On Accelerated Reader and All the Other Computer Programs

Pardon me while I write what is on my mind for a little bit.

I just took an Accelerated Reader practice quiz on Elephant and Piggie’s There’s a Bird on Your Head.  A picture book  I have read so many times I think I know it by heart.  A picture book series that my 7th graders end up loving too as we perform plays based on them.  A picture book series that made me cry when the last book came out and they told us all “Thank you for being a reader.”

You know what AR wanted me to know about the book?

It wanted to know what happened and what was said.

That’s it.

Not why Gerald didn’t like the birds on his head.  Not what the message of the book was.  Not what they could learn from the book and apply to their own life.  After all, that doesn’t prove they have read it.  That doesn’t prove they have understood, right?!

Sheer memorization and retelling.

Of Mice and Men wasn’t any better.  Again, memorization was the key factor here.  Not deep thinking.  Not deep conversation about the ultimate decision made at the end.  Not how this book will change you or make you think about the world you live in.

An American classic boiled down to remembering minute details.

All in the hands of computer programs which purport to help readers grow.

And before, someone tells me that for some kids programs like this works, I would like to know what we define as “works?”  Do we define “works” as rushing to read another book?  As sharing the incredible experience a book just provided them with others?  Do we define “works” as cannot wait to read another book, outside of class not because they have to but because they want to?  Do we define “works” as continuing to develop a positive reading identity that will carry them into adulthood?

Or do we define ‘”works” as kids doing it because they are rule followers and don’t want to cause a stir? Do we define “works” as a computer telling us how much a child remembered from the book they just read?  Do we define it as how many points they have gained this year as a supposed reflection on how they have grown as readers?  Or as now we know which book a child should read next because the computer told them so?

Because if that is what we mean be developing lifelong readers then I must have lost my mind.

When people ask me why I dislike programs like AR so much, it is hard to know where to start.  My problem with these blanket programs are many; we rob kids of actual true choice not determined by a reading database that only allows you to select books that have quizzes on them.

You know which books don’t have AR quizzes on them right now?  Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds and Dear Martin by Nic Stone.  Arguably two of the most important books for adolescents to read this year. I hope they never add them, I can’t even begin to imagine what types of low-level questions they would ask.

We rob kids of the chance to have conversations with others about the books that are changing them.  We rob kids of the messy process that it is to get to a deeper meaning within a book, even when they are young.  We rob kids of the chance to be seen more as the points they are given.  We rob our most vulnerable readers, those we label struggling, low, or whatever other harsh terms in our data meetings, the opportunity to have the best possible chance at becoming a reader through the determined instruction of a knowledgeable teacher.

In our eagerness to make sure every child is reading the right fit book, we have forgotten about the very child reading those books.

Reading was never meant to be about points.  Or scores.  Or correct answers.

It was never meant to be about levels or data or rewards for goals met.

Reading was never meant to be easy either.  It was meant to be a complex process in which we discover parts of ourselves that we didn’t know before.  A process that brought us closer together as a community of learners, as we felt the growth we made not because a test told us but because the very book we just finished was an accomplishment in itself.

Don’t believe me?  How can simple computer programs really be so bad?  Why don’t we ask the very kids we subject these programs to?  A novel idea, I suppose, as what would kids really know?  And yet, I am here writing about this because of the very things kids (and their horrified parents) have told me over the years.

“AR means my child picks the smallest books they can in order to get the points they need…”

“AR means I am not allowed to read the book I wanted to…”

“I am a bad reader because I cannot get the answers right…”

So what can we do instead of these programs?

We can start the conversation first.  We can ask the very kids we subject to the reading programs and then do something about what they tell us.

We can ask parents and caregivers how this program either hurts or harms their child.

We can invest all of that money spent on this program into great books and then put them in every single classroom.  And then we can read them and speak about them and help kids find great new books.

We can give teachers training on reading workshop and how to have meaningful conversations about books with kids.

We can tell our teachers to go back to common sense reading instruction.

We can tell our teachers that teaching to fidelity doesn’t mean fidelity to the program but to the kid in front of them.

We can evaluate everything we do with kids and see if it really gets to what we hope they become; kids who read books because they want to!

If we want to know whether a child is reading, we can look at them while they read.

If we want to know whether a child understands what they are reading, we can ask, sometimes face to face, other times on paper.

