Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Rethinking Teaching Choices

I have recently returned to the 21st Century after being on vacation – meaning I have semi-reliable Internet access again. One of the first places I visited when returning to the Internet was, of course, Twitter. I scanned some tweets from friends, read through the recent stream from all folks I follow, and then caught up on a few education chats I had missed. One thread in particular jumped out at me. The topic? Accelerated Reader or AR.

Some teachers had become upset when other teacher dismissed AR as not necessary, lacking research, etc. I read the exchange with interest. Folks obviously felt passionately one way or another, but unwilling to bend to the other line of thinking. In full disclosure, I’m friends with several who were tweeting from the anti-AR stance, and I know they’ve done their research. They love to read research in a way that I don’t quite comprehend. On this topic, however, I’ve read my fair share.

In regard to AR, my district used to use it too. I was never a big fan – the questions seemed like they focused on trivial points and really didn’t show if they child understood the bigger picture – but I wasn’t “anti” AR until I reflected on the program.

AR is expensive; someone on Twitter quoted $4 a student in the chat. That seems a bit low to me. I don’t have exact numbers because it has been years since my district eliminated the program, but there is a fee from Renaissance Learning and then you also need to purchase each test. When new books come out, the tests must be purchased, yet sometimes schools get behind. Kids can’t read a book because there isn’t a test, which is ridiculous. That being said, the cost wasn’t even what made me really take a second look at AR.

AR is praised for getting kids to enjoy independent reading and being an easy way to track that they’ve read. I have a few issues here. One, I abhor the rule in some schools that kids can only “count” a book if it is at their “level”. What if they want to read below for fun? What if they want to read above because they’re interested in a book? What if they are high level readers, but the higher books are not appropriate for their age? In some schools, there are considerations given to these questions. In others – and unfortunately I’ve seen the bad side here – there is a hard and fast line.

As for getting kids to love to read, I think most, no all, teachers can do that without a computer program. Talk to kids about your reading life. Recommend books to them. Show book trailers. Give time for them to talk to each other about what they’re reading. Have new books in the classroom available to them. Let them read what they want. The love of reading will come forth without the program.

And finally, the ease of tracking. This I just don’t get. It’s easier, I supposed to print out a list of who has passed what test, but is there joy in that? When I confer with kids, I can easily track what their reading. I find joy in sitting with kids and discussing their books. I also build relationships. I get to know my students – their likes and dislikes. I also get to know them. I can track books easily, so can a computer program. Only one, however, helps strengthen the bond between teacher and student which pays across subjects, in behavior, everything.

So why all of the defensive tweets defending AR as the end all, be all, of independent reading programs? I think it is likely simple. When you are questioned on a practice that is part of your classroom, it is human nature to get defensive. I get that. I’ve done that. See, in 2009 I read a book by a new author and teacher, Donalyn Miller’s The Book Whisperer. While I agreed with 75% of the book, on the topic of whole class novels, I was adamant that Donalyn was wrong. Maybe they didn’t work in her room, but in mine they were terrific. I was known for being an excellent reading teacher, she was wrong. If I had been tweeting, my tweets would have reflected my passion and irritation at the idea of moving to a classroom of choice.

I am a reflective teacher and tend to mull over ideas. Once this seed had been planted, I kept returning to it, each time with a shake of my head and a reminder that I was right. And then, the kids came, and everything changed.

That year I was teaching my reading class with all special education students pushed in. It took me one week to see that one novel would never meet the needs of all students. I had kids reading from a first grade level to a ninth, all in my fourth grade classroom. I was able to step back, look at the evidence, and realize I needed to make a change.

Yes, I do believe every classroom in our country would be better off without the AR program – I think teachers are effectively putting a computer program between the students and themselves when they could simply sit side-by-side and do the same thing. I think relationships with our kids should be the top priority, not the ease of printing off scores. More than that, I hope that teachers everywhere take the summer to reflect on their teaching practice. Are you like me? Is there something you’ve been contemplating changing? Take the summer to research, reach out, think it through. Anger is our natural reaction at times, but action is better. If you believe in your practice – awesome! I usually find at least one area I want to tinker with, and use the summer to attack it. This year? Combining Writing, Reading, Word Study, Grammar into one class, Reading/Writing Workshop. I’m nervous, I’m going to mess up, but it is going to be fun. I wish you the best as you rethink your classrooms too.


