she is well aware of the consequences of losing the game. Believe her when she says, the struggle is real.
This year, however, was different than previous years. This year, she broke the seal of the test, put down her pencil, and refused to answer any questions. Simply put, my daughter opted out.
Let me say, upfront, the choice to opt out was her own. While only ten years old, she has been accompanying me to conferences, rallies, and school board meetings for years. Being the daughter of a teacher, and an outspoken teacher at that, she has heard me holler, over and over, about the disadvantages of investing our resources into these high stakes tests. She knows the validity of the test items are being called into question by teachers, parents, and even elected officials.
Make no mistake, my daughter may be young, but she knows. She recognizes that too much time is spent preparing for these state tests and she is tired of it. She knows the tests are not true indicators of her abilities. She has learned how much the tests cost and she wishes we would spend that money on field trips, art supplies, and musical instruments. She may only be ten, but she has an opinion and no qualms about speaking up.
So, despite her fear of upsetting her teachers, and despite her worries of being ostracized by other children, she chose to commit her first act of civil disobedience.
In Florida, her unanswered test is designated as a ‘NR2’. Essentially, she participated in the test, as statutes require, but she gave no response. No data will be collected on her. No penalties for low scores will be sanctioned. Her electives will not be stripped from her next year based on her scores. She will not be pulled out of drama rehearsals for test prep tutoring and she will not miss band practice to take practice tests. She opted out. Period.
While the choice was hers, the decision to allow her to opt out was mine. It was not a decision that I made quickly or without serious consideration. You see, being a teacher, not to mention a teacher who works right down the hall in the same school as her, I know the costs of opting out on a public school. I know the corporate testing industry has lobbied our legislature for years and, as such, has been successful in getting laws passed that tie school funding to these test scores. I know, as an educator, that our teacher evaluations, salaries, and contracts are tied to these scores. Naturally, I was concerned about what the consequences of her actions would be. I didn’t want my daughter suffering under this oppressive testing regime but I also did not want to cause personal or professional harm to her teachers. I certainly did not want to hurt our school funding.
Consequently, I scoured my state statutes, connected with Opt Out groups online, and met with school officials. I learned a NR2 score is a possibility. I discovered rules allowed my daughter to sit down for the test, break the seal, sit and stare through the duration of the exam, but not answer any questions. I learned a NR2 score does not penalize the teacher, student, or school. I knew I had the answer I needed.
However, as more and more parents became aware of the fact that they do, actually, have a choice to use concordant scores or portfolios, our state leaders began pushing back. Twice in the last two months, our school district, via our state Dept of Ed, sent a letter home stating students are required to take the test. Parents were told, repeatedly, that they do not have the right to opt their children out of these state tests, despite clear proof to the contrary.
The frustration is overwhelming, especially as round 2 of testing is quickly approaching. It just makes me want to scream to our leaders: “Do you realize just how hard parents have worked to figure out how to do this without hurting teachers or schools?”
Truly, that is the point. Parents love their public schools and teachers. They just don’t love the manner in which high stakes testing has completely taken over the curriculum. Parents are taking a stand, but they are being careful to do so in a manner that will not backfire on public schools.
They are trying to start a fire without anyone getting burnt.
Seriously, think about it. Think of the consequences to our schools if the opt out parents simply did not care. Imagine the hit to funding if all these parents just kept their children home, absent, on test days. Since funding is tied specifically to attendance during testing, the damage would be serious.
Or worse, imagine if the opt out parents just withdrew their students from public schools altogether. The hit to funding would be catastrophic and certainly would lead to massive school closures. The thought is unthinkable.
I feel the frustration of the parents, especially as I am one of those parents. I feel my daughter’s frustration. It is infuriating to hear our leaders defend this obsession with high stakes testing.
Case in point, just last week, our FL Senate passed a new accountability bill, holding schools and teachers harmless from these test scores, but not our kids.
Not our kids?
It just makes me want to scream. Why would our Senators admit they are concerned with the validity of the tests and take steps to protect schools and teachers, but not our children?
Do our leaders truly want to push parents to the point of no return? I cringe, thinking of the day when parents finally reach their tipping point. If the dystopian Hunger Games are meant as a warning, I sure hope our leaders take note.
Fire is catching …
Read the full series here –> The Testing Games
In a discussion about education on one of our BAT pages today, a parent brought up an important point:
In Florida, when a student scores a 2 or below (out of 4) on the state tests (nearly 70 percent score that low), then that student must take an additional reading and or math class. In high school, that fact makes it impossible for a student to take foreign language (most high schools only offer language classes to advanced students, or the student has no time left in their schedule).