If we want to know how a child is progressing as a reader, we can assess them, hearing them read out loud, conferring with them and asking further questions.  And sure, use a computer to give them a test but make sure that the test is actually giving you valid information.  Let the data be a part of the conversation, not the whole conversation.

If we want to know what book a child should read next, we can ask them. Then we can bookshop.  If a child doesn’t know how to select a great book then that is where we start.

If we want to know whether a book is a good fit for a child, we can ask them.  And we can remember the words of Fountas and Pinnell who said, that “Levels are a teacher’s tool and not a child’s label.”

You know what helping a child figure out their reading identity is?  It’s hard.  It’s messy.  It’s exhausting at times.

It’s not easy.

But it’s worth it.

it’s worth it every time we see child realize that they, too, can be a reader.

It’s worth it every time we see a child realize that they, too, can get something out of a book.

It’s worth it every we see a child realize that they, too, can understand what it means to want to keep on reading.

Not because a computer told them to select another book from their level.

Not because they were given points for their work.

Not because they were given rewards.

But because to them, it mattered, beyond the computer, beyond the quiz, beyond the task.

But because to them, they became readers because someone cared about their reading journey and protected the very hope they carry for being a reader some day.

A computer program will never do that for a child, no matter how “research-based” it is.

PS:  Whoa, apparently this post which was just me thinking out loud has struck a chord for many.  I encourage you to reflect on it and see where it fits into your reading philosophy.  As I have said before, if a program harms even one child’s love of reading then we need to question it, which is what I am doing here.  I am not shaming teachers, I am a teacher myself, but instead asking us to really reflect on whether the thousands of dollars spent on these computer programs are really helping us achieve our goals in the long-run, because of course programs like these can garner compliance in the short run, but we are in this reading life for the long run.

To see more thoughts on AR please see Jen Robinson’s posts which showcases other work on it.  Donalyn Miller’s post on it and do take the time to read Stephen Krashen’s discussion of the research that AR uses as a selling point.

If you like what you read here, consider reading my newest book, Passionate Readers – The Art of Reaching and Engaging Every Child, out August 2017.  This book focuses on the five keys we can implement into any reading community to strengthen student reading experiences, even within the 45 minute English block.  If you are looking for solutions and ideas for how to re-engage all of your students consider reading my very first book  Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.      Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.

 

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We Got This

As I write this my little boy, Oskar, is getting outfitted with a heart monitor.  For the next 24 hours every beat, every extra beat, will be recorded so we can see if this new irregular heartbeat is something I need to cry more tears about or if we can just breathe a sigh of relief.  For the first time ever when I googled medical symptoms, my heart was actually more relieved than worried.

But still, I sit on an airplane on my way to California, once again not there when I feel like I should be.  Not there when something that is much scarier to us parents than to him is unfolding in my hometown.    Not there when even though there is nothing I can do by being there, I had to go on my own journey and not be with my family.

 

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This kid and his faces

 

The mommy guilt is real.

But so is the support of my husband.  You see, the best decision I ever made was to marry the man I did who turned out to be an incredible father.  I am not surprised, he is an incredible human being.  He’s got this, of course, he does, and he let me know that as I packed my bags this morning and said goodbye.  Oskar didn’t care, he was off from school and so excited to get this machine put onto him, especially since he can’t shower when he has it on.

I think of all the times, I have had to look to my husband to take care of things when I couldn’t.  How when Thea was born we became a team, no matter what.  How as Ida, Oskar, and then Augustine showed up, we grew together instead of apart.  How we have been a team since then.  I chose him, I know he’s got this.

And we can hope the same for the teachers that our children get.

Because we trust those teachers that welcome our children every day to have this.  That they got this, even when we feel like we should be there.  That even when our child cries and says they miss us and ask us if they can stay home today, that we are sending them to a good place.  To a place where they will be seen, and loved, and heard, and protected.

We trust those strangers who welcome our kids to make great decisions for them.  To help shape them.  To see them for the full person they are and not just the child they hoped would show up.

We can’t forget that as teachers.  I can’t forget that.  When that child is having that day.  When that child is doing that thing.  When that child is pushing that button.  When that child is a mystery.

That’s when we remember that we got this.

That by sending their children to us, the parents that we serve are trusting us with their most precious thing.

That by sending their children to us, they are telling us that they need us to be a partner.  To step in when they can’t.  To help raise a child when that child is with us.  Not because we will make that child better, but because together we can do more.

So while my heart may be hurting a lot these days, I know that I chose right when I married my husband.  I know that I don’t need to worry because I know that Oskar will always be in the best of hands.

