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The Hungry Games

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On a recent weekday morning, in the neighborhood school of a low-income community in a major American city, co-teachers John Smith and Mary Wilson (not their real names) arrange the desks in their room into clusters of four and finalize their plans for the day.

At 8:30am, the hallways fill with the sounds of their students. The air is close and sticky, and the earliest arrivals help their teachers pry open the room's large windows to generate a breeze.

Like schools everywhere - even the ones with the most challenging circumstances - Mr. Smith's and Ms. Wilson's 5th grade classroom gradually fills with young people of promise, unrest, fire, and genius. Unlike schools everywhere, this classroom has just eight students today, a reflection of the fact that it's both raining and a Friday. "I knew we'd be low, but I didn't think we'd be this low," Ms. Wilson confesses. "That's alright," says a particularly bright 11-year-old girl, anticipating that the lower attendance will lead to higher productivity. "None of them need to come."

After spending some time on vocabulary and grammar, Mr. Smith transitions the class into a group reading exercise; for several weeks, they've been making their way through Suzanne Collins' bestseller, The Hunger Games. "Let's pick up where we left off yesterday," he says, "and the good thing about so many people being out today is that everybody will get a copy of the book."

The students alternate reading paragraphs from the story. Some read flawlessly; others read haltingly. But it's clear the class is engaged and interested in these fictional young people who have been chosen at random to entertain their futuristic society in a fight in which only one survivor can emerge.

Just as the conversation starts to take off, a female teacher walks into the room holding a stack of papers and abruptly interrupts the conversation. "These are end-of-year assessments for math," she barks at the room. "You need to administer them today."

It's clear no one had any advance warning that this was going to happen. One student voices his disappointment that the flow of the day needs to be altered for yet another pen-and-paper test. "You have to take it," the interloper yells back at him. "That's it. There's no choice of whether or not you want to!"

The woman leaves, and Mr. Smith does his best to wrap up their discussion of the book. As he does, I realize how apt the story is for these children, and this community. Although they are not literally made to suffer for our collective entertainment, they are living in a society that has made their advancement as difficult as surviving a battle royal. And although no one is literally tuning in to watch them die, ours is a society that has become inoculated to the steady reports of murdered black and brown children amidst the background noise of our nightly newscasts.

This is the context in which teachers like Mr. Smith and Ms. Wilson come to work each day. They and others like them have managed to create classroom cultures in which their students feel something too many of us take for granted: safety, security and support. And they are doing so in spite of the larger system in which they work, not because of it.

When will we stop tolerating the inequities that communities like these are forced to overcome? When will we commit to ensure that no child comes to school hungry or at risk? And when will the steady deaths of our least fortunate children awaken in us a rage that fuels our commitment to craft a different sort of society?

I have no easy answers, but I know there are coalitions out there working to achieve these goals - from ASCD's Whole Child Initiative to the Schott Foundation's Opportunity to Learn campaign. And there are organizations, too - from Turnaround for Children to the School Development Program - that are working actively to bridge the gaps between what children need (especially children in high-poverty communities), and what schools are able to provide.

What these efforts share is something our state and national policies lack - an awareness of the developmental needs of children. "You have to understand the real scope of need in a school in order to diagnose and dose correctly," says Pamela Cantor, the founder of Turnaround for Children and a veteran child psychiatrist. "A healthy school becomes just like a healthy immune system -- it prevents risk and nurtures resilience in kids."

The first step in creating such a place, Cantor believes, is to bring back the very things that are the most likely to be cut during budget crises - health and mental health services. That's because Cantor is convinced that the connective tissue capable of engendering a lasting school-wide culture change is the same thing I saw in Mr. Smith's and Ms. Wilson's classroom: deep relational bonds between adults and children.

A similar understanding drives the work of Dr. James Comer and his School Development Program. The focus of reform, Comer believes, should not be basic-skills test scores, but the capacity of adults to develop healthy relationship experiences for children that help them grow along six developmental pathways -- social, emotional, ethical, cognitive, linguistic and physical. When schools do this well, he says, "they provide all children, and poor children in particular, with the kind of social capital most mainstream students receive before and outside of school. That's why our process is not a project or add-on, but an operating system for the school itself -- and a way of managing, organizing, coordinating, and integrating programs and activities."

It's impossible to know precisely what would happen if campaigns like ASCD's and Schott's received more of our support, and efforts like Cantor's and Comer's became less of an exception to the rule. But I can make two predictions, both of which would go a long way toward helping us fulfill our centuries-old promise of liberty and justice for all: the students I met last week would no longer need to share their copies of The Hunger Games; and none of them would see in its dystopian plotline a description of their daily reality.

"What advice can you give me before the game starts?" asks the book's protagonist, Katniss, of her mentor. "Stay alive," he says tersely. Later that night, on the eve of the games, Katniss feels the constricting closeness of the environment that surrounds her. "I'm not looking to escape," she says, "only to fill my lungs with air. I want to see the sky and the moon on the last night that no one will be hunting me."

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