Sunday, February 24, 2013

AR, Lexile, and Reading Programs

I was telling a friend last weekend that I enjoyed having a blog for many reasons but one was that I had somewhere to go and write my thoughts when inspired. Last weekend it was the Twitter conversations of two colleagues I admire, Donalyn Miller and Paul Hankins that served as a catalyst for a blog post (HERE). This morning it is the wise musings of Teri Lesesne that make me want to take to the keyboard and type. (Teri's post is HERE.)

Teri writes this morning about the insanity that is AR and Lexile. Specifically she focuses in on these programs and makes some observations about them. One of which deals with the increase in teachers who do not read. Is that a result of programs such as these?

Here’s the thing – if you are reading this blog I am likely preaching to the choir. Either you are related to me (Hi Mom! Hi Chris!) or you are an educator (or writer) who is reading someone’s blog on your own time. You are likely the opposite of teachers who don’t read. Your "to read" stack probably looks something like mine, overtaking your room, becoming a death trap to anyone who walks by and jostles the precariously placed books. So do I need to write this for you? No. But I do need to put this out there, so please bear with me.

When I first began teaching in my district almost fourteen years ago we had AR. I remember my first class used it to take a quiz on books they read. I didn’t require it but the librarian did for state award books. I clearly remember teaching a whole class novel unit on Richard Peck’s A Long Way From Chicago. This book takes place in the county I teach but never names the town (Cerro Gordo). We hung a map in the room of our county, marked the spots Joey and Mary Alice traveled to. We read it together, discussing the time period. I read the last part to them. When Joey’s train passes Grandma Dowdel’s house on his way to the Army Air Corps, the whole house is lit up and Grandma is standing and waving at the train. Knowing she can’t see Joey, but that he can see her. I sobbed reading it to my students, a moment I will never forget.

Later as one student, my cousin who was in my class, sat down to take the test – I sat with him. I wanted to see what types of questions this book would ask. Morgan and I talked as he took it. We were puzzled as he read the questions to me. What we found beautiful and important about the book was not touched on. Some vocabulary (bustle, for example) was given more weight than theme, relationships, inferences. I remember leaving the computer confused. That test did not show me that my students truly understood the book, but my conversations with them did. What was the point in it?

Over the years I grew smarter. While I never required the AR tests I began to discourage them even from taking any. For the state award books, I would conference with them and send a note to the librarian saying that they had read them. I encouraged my students to read widely and I would conference as often as possible.

Reading conferences – absolutely critical to the success of readers in my classroom. Conferring with my students allows me to find out how they are connecting with a book as they read them. Is it out of their reach? Are they having a hard time getting into it? A ten-question test at the end is too late to help a poor match between book and child. Also, conferences help me to get to know my students better. And I never stress if I haven’t read the book, the student is in the lead in the conference anyway. They just need to teach me as I flip through their book. I will admit here that my biggest problem with conferring is that I take too long. Once we start talking time slips away and I don’t get to as many kids as I’d like. This is something I’m working on.

I have no personal experience with Lexile other than they print a child’s Lexile score on our state tests. No idea how they get that score at all. Honestly, I wasn’t even aware that it was there until another parent asked me about it. Just glanced right past it when I looked over my own child’s scores. The problems I have with Lexile are much the same as AR. I think it narrows the options for a child’s independent reading and can hamper any joy a child might find in reading for pleasure. I know I read below my Lexile every single day. Who cares?

Beyond the fact that these programs squash a love of reading, send kids to a narrow selection of books they can read from, and make it that reading is a chore, I have another issue. A bigger issue – or two, as a matter of fact. One, these programs cost money. Lots of money. Is this really the best use of funds? How about we spend some money on books in the classrooms? Or the libraries for that matter. Crazy talk.

As for teachers and reading, I cannot imagine trying to teach reading yet not reading myself. How do you connect children to books if you do not read? I inhabit a world of books. Because I read I know what it is like to struggle to get into a story. Because I read I know how your heart breaks when you read a book. Because I’ve read The Knife of Never Letting Go or See You at Harry’s or Hattie Big Sky, I know to hug a kid when they come up to me and whisper, “Manchee” or “Charlie” or “Mattie.” I connect to my students through books.

So what is my reading program? Books, kids, and a teacher who reads. Pretty simple, but effective. No need for expensive programs. No need for comprehension tests that only test a surface level of comprehension. No need for a leveled book. Just read.

And a side note – the same holds true for writing. See Penny Kittle’s beautiful words HERE.