Just like when we put them on that bus every morning and tell them to have the best of days.

Just like when we say good morning as the first bell rings and we greet each child like they were our own.

We got this.

If you like what you read here, consider reading my newest book, Passionate Readers – The Art of Reaching and Engaging Every Child, out August 2017.  This book focuses on the five keys we can implement into any reading community to strengthen student reading experiences, even within the 45 minute English block.  If you are looking for solutions and ideas for how to re-engage all of your students consider reading my very first book  Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.      Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.

 

In It For the Long Game

It’s been four weeks since I have had a chance to discuss his reading one on one.  Four weeks since he decided to abandon the first book he had started after he was only 60 pages in and it had been more than three weeks of reading every day.  Four weeks since I got to have more than a surface level conversation about his reading life and I cannot wait to see what he says.

He tells me his goal is to read more, a goal I hear quite often in 7th grade.  I ask him to tell me more, why this goal, how is it going.  he grins and says, not so well, he really isn’t reading much.

I ask him about his book but that’s not it, he likes it a lot.  Then what is it?  He says, like so many kids before him, “I just don’t like to read…”

We finish our conversation and he pledges to try to find some time outside of class to get further.  After all, he has yet to actually finish a book this year.  I pledge to check in more often, even just a short visit, just to see if his new laid plans are working out.

He returns to his book and I return to the next child waiting to tell me about their reading life.

How often does this moment play out in our schools?  How often have we met those kids that tell us that they just don’t like reading and we feel the end of the year rushing toward us as if we, too, will fail in helping these kids create positive reading identities?

How often do we question the very practices we know kids need to become readers; time, access, choice, and community?

How often do we feel like we must be the teachers that cannot crack the code of this child and that all is already lost?

But before we despair.

Before we punish.

Before we tighten the reins.

Before we add more steps, more logs, more comprehension worksheets.

Before we think of what else we need to keep them accountable.

Take a moment and realize that we are in this for the long game.

That a child not liking reading even after we have been their teacher for almost two months does not mean that we have failed.  It does not mean that they have failed either.

It means that we are working on it.

That we celebrate the honesty when a child dares to tell us that they don’t like reading, and no, they are not reading outside of school.

That we thank them for the information and then ask them what they plan on doing with it.

That we remind them that reading matters and that we hope that they will find a way to make it matter to them.

We are not in this reading game to get them reading just this year.  We are in it to get them reading for life.

So before we change the approach of giving kids choice in books, time to read, access to books, and a community to read with, remember to have some patience.

Patience to remember that creating new habits takes time.

Patience to remember that it often takes many books to see yourself as an established reader.

Patience to remember that it often takes many conversations, many opportunities, many check-ins and walk-aways to really help a child find themselves as a reader.

And then when we question our own practices that we thought would work for every child, we remember that we may be up against years of unestablished reading habits and that just a few short months with us is not enough.  That sometimes we are just the tourniquet that stops the flow of hatred of reading and that it won’t be until later years that a child finds themselves within the pages of a book and cannot imagine coming back out.

So give yourself credit for the successes you see in your reading communities.  Give yourself credit for the books being shared.  For the joy being created.  And give yourself credit for having unlimited patience, especially for the child that tells you once again that they just don’t like reading.  Not yet, anyway.

If you like what you read here, consider reading my newest book, Passionate Readers – The Art of Reaching and Engaging Every Child, out August 2017.  This book focuses on the five keys we can implement into any reading community to strengthen student reading experiences, even within the 45 minute English block.  If you are looking for solutions and ideas for how to re-engage all of your students consider reading my very first book  Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.      Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.

 

Cover Reveal: Albie Newton by Josh Funk and Some Very Exciting News

I first properly met Josh Funk when he bought me a cup of tea in a convention center in Boston for ILA.  Properly because we had actually met at NerdCamp but had not had much time together.  So in a crowded hallway, we sat down to talk picture books, writing, and what it means to work with kids and try to make the world better.  Had I known that I would make a friend that day I would have made him buy me a donut (chocolate with sprinkles, please).

That day Josh told me of his latest picture book, he was still writing it and was wondering out loud about how characters would react to a child that perhaps didn’t see the wrong in his ways.  We laughed about the perfect endings we both wished for all of our children and realized that the not so perfect endings are sometimes what makes books so amazing and also life so hard.  I spoke of one student who right away reminded me of Albie Newton and how