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Books have the lessons 01/05/19

Updated: May 3, 2023

My friend Mary Howard delivers beautifully written passion rants when topics cause her distress or worry or anger on behalf of students and teachers who might not always be able to speak for themselves. I love her rants and the fire in the words she puts on the screen.

I started blogging years ago with different iterations of this blog. But I too tend to focus on rant worthy topics when I write. I would suggest it is cathartic to get the thoughts out and then I started the podcast on occasion, another way to put my voice out there.

Last week Julie surprised me with a trip to San Diego and one evening while the air was crisp and we were out in the awesome courtyard hot tub we were talking about teaching and she mentioned the hot-button topic of Accelerated Reader. To give some context our division has had schools, including my past school, using Accelerated Reader for years. As a new teacher, I was commanded to use it and didn't know better. As I travelled to other schools in my own teaching journey I found much of the same and because of what I saw, kids reading and answering test questions, I even suggested my new school dive in. After all Julies school had what appeared to be a very successful program that seemed to have the school enthusiastically involved in reading. But appearances can be deceiving.

A one time mentor in my early literacy journey pointed out an article that spoke to the negative effects of AR and programs like it and asked me to read it and provide my thoughts. At the same time, I started to notice the defeat in some of my students as "point award days" approached. At the time I was a 6th-grade teacher and I asked one of my students one day why he was so frustrated and he broke down. He did not think he could ever make it to the prizes that are "cool" because the books he was allowed to read were boring and never worth enough points. This small eye-opening moment made me pay closer attention to the culture that AR and its point-based incentive system was doing to our reading culture.

I immediately stopped pushing AR at all in my classroom. We had fun self-set challenges. Things like the 40 book challenge from Donalyn Miller adapted to fit different students needs. We did draws for books as students finished books. We talked about books and we read more than ever. Students actually reflected on what they were reading and realized that reading is the reward. No more were they taking idiotic knowledge and recall tests. They were sharing their books with book commercials and writing about the characters or the conflict or the theme.

It was more work for me, without question, but it was worth it.

Back to the conversation around AR. Julie mentioned that while our division no longer supports AR (YAY!) there are still teachers that like it and use it, I was so confused. After countless discussions and posts from Colby Sharp, Pernille Ripp, Donalyn MIller. Books written about creating a culture of lifelong readers by the same as well as Kelly Gallagher, Penny Kittle, Todd Nesloney, Travis Crowder and the incomparable Kylene Beers all speaking about the harm Accelerated Reader and other computer-based online reading "programs" do to developing readers. And yet people still defend it and even celebrate it.

I raged for a moment and then sent out a Tweet.

I didn't think it would do much but in the days since I have had plenty of responses and as I retweet them with the #nomoreAR hashtag there is a pattern. Teachers that are speaking out are not doing it on behalf of themselves they are doing it on behalf of their students and more specifically their students who struggle to read already and are then forced to operate within a system that limits their choice and opportunity to grow as readers.

Just one example

You don't have to believe me or take my word for it. Ask the kids. AR (run "correctly" or not) destroys reading culture. No author has ever written a book with the dream that it will one day be stripped of its soul and reduced to a handful of multiple choice questions. No teachers ever entered the profession hoping to have their students mindlessly clicking answers on a computer screen after finishing Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds a hauntingly complex story which AR has reduced to a 4.3 Book Level and a 2 point score for getting all the right answers. No student sneaks away to a quiet space to fall into a book with the aspirations of taking a test after. Reading is not meant to be a competition, books should not be the subjects of points, labels and levels in our student's eyes. They should be adventures, tales of triumph and sacrifice, fun, light, or whatever the reader needs them to be.

I understand the appeal of AR and programs like it. The neat data, the spreadsheet print outs. What I don't however understand is the boastful ignorance of doing harm when the information is out there.

I have decided instead of just fighting about AR I will actively work to reverse the damage it does, I will speak up and I will share the voice of my students past, present and future. It can be my penance for putting students through this program before I knew better.

Today to wash this terrible AR induced feeling off me I went to the University bookstore and bought picture books. Beautiful, touching, funny, heart-wrenching, lesson teaching picture books and I came home and read them all. I will bring them to school and share them with my students, work on concepts and just appreciate the beauty of the stories inside. One story, The Remember Balloons, is all about a boy and his Grandpa and the balloons we all have that hold our cherished memories. As the Grandpa and boy share their memories slowly throughout the story the grandpa starts to lose his balloons, they float away, they get mixed up with other balloons and one day they are all gone. This analogy for Alzheimer's hit me pretty hard. My Grandpa Gilson, the greatest storyteller I ever knew passed away after being lost to the disease. The lesson that this story taught, that his stories are not lost, that I heard them enough that I can tell them myself that they are now my balloons is not something AR and its tests can ever replace. The conversations in a classroom about theme are not something a racecar board in the hallway celebrating the strongest readers while the weakest are left in the dust can ever reproduce.

The myth that AR helps readers is just that a myth. I hope that people continue to work to build up literacy without depending on the crutch of glorified multiple choice test. Trust yourselves teacher friends but more importantly trust the books. They contain the lessons.

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