Monday, January 12, 2015

A Return to The Testing Games – Part 2: What the Eff ?

By:  Bonnie Cunard Margolin

Originally posted on her blog:  

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 makingHunger 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 GamesEffie 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 the 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 ?
Screenshot 2015-01-12 at 9.59.53 PM
*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.”

Know the Odds – Know Your Options
“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

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