The Kids are Still All Right, Despite What Accelerated Reader Might Say

It’s that time of year again!  Renaissance Learning has released their annual nonsensical study and the media is gobbling it up and spitting out soundbites.  For the next few days we will read about how students are reading at lower levels, there is not enough rigor in English classes, and the world is going to hell in a handbasket as a result. It’s an annual frenzy that dies down after just a few days.  But somewhere out there, a school will purchase a reading program because of the furor around this issue and students will suffer as a result.

I wrote about this last year.  And I’ve written about my problems with AR before.

But seriously, can we stop pretending that the people behind Accelerated Reader don’t have an agenda? Can we stop acting like they are some impartial judge?  Come on, guys.  If Johnson and Johnson posted a study, performed in their lab, saying that Tylenol was the only medication that stopped headaches we would laugh.  Of course they say that, consumers would argue. They want to us to buy their product!

So why is it any different when Renaissance, a for-profit education company that reported $130 million in annual revenue in 2010, earned off the backs of students and teachers, says they have the answers to the reading woes of the world??

According to NPR, “For the fifth year in a row, the educational company used its Accelerated Reader program to track what kids are reading in grades one through 12.” This year’s controversy (centered around a small sample size)?  Students are reading books below their grade level.

Last year, almost all of the top 40 books read in grades nine through 12 were well below grade level. The most popular books, the three books in The Hunger Games series, were assessed to be at the fifth-grade level.

Cue the moaning and weeping because students are reading The Hunger Games instead of Anna Karenina.

You know what?  I’m ok with that.  Classics are classics because they are a common, shared experience.  In most cases, that means they are being read in class and discussed.  I don’t know many teachers who use AR and allow their students to take the ridiculous tests and earn points for class reads.  AR is suposed to be used as a management tool for independent reading, not class reading.  Teachers design their own assessments for whole class novels.  Not to mention, I see classics on the list.  And my own students read plenty of classics alongside their contemporary novels.

So I’m not shocked that students are reading pleasure books for AR.  According to the study, “Renaissance Learning recognizes that not all book reading that happens in or outside of the classroom is captured through the Accelerated Reader software; however, it is reasonable to assume that for users of AR much book reading is captured in this way.”  What an assumption to make!  Let me tell you- in my experience that was not the case.  If it was the case, students told me they were not allowed to read any other books because their schools told them they could only read their selected AR reading level and would not allow them to borrow other books.

And that’s the key here.  The study only tracks books students log for Accelerated Reader, a program that schools pay for.  And a program that ties students to a single reading level for the year (or semester).  Pre-test and post-test.  Not a lot of movement in between.  Want to try a more complex book?  Sorry!  That’s above your reading level!

Accelerated Reader is a carrot-and-stick program, a rewards based one that allots points for every book a child reads (after they take a ridiculous, low-level comprehension quiz). Schools and teachers provide the quizzes, after purchasing them, and tell students what level they should be reading.  Books are then leveled according to AR’s readability test.

Schools tend to assign students to a band of points they must earn in order to succeed.  For example, a reader at level J might need to earn 35-40 AR points per marking period.  Students are responsible for finding AR-leveled books, either at school or at their library.  They then take the quiz and earn the points.  It doesn’t take long for students to realize that the easier, low-level point books help them finish this inane assignment faster.  And for many students, their options are limited to the books and tests readily available to them at school.  This means a district must purchase the texts and the sets of comprehension quizzes in a day and age when budgets are tight and orders are hard to come by.  I have  students who tell me that their middle school library stopped ordered new books before they arrived there thanks to budget cuts.  As a result, they were limited to the books on the shelves for their AR points.  Not a lot of room for choice.

But that’s not even the worst part.  The study mentioned above notes that students in high school are reading books well below their “AR level”.  Accelerated Reader levels each text using the ATOS readability formula, which scans vocabulary and sentence complexity to assign a grade level.  Themes and content are not taken into account.

I decided to take a look at some of the whole-class novels read in my school to see where they stack up.  I teach at the #1 STEM high school in the nation and my students are very, very gifted.  They aren’t all enthusiastic readers, but they test well and have the scores to prove it.  They attend Ivy League colleges and other top universities.  I’d say we do a pretty decent job of preparing them for college and the real world. So how does our reading stack up?