Thus, a student can not apply to state colleges, ie UF, UCF, USF or FSU, because they do not have the prerequisite language. Students end up seeking out for-profit universities. Or, students are forced to take foreign language classes online with Fl Virtual Schools – jeb’s baby. Hence, the same reformers pushing these laws for testing are the same ones profiting.
How does any of this make students College and Career Ready ????
Call me crazy … but, doesn’t it seem like they planned it this way?
Welcome back to The Testing Games, where the odds are never in your favor! In our last episode, we met the comical, hypocritical teacher, Effie Trinket. Today, we take a look at the leader of this game, Master Testing Coordinator, King of Rigor and Keeper of the Games, President Snow:
President Snow: Seneca… why do you think we have a winner?
Seneca Crane: [frowns] What do you mean?
President Snow: I mean, why do we have a winner? I mean, if we just wanted to intimidate the districts, why not round up twenty-four of them at random and execute them all at once? Be a lot faster.
[Seneca just stares, confused]
President Snow: Hope.
Seneca Crane: Hope?
President Snow: Hope. It is the only thing stronger than fear.
Hope, he says, is stronger than fear, but fear is what he utilizes to control the masses. Using propaganda eerily effectively, President Snow, of the blockbuster, The Hunger Games, not only convinces parents to send their children off to slaughter, he somehow has them convinced that their country depends on it. He is a master manipulator, brainwashing parents into believing that competition, at any cost, is good.
Don’t be fooled.
Education experts have long questioned the role of competition in our education system. In our dog eat dog society, it may seem necessary to maintain this value system throughout school, but the opposite is true. Students grow and learn better in an environment of cooperation, not competition.
Consider this analysis:
“One of the primary ways oppression in any and all of its varieties operates is when the dominant group, in this case adults, pit members of minoritized groups, in this case youth, against one another through competition for gold stars and grades, for supposedly scarce resources, for attention, love, and affection, for financial and career success, and, in the metaphor of The Hunger Games, for life itself.”
Pitting children against one another has become the expected status quo in schools today. Even our US President entitled his education plan, The Race to the Top, a program that fosters competition right in its name. US students take countless, standardized, high stakes tests, repeatedly throughout the school year, competing for scores that will give them the competitive edge in life, so they are told. More importantly, like in The Hunger Games, how well the children compete determines how much funding the community will receive. In our Race to the Top, the reward for high test scores is money.
Yes, it is true, in our national Testing Games, public school students must compete to earn the federal funds necessary to run our schools.
“The similarities between standardized testing and The Hunger Games abound. Maybe we don’t stop our lives to watch our kids bubble in answers at their desks for two epic weeks of reading passages and math problems. But it’s undeniable that the nation anxiously awaits the results of those trials (Ross, 2012).”
Many parents and teachers agree this system is immoral. But, even further, we must ask: Is this competition truly effective? Does it foster learning and growth? Many experts in education argue that the answer is no. I agree. Consider this source:
“In terms of education, however, philosopher and author Alfie Kohn calls for a radical rethinking of the competitive structure on which our educational system is based, away from what he calls the “I win, therefore, you lose” viewpoint.”
I agree. This environment of competition is toxic. After decades in the classroom, I am fully sold on the idea that collaboration between students is the best way to teach. From Kagan to CRISS strategies, teaching students to work in groups, helping kids to communicate effectively, and modeling how to share ideas with respect, is primary for teachers who want to lead students in a healthy, collaborative classroom environment.
As Kohn describes, we need to move students away from this concept of “I win, therefore, you lose.” Much like in any organization, our goal should be to lead students to “Win, Win, Win” solutions.
Getting to the win, however, is impossible in today’s high stakes, testing environment. Embedded in, both, The Race to the Top and No Child Left Behind, is the fact that not every student can win. Inherent in The Testing Games is the concept that hope is a promise, but success for all students is impossible. As in wars and fights, one must win, and so one must lose.
But, public education is not meant to be a war and our children should not have to fight each other to succeed. Students do not need to be pit against one another to have hope.
“Kohn refers to competition as a “disease,” an “addiction,” a “poison” on which we are raised, something trained and not born into us. He argues that students and workers can enjoy, learn, and produce more with other people rather than against them, and he advocates for cooperative education”
Cooperative education is the answer. Competition is not the path we want to force our children down. Competition does not foster hope for all … it fosters despair. Rather than encouraging students to reach their highest potential, educators are left trying to squash their dreams into bubbled shaped circles on tests.