  1. Katherine - It is very expensive to use AR even for smaller schools. I would say way, way more than $4/student - cost may vary depending on what was contracted by school/district - but some of our schools use it and I know it is way higher than $4/student. I think I am saddened by parents standing in the bookstore refusing a book for a child because it is the wrong AR level or a teacher refusing to share certain books because her school doesn't have the tests. I have run into these scenarios way too often. The higher a child's reading level (beyond age level) the more difficult to find appropriate books which seems to do the opposite of encouraging reading. And lastly, I think too many teachers use this to free themselves from keeping updated on books, or truly matching kids to the right book. I am not teacher bashing here. I know that life is busy, but I wish some teachers would try and read at least one children's book a month. How do you expect children to be excited about reading if you are not excited about books?

    And this summer I am reflecting on reading comprehension and writing. Thanks for sharing.

  2. I've only heard about AR through blogs & from my grandson, who had teachers who wouldn't allow books except from his level, sad to say. We would never have such a curriculum at my school, but I enjoyed hearing your arguments, & wonder at the stats for those schools who think it does work. This summer, I want to do more prep myself so I can help teachers improve conferring in reading & writing. Time is the issue, so hope I can find ways to share that might find a way that those I work with can see will help. Thinking, reading, thinking! Thanks Katherine, you always make me think, too!

  3. Great post Katherine! I went through a very similar situation with AR, but I teach all the 9th graders at my small school (about 100 per grade level). Five year back I wanted to incorporate more independent reading in my classroom, but I was told I would have to use AR. I tried it, but I hated it! I know hate is a strong word, but I couldn't stand that so many high school titles were not in the program. I was not okay with telling a student, "Oh, you cannot read that book since it's not an AR title." It was because that happened that I started telling students that they could conference with me if there wasn't an AR test for their book. It was through these conferences that I got a true understanding of their comprehension, likes, dislikes, and I could help them set reading goals. I soon did some research to prove the importance of conferences (The Book Whisperer and Conferring by Patrick Allen), and thankfully my principal trusted me enough to let me stop AR tests. We, as teachers, need to do as you did and reflect on our years with our students. We will make mistakes trying new techniques and ideas (I have made many), but we will find solutions in the process!

  4. Well, I thought what I wrote was posting so now I'm starting over. I had a conversation about leveled books with a teacher in our lower school. I expressed my disdain for AR and other systems that are out there. I think they are particularly bad for reluctant readers and for high level readers. We don't level books in our middle school, thank goodness. I am sad though, that in the coming year I have to give up my reading workshop for lack of time in our new schedule. I working on ways to increase reading independently. One book I'm reading is Donalyn's new book and Chris Lehmann's book, Falling in Love with Close Reading. In addition I'm working on Lucy Calkins Writing Workshop books to upgrade my writing workshop, not to mention reading a huge stack of books I've been planning for all spring. Lots to do-planning, reading, and thinking. Love reading your blog.

  5. I have argued against AR and its Scholastic twin, Reading Counts, pretty much all of my teaching career. When I started teaching at my middle school 24 years ago, the school had AR, but fortunately for me, the only computer that would run it died during the school year and I replaced it with a computer that wasn't compatible to the AR software.My children didn't attend my middle school, and I watched them both be frustrated with having to get points in the Reading Counts program at their middle school. For my oldest daughter in particular, her reading level was so high that the books that were "at her level" were too mature for her as a middle schools student. Fortunately our district seems to have quit pushing these programs on our schools.

  6. Justin SchleiderJune 20, 2014 at 7:45 PM

    I don't teach reading but I try to insert myself into all aspects of my school. We use readers workshop and fountas and pinell. I know that we have leveled books and the students have done very well with that system. It allows teachers to really understand where they are in reader's workshop and what areas they need to improve. We did run into a couple of problems. The students were way higher in fiction than nonfiction. Also when you jump levels the content does become inappropriate for students. We cut levels off for kids. Another problem was when the kids skipped levels they were based on ten question assessments. The skills for each level are immense and can't be assessed from just 10 ?s. The biggest problem is definitely what you named. Teachers have to connect with their students. This can only occur through constant and conistent interaction.