Antigone- 5th grade reading level

Romeo and Juliet- 8th grade reading level

Things Fall Apart- 6th grade reading level

Zeitoun- 6th grade reading level

I honestly laughed as I was pulling up these stats, directly from AR’s website.  Zeitoun is written at a 6th grade level? Antigone at a 5th grade level?  The themes and content are not appropriate for those students! But I guess it’s ok if the vocabulary and sentence construction are appropriate for 5th graders.

Look, to put in in STEM terms, the AR readability leveling is like saying, “Hey!  Calculus uses numbers and letters.  5th graders know how to count and can recite the alphabet.  Thus, they should just know how to solve a complex calculus problem!”

Ridiculous, right?

So why are we giving any weight to this study?  And it doesn’t even make any sense!  It bemoans students reading The Hunger Games because it’s rated at a 5th grade level and calls for them to read more Shakespeare and classics.  But then I pulled up classics, like Chaucer’s Prologue to the Canterbury Tales and I had to laugh.  Reading level?  Fifth grade. The study decries the lack of rigor in student reading and calls for more classics, but then the lists of common 9-12 books show plenty of classics.  It’s clickbait and nothing more.  Get districts riled up and they will then turn to AR as a way to get kids reading.  Hmm, sounds like a great way to increase profits….

And while the complete report touches on the fact that language has been streamlined over the past 200 years, none of the articles mention that.  Many classics are ranked at high reading levels because language was complex when the books were written.  Sentences might be 50 words long!  Today, that’s wordy and discouraged.  And guess what?  Texts were more complex back then because education was only for the rich.  The harder it was to read and comprehend, the less of a chance that the  poor would have time to learn to read and then pick up those books.  The lower classes were needed to work in factories and in the fields.  They were not needed in classrooms. Times have changed, Renaissance, and that needs to be taken into account when you put together your study.

I am a voracious reader.  In the last month I have read adult best-sellers, YA, middle grade, and nonfiction.  I’ve read books that I’ve struggled with and books I’ve flown through.  Why should students be treated any differently?  Share reading experiences and books together, help them climb reading ladders.  Encourage teachers to be visible readers.  And lose the carrot-and-stick approach.  The millions of dollars being thrown at Renaissance Learning would buy a lot books for students to read.  Surround students with books, allow them to make reading choices, and read with them.  Encourage discussions, book talks, and debates instead of dioramas, worksheets, and AR quizzes.

I survey my students every year.  You know what they say encourages them to read, without fail? Book talks and talking to all of their teachers about books.  Not one student has ever said, “Man, I wish we had Accelerated Reader”.  And that tells me everything I need to know.

 

Visual Literacy and Reflecting about Reading

Be sure to check out my new article on Edutopia.org!

 

edutopia article

 

Beyond the Book: Infographics of Students’ Reading History

Read Forever: By Hook or by Crook, By Book or By Nook

For months I have been reading Tweets, blog posts, and forum postings that divide the world into two camps- those who like e-readers and those who think they will be the end of books.  I admit- I was anti-e-reader for a while.  But then I got my iphone and ipad and realized the wonder of being able to carry a few books with me at all times, without the heavy pile.  I took my ipad on my cruise and read something like 10 books over the course of the week.  I never would have been able to carry them all with me on the plane.  So I am an e-reader convert!

I also have a lot of students who move easily between e-readers and books.  They have no preference, but I certainly see them reading more because their e-reader is always accessible.  And how can I not love that?

Needless to say, I absolutely ADORE the new Barnes and Noble Nook commercial called “Read Forever”.  We can all get along.  Just read forever.

Fresh Reads for Freshmen

Now that I am teaching high school, I realized I had to change the name of my sort-of-monthly title sharing posts.  I realize I haven’t updated since last winter, but that is changing.  Now that I can use Goodreads with my students, I have constant access to what they are reading, what they think about it, and what they are planning to read.  It’s not as good as a one-on-one conference, but it helps me out a lot.

So without further ado, I introduce “Fresh Reads for Freshman”!

Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World- My students attend a magnet-like school and many of them read above grade-level. Their interests are also very particular, so I have a wide variety of books being read. Many of my students, especially boys, gravitate toward nonfiction. This is just one of the many nonfiction books being read in my room at this time. I am also seeing copies of Germany 1945: From War to Peace, The Dangerous World of Butterflies: The Startling Subculture of Criminals, Collectors, and Conservationists, and Baseball in ’41: A Celebration of the .  Nonfiction is definitely more popular with my freshmen than it ever was with my sixth-graders!

But there is also a lot of fiction being read.  My ARCs are traveling around the room like wildfire.  (Sidenote- ARCs are magic.  Tell a reluctant reader that they can read a book months before anyone else, and all of a sudden they are are salivating over the book.  Coupled with how competitive my students naturally are, and it’s a perfect match!)  Right now, I am watching my ARC of Matched fly through the room. Every few days I see it on another student’s desk. And they are raving about it! Also making the rounds? Daisy Whitney’s The Mockingbirds. And I haven’t seen my copy of Sapphique in ages!

One of my students picked up my copy of Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly. She couldn’t stop talking about it and convinced me to move it to the top of my pile. Now, I can’t put it down!

And the most popular series? The Hunger Games! My students are devouring the entire series. It’s awesome!

A few other books my students are reading, to give you an idea of their diversity:
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
The Heroes of Olympus, Book One: The Lost Hero
Skeleton Creek
The Knife of Never Letting Go: Chaos Walking: Book One
13 Little Blue Envelopes



The Fate of Reading

Yesterday on Twitter I followed a link to Musing of a Book Addict’s post Venting About The Fate of Reading and Reading Teachers.  As I read her post, I felt myself growing more and more frustrated.  Sandra laid out her own anger with the canned and scripted reading program she is expected to use with her 7th and 8th graders this year.  While I despise scripted programs this part angered me the most:

If they finish a lesson early they may read one of the following books from the program’s library: The Tiger Rising, Johny Hangtime, Bird, The Boy Who Saved Baseball, Night of the Twisters, Every Living Thing, Locomotion, Granny Torrelli Makes Soup.
Only these 8 books – OR -They may read either the Kids Discover Magazine, Cobblestone Muse, Faces or Odyssey Magazine or Footsteps. Of course they (the program) have picked the approved topic such as Bridges, climate, fairy tales, Chemistry of chocolate, or Folk Art.

On day 5 and 10 if they finish their computerized lesson they are to go to the online book cart (part of the program) and pick one of their selections and read it and test on it and then go to their online books (part of the program) and read a passage and test on it.

If at anytime they finish all of the above the only other approved book is their required novel from their Language Arts class. 

WHAT?!  First of all, there is nothing wrong with The Tiger Rising, Johny Hangtime, Bird, The Boy Who Saved Baseball, Night of the Twisters, Every Living Thing, Locomotion, Granny Torrelli Makes Soup.  However, there is no way on earth those eight books will connect with all of the program’s students.  They are great books but students should be able to choose from the thousands and thousands of middle grade and YA books out there to read.  Who chose those 8 books?  Which students are they meant to speak to?  What about the students who won’t connect with those books?  

And then if they happen to finish all those books they can then read their novel for language arts and only that class novel.

Personal choice means nothing? 

Students can’t be trusted to choose their own books?

I spend the beginning of each year teaching my sixth graders how to choose books.  For a small handful of students the process can take almost the whole year.  However, they are capable of choosing appropriate books that they will enjoy once they are taught how to choose those books.  How do we expect students to grow into lifelong readers if we teach them that they can’t handle the responsibility of finding their niche in the world of reading?

The program Sandra’s district has implemented actually states that all pleasure reading is to be done at home.  What a laugh!  It’s the rare student who will take time out of their night to read a book for pleasure if their teachers don’t model the importance of pleasure reading in school.  If we don’t show that reading deserves to be done and is important in our daily life then students won’t make that judgement on their own.  My students read independently every.single.day. I make sure to carve the time out of our school day and they then carve out time at home.  It’s a reciprocal relationship.  If it is important to me it becomes important to them.

But what upset me even more in Sandra’s post were her anecdotes about the other teachers in her district who are blindly accepting the canned program.  In fact, they are glad to have it.  Upon hearing that Sandra read books for her students over the summer, they actually responded with disbelief and almost-horror.  Why on earth would a teacher do that “crap”, as one of the teachers so eloquently put it?  