Parents and educators need to change the game:
“ In other words, we need to dismantle the walls constructed by individuals, institutions, and societies that stand only for the purpose of maintaining power and control over others.”
Read the full series here –> The Testing Games
Dismantle the walls of testing. Know your options.
Welcome back to The Testing Games. Many of you joined me yesterday as I volunteered myself up as a tribute to our President, offering to take this year’s state test in the place of my daughter. While I never did hear back from our President, the response from my readers was overwhelming. Thank you.
I appreciate knowing that I am not the only one who watches The Hunger Games and thinks, wait, is this fantasy or reality obscured? As I have said before, I find uncanny similarities between the chaos in the story and our country’s public education system.
I call it The Testing Games, and for good reason. Much like the children in the bestseller, students in today’s schools must compete against each other to survive, taking test, after test, after test. In the US, our Race to the Top education policy pits children against each other in a competition, all to increase scores and earn additional funding for their schools. It is high pressure, high stakes, and highly immoral, in my opinion.
The feedback I received on my last blog got me thinking. While I have been making Hunger Game analogies for years, I wondered if any one else has ever written on this subject of public education as a dystopian reality. So, I went searching. What I found was a little disturbing.
A simple Google search of the key terms ‘Hunger Games’ and ‘testing’ led me to quite a few teacher websites. Initially, I had hope. However, on closer examination, I was disappointed to find many teachers use The Hunger Games theme to motivate their students to do better on tests. One teacher even produced a video, directing her students to play the various characters in the story. Rather than highlighting the hypocrisy of testing, however, she encouraged her students to buckle down and work harder, fight harder … to win.
Ugh. Not what I was looking for.
Then, I saw it. On one of the teacher’s websites, I found a comment wall. Three years ago, a woman by the name of Caroline Persons left one comment that still remains unanswered. Buried deep on that site, lies an insightful analysis of one of the most memorable characters from The Hunger Games: Effie Trinket.
I have borrowed clips of the comment below. The tenor struck deep to my core as a teacher. The comparison drawn is important enough to give all teachers reason to pause. The commentary begins:
“Maybe another similarity can be found with Effie Trinket. Effie stresses over status and always stays fashionable, and she worries over trivial things. She criticizes people for their lack of “Manners, manners!” and frets over strict adherence to schedule, while Katniss and Peeta worry about being killed.”
Ah, Yes, Effie Trinket. Remember her in the movie? In the reaping scene, her bright clothes and elaborate makeup are in sharp contrast to the pale, dusty background of the district. She looks like a clown, which is fitting, because only someone with no depth or empathy could parade around applauding such a horrid game.
We are meant to be captivated by, yet despise, Effie. Trifling Effie … but, wait. Is Effie meant to make us question ourselves? The commentary continues:
“In the lens of ego, she [Effie] may be a metaphor for teachers who fret so much about their own performance they focus more on test scores than students’ learning and well-being.”
See. Now, that strikes a chord. As a teacher, I have to stop and look within. Am I Effie Trinket? Am I more concerned with getting high scores, and consequently bonuses and recognition? Am I, like Effie, willing to just plaster on a smile and blatantly lie right to the face of children? Do I reek of privilege, unable to see my students individually as human beings, rather than just data points on a wall?
No, I see the hypocrisy ingrained in Effie’s character. She is dressed like a clown because that is what she represents. Blind allegiance, no matter the cost. No, I am no Effie. In fact, Effie infuriates me. I have a hard time forgiving teachers like Effie. But, I read on:
“Looking at her through fear, she may represent teachers who are too scared to stray beyond teaching for the test. Effie might be doing this all because it’s the only way of life she knows.”
Ahh, that point, I understand. Testing has become so systematic in our schools that, for many, testing is all they remember. Accountability has become such a major focus in our schools, many can not even remember a time when students did not have to take standardized tests, over and over, and over again.
Many do not remember a time when they, themselves, were not labeled with a number. The No Child Left Behind generation has grown up and moved on. Many still, silently, wear their badges of shame or honor, depending on score. Being labeled with a number early in life is hard to shake. Perhaps, perhaps it is all they know.
Or, maybe, as Persons explains, maybe teachers are just scared. Maybe they are afraid of losing their jobs due to low test scores. Maybe teachers are terrified to find themselves left behind, holding overpriced teaching degrees that don’t guarantee any opportunities in the world outside of education. Maybe they are scared to death of being embarrassed, of the public disgrace.
