When a poet can't answer standardized test questions about her own poems, kids are screwed.

This poet's struggle with test questions analyzing her work verifies what many of us have long suspected.

For the record, I enjoy literary analysis. In fact, I loved studying literature and poetry in school so much that I became an English teacher myself.

However, there are elements of such studies that have never sat well with me.


Most of us learned to dissect poems and pick apart novels to find hidden meanings, process metaphors, and search for an author's intent and purpose in their work. And at some point, most of us have probably questioned whether or not those authors would agree with our overwrought assessments. Even I—someone who enjoys such analyses and have taught kids to do them—have wondered whether we sometimes push it too far.

TL; DR: Maybe our over-analysis of poetry and literature is kinda bunk.

Kids can develop valuable critical thinking skills through such exercises, but we veer toward the cliff when we start assigning correct and incorrect answers to them. Exploring different interpretations of a written work is one thing. Assigning a specific intent to a writer as if it's indisputable fact is entirely another—which is where the problem of standardized tests comes in.

Poet Sara Holbrook has had her poems analyzed not once, but twice, on standardized tests. She says it's b.s.

In 2017, Holbrook wrote an article for the HuffPost about her experience trying to answer questions about two of her poems that had shown up on a Texas standardized test.

One test question asked why she, the poet, had separated one of the poems into two stanzas. There were two major problems with the question: 1) The test makers mistakenly printed the poem without the stanza break, so there weren't two stanzas shown. And 2) None of the given answers were the actual reason Holbrook created a stanza break. She's a performance poet and she put the break where she paused when reciting the poem aloud. But no one asked her for her reasoning, and the real answer was not one of the test question options.

Another question asked why Holbrook used a certain simile. In answering the question herself, Holbrook says three of the four answers are correct—but only one is considered the right answer for the test makers.

This year, Holbrook faces yet another standardized test conundrum. In test prep materials from Mentoring Minds, LP, her 40-word poem titled "Walking on the Boundaries of Change" has a whopping eight questions associated with it.

Peter Greene, who interviewed Holbrook for Forbes and has seen the test prep booklet, wrote, "once again, the questions turn on the issue of word choice, central message, and which part of the poem does things 'best,' all of which hinge on the test taker's interpretation of the poet's intent. And all are multiple choice questions with four possible answers, the kind of test structure that, Holbrook says, causes 'students to grow up believing the right interpretation of anything is out there on the internet, and to discredit their own thoughts.'"

How are kids supposed to stand a chance in this reality? How does a love of literature survive such a boxing in?

Holbrook advises that educators and parents stop putting any stock in the "nonsense" these tests perpetuate.

Standardized tests can be appropriate measurement tools for objective knowledge, such as math or science or the structure of language. But the craft of writing does not lend itself well to right or wrong, one-correct-answer assessments—especially when they try to assume a writer's intent without even consulting the writer themselves.

Such tests can cause real harm to kids, especially—and perhaps ironically—those who instinctively understand the nuances and intricacies of poetry and literature. These tests are a quick way to suck the love of learning right out of intelligent, thinking students.

Holbrook told Greene that there are several solutions to this issue:

"Parents, demand to see the test prep materials. Teachers, don't waste time on test prep: you can't teach nonsense. Administrators, take the money you are spending on test prep and spend it on classroom libraries instead. There are no quick fixes. Kids need to read and write voluminously...If a bike helmet fails to protect a child from injury, consumers can sue the manufacturer. These tests are injurious, but shrouded in secrecy and thereby beyond the reach of most teachers and all parents."

As Holbrook wrote in her HuffPost article:

"The only way to stop this nonsense is for parents to stand up and say, no more. No more will I let my kid be judged by random questions scored by slackers from Craigslist while I pay increased taxes for results that could just as easily have been predicted by an algorithm. That’s not education, that’s idiotic."

As an educator, a parent, and a lover of the written word, I 100% agree.

More

Disney has come under fire for problematic portrayals of non-white and non-western cultures in many of its older movies. They aren't the only one, of course, but since their movies are an iconic part of most American kids' childhoods, Disney's messaging holds a lot of power.

Fortunately, that power can be used for good, and Disney can serve as an example to other companies if they learn from their mistakes, account for their misdeeds, and do the right thing going forward. Without getting too many hopes up, it appears that the entertainment giant may have actually done just that with the new Frozen II film.

According to NOW Toronto, the producers of Frozen II have entered into a contract with the Sámi people—the Indigenous people of the Scandinavian regions—to ensure that they portray the culture with respect.

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Though there was not a direct portrayal of the Sámi in the first Frozen movie, the choral chant that opens the film was inspired by an ancient Sámi vocal tradition. In addition, the clothing worn by Kristoff closely resembled what a Sámi reindeer herder would wear. The inclusion of these elements of Sámi culture with no context or acknowledgement sparked conversations about cultural appropriation and erasure on social media.

Frozen II features Indigenous culture much more directly, and even addressed the issue of Indigenous erasure. Filmmakers Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck, along with producer Peter Del Vecho, consulted with experts on how to do that respectfully—the experts, of course, being the Sámi people themselves.

Sámi leaders met with Disney producer Peter Del Vecho in September 2019.Sámediggi Sametinget/Flickr

The Sámi parliaments of Norway, Sweden and Finland, and the non-governmental Saami Council reached out to the filmmakers when they found out their culture would be highlighted in the film. They formed a Sámi expert advisory group, called Verddet, to assist filmmakers in with how to accurately and respectfully portray Sámi culture, history, and society.

In a contract signed by Walt Disney Animation Studios and Sámi leaders, the Sámi stated their position that "their collective and individual culture, including aesthetic elements, music, language, stories, histories, and other traditional cultural expressions are property that belong to the Sámi," and "that to adequately respect the rights that the Sámi have to and in their culture, it is necessary to ensure sensitivity, allow for free, prior, and informed consent, and ensure that adequate benefit sharing is employed."

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Disney agreed to work with the advisory group, to produce a version of Frozen II in one Sámi language, as well as to "pursue cross-learning opportunities" and "arrange for contributions back to the Sámi society."

Anne Lájla Utsi, managing director at the International Sámi Film Institute, was part of the Verddet advisory group. She told NOW, "This is a good example of how a big, international company like Disney acknowledges the fact that we own our own culture and stories. It hasn't happened before."

"Disney's team really wanted to make it right," said Utsi. "They didn't want to make any mistakes or hurt anybody. We felt that they took it seriously. And the film shows that. We in Verddet are truly proud of this collaboration."

Sounds like you've done well this time, Disney. Let's hope such cultural sensitivity and collaboration continues, and that other filmmakers and production companies will follow suit.

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