You want to know why Johnny and Johnae can’t read? We have too many teachers willing to let administrators spend thousands of dollars for canned programs that list the benchmarks and what to say and even have the lesson plans written up. That way they don’t have to do anything. 

We need to stop this.  There is no better way to get students reading then putting books in their hands.  BOOKS.  Not basal readers, not graphic organizers, not workbooks.  Actual, physical, paper-and-glue books.  Real novels and stories, not those written specifically for test prep and canned programs.  Literature.  For the past three years I have been growing readers in my classroom, as Jen says, and I do it with nothing more than a classroom library and booktalks.  My students still learn and use the comprehension strategies, they write about reading, they hold conversations about their books.  In fact, they go above and beyond what the scripted programs ask for.  I have extremely high expectations for them and they meet those expectations every year.

Does this mean I have to write my own lesson plans, read professional literature, keep up on children’s literature, and do a little more work?  Sure.  But it’s what is best for my students and it’s what has been working for the past three years.  How can you be a reading teacher and hate reading?  How can you think that reading from a script and never deviating from it is what’s best for our students?!  If all we need to teach kids is a script, then hire a robot instead of a teacher.  Or sit kids in front of a computer.  All you will get is a generation of test-takers.  Sure they’ll pass the standardized tests but they won’t be lifelong learners and they certainly won’t be readers or writers.  And where would our world be without readers and writers?

Whether you are dealing with dormant readers, developing readers, or underground readers- literature is the way to go.  In fact, it is the only way to go.  As teachers we need to get the message out to administrators and politicians that we don’t want these programs!  Instead, the millions of dollars spent annually on reading programs should be funneled to school and classroom libraries.  We should be booking author visits, connecting students with real live writers and creators.  We should be buying novels, graphic novels, realistic fiction, non-fiction, every genre of books for our schools.  We should be exposing students to real text with real stories.  Not some 5-paragraph garbage written for a computer reading program with 10 multiple-choice questions that dig no deeper than recall on Bloom’s Taxonomy yet we call it “everyday text”.  Ridiculous.  Everyday text is made up of what we really read everyday- books, brochures, recipes, signs, newspapers, and so much more.

Books are the answer.  Real reading makes readers.  

Not scripts.

Not programs.

Teachers + books + students

=

Lifelong readers.

 

Perfect Game or What I Learned from Reading

I’m not a baseball fan.  In fact, you could say I am the exact opposite.  If you wanted to somehow put me to sleep, stick me in front of a TV with a baseball game on.  I’m more of a soccer, basketball, Olympics girl.  Fast. Aggressive.  High-scoring.  That’s how I like my sports.

However, I read an inordinate number of baseball books because I teach in a baseball town.  Every year, at least half of my boys are baseball players.  They love to read books about baseball, baseball players, and baseball history.  So this past year I read (and loved) Alan Gratz’s The Brooklyn Nine. At the end of the book, Gratz includes an afterword with historical information pertaining to each story in the book.  It was there that I learned there have only been 17 perfect games in MLB history.

Today, I opened my computer to read the headline Buehrle tosses first MLB perfect game in 5 years.  Before I read the article, I immediately thought to myself, “Wow!  Now there have been 18 perfect games!  How cool would it be to actually pitch one of those 18 games in the last 100 years?”  Not exactly what you’d expect from someone who has never watched an entire baseball game all the way through, huh?  More importantly, not what you would expect from the the girl who spent the one season she played softball making daisy chains in the outfield.  

Before reading Gratz’s book I never would have known this information.  I probably would not have even clicked on the link and read the article.  But because I read The Brooklyn Nine I was interested in the story.  Reading that book led me to read the article from Sports Illustrated today.  And now I know that there have only been 5 pitchers in MLB history to throw a perfect game and a no-hitter.  Isn’t that exactly what we want our students to do?  Read, build schema, and then go out to read and learn more?

And this can happen with any book.  I’ve seen students go out and research synesthesia after reading Wendy Mass’s A Mango-Shaped Space. Students who read Cryptid Hunters read non-fiction about cryptozoology. So on and so forth.