I understand scared. Many of us do.
But, does being afraid justify blind allegiance to a system of high stakes testing, a system that we know reinforces the inequities already strangling our public school children?
Does being conditioned to testing justify the excessive amounts of testing, the continued labeling of children as failures?
Does putting on a fake smile, while we cheer our students on to do their best on the tests, make it ok?
Do students look at teachers, like we look at Effie, and wonder, what the eff ?
*Food for Thought – For Those Who Hunger *
“Or Effie could be the parent who treats their child like a trophy, blinded so much by their own pride they neglect to see their child and student as the person they are.”
Read the full series here –> The Testing Games
“Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.” ~Friedrich Nietzsche
Here in Florida, our public school students are engaged in what I like to refer to as The Testing Games. Based upon the recent blockbuster, The Hunger Games, I have taken to making comparisons between the battlefield in the movie and the school environment that we have established for our students. The similarities are uncanny.
The obvious comparison is the idea that education is some form of competition. We know this concept is a popular one, just based upon the fact that our own US President named his education reform, The Race to the Top. In this race, states are encouraged to create education policies based on test scores. Student promotion, teacher evaluations, and school grades are all based on test scores. Funding is then tied to the student achievement. In simple terms, how well the students race decides how much money the schools get in funding.
Talk about pressure on children. Walking into school on these test days is eerily as overwhelming to students as the anxiety felt by the young warriors headed out to fight in The Hunger Games. While our students “test for funding”, the warriors in the film had to fight to win food for their district. Just as our students know low test scores can cause them to be retained or to drop out, often ending their academic lives, the young warriors in the movie knew they were also in a fight for their lives.
And, let’s not forget, in our twisted reality, The Testing Games, children are forced into this competitive arena of multiple choice tests as early as kindergarten.
I say, enough is enough. So, here is my request to our President:
In The Hunger Games, the main character, Katniss, volunteered to fight in the place of her little sister. She knew her sister was too young and the consequences were too dire. So, in a selfless act of courage, she volunteered herself. Even in this horrible, dystopian world, the characters were given options.
So, I have to ask. Do we have options? Mr. President, can we volunteer ourselves?
As a teacher, can I volunteer to take these tests in the place of my students? After all, if you truly want to judge the effectiveness of teachers, shouldn’t you be testing me?
No? Not an option?
Well, then maybe, Sir, you might let me volunteer in the place of my daughter? May I sign into school as a parent, on test days, and take the test for her? Do I have that right as a parent to absorb the harmful effects of this testing abuse for my daughter?
Can I be brave for her? May I take her abuse intead, please? Like Katniss, I stand before you with my hand raised.
I volunteer as a tribute, Sir. I volunteer. Will you let me?
After all, the odds are never in their favor.
Read the full series here –> The Testing Games
When we tried to stop Senate Bill 6, they said we would never get the veto. We did. When we started wearing red for education, they said it would never catch on. It did. When we went to our local school boards and spoke up about testing, they said no one would ever hear us. They did. Now, we have our Tallahassee leaders considering changes to testing, and folks are telling us not to hold our breaths?
Remember, Florida: No one wanted any of this in the first place.
Happy New Years to all !
I hope 2015 rings in with blessings for you and yours. As a writing teacher and mother, I am always encouraging young folks to write down a few New Year’s Resolutions. So, in the spirit of the day, I will outline a few of my own resolutions, specific to my activism in education. Here they are . . .
In 2015, as a teacher and a mother, resolve to :
- Refuse to be silent when I see systematic inequities built into our public education system.
- Use my pedestal to amplify the voices of others who fight for what is right, no matter how hard.
- Speak up for myself and others, even in the face of irrational criticism and hypocrisy.
- Write more. Reflect more. Research more.
- Holler More. Do More.
Do you have any resolutions for 2015? Please post in comments below.
Remember: If speaking up for what is right means you must speak up alone, do it.
“To me, being a badass teacher means although you might have the luxury to pretend to be colorblind you have chosen not to. You have chosen to embrace your responsibility to help your students understand and fight racism. You have decided to be an ally to people of color and use your white privilege to dismantle racism. Not everyone will agree that this is what it means to be badass. And you can be in BATs and not believe anything I said and not believe that you have a responsibility to deal with any of it. But BATs is taking on that responsibility with or without you. We hope you choose to join us because with the support of over 51,000 members we can take on this challenge and do whatever it takes to make sure that none of our students and children becomes the next Michael Brown.”
~Dr. Denisha Jones, BadAssTeacher