There are no bad books.  Sometimes I have parents who think that sports books are a waste of time.  Or horror.  Or humorous books.  Or magazines.  It goes one and on.  But here’s the magic of reading: fiction leads to reading more non-fiction-whether it is non-fiction books, articles on the internet, magazines, or any other informational reading on a specific subject.  It’s just as likely that readers of non-fiction will seek out fiction books on similar subjects, or more informational texts (in a variety of genres) about the same subject.  Reading begets more reading.  There’s no more organic way to get kids to read than to just allow them to read what they want and to continue reading what they enjoy!

Even better?  All that reading builds up background knowledge and schema.  Students with more schema do better on standardized testing because they have the necessary background knowledge.  More importantly, students with a large array of schema will connect to more books, more subjects in school, more teachers, and more people.  They are more well-rounded..

Books I am Looking Forward to Reading in 2009

I’ve been so caught up in the awards bonanza of late that I realized we are almost out of January and I haven’t posted the books I am looking forward to reading this year.  This is by no means a complete list, but just a few that caught my eye from publisher’s previews, blog reading, and reviews!

  • A Butterfly Fable (Adios Oscar!) by Peter Elwell- A monarch butterfly book? Count me in!
  • Being Nikki (Airhead) by Meg Cabot- I loved AIRHEAD so I am really looking forward to this sequel!
  • Yes, I Know the Monkey Man by Dori Hillestad Butler- I saw this at a publisher’s preview and it sounded like a great mystery. A daughter who believes her mother and twin sister are dead when they really are not? Sounds awesome!
  • Geektastic: Stories from the Nerd Herd by Holly Black and Cecil Castellucci- As a self-professed and proud geek, I can not wait to get my hands on this collection of geeky stories from some of the greatest in YA writing!
  • The Enemy by Davide Cali- The sample F&G I saw of this book was so powerful that I wanted to take it home and share it with my class immediately. This fable is about two lonely soldiers facing each other across a barren battlefield. What each discovers, as the story unfolds, is that the enemy is not a faceless beast, but rather a real person with family, friends, and dreams.
  • The Beef Princess of Practical County by Michelle Houts- This is the Delacorte Press MG Fiction contest winner. It’s the story of a small town girl raising steers for the county fair. When she becomes attached to them, despite their eventual fate of being sold to the slaughterhouse, problems arise.
  • The Anatomy of Wings by Karen Foxlee- This Australian import was compared to THE LOVELY BONES and VIRGIN SUICIDES.
  • The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan- We all know how much I love my apocalyptic survival stories.
  • Bones of Faerie by Janni Lee Simner- Another apocalyptic tale. This one blurbed by Jane Yolen!
  • My Life in Pink & Green by Lisa Greenwald- A Class of 2k9 debut that really caught my eye.
  • A Mirror to Nature: Poems About Reflection by Jane Yolen and Jason Stemple- Yolen’s poetry is some of my favorite writing. I can’t wait to read this!
  • Emma Jean Lazarus Fell in Love by Lauren Tarshis- Emma-Jean was my favorite character from 2007. I had no idea Tarshis was writing a follow-up until I saw a preview in the publisher’s catalog! I can’t wait to get my hands on this!
  • Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson- You could tell me that Anderson was rewriting the phone book and I would read it. Can’t wait to read her latest YA!
  • Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins- Not due out until September, I am dying to scoop up an ARC at BEA this spring. I have been waiting to find out what happened to Katniss since the end of The Hunger Games!
  • Soul Enchilada by David Macinnis Gill- Ever since traveling to Mexico I have been fascinated by the Dia de los Muertos.
  • Percy Jackson & the Olympians: Book 5: The Last Olympian (Percy Jackson and the Olympians) by Rick Riordan- I love Percy and am excited to see the conclusion of this hysterical series.
  • Shades of Grey: A Novel by Jasper Fforde- I don’t remember who first mentioned this on their blog, but it immediately went on my Amazon wishlist. The summary reminds me a bit of THE GIVER, so I am looking forward to reading it.
  • Falling Down the Page: A Book of List Poems by Georgia Heard- My inspiration when it comes to poetry, Georgia Heard really connects with kids.

 

This is just a sampling of some of the books I want to read this year, and mostly for the next season. What are you looking forward to reading in 2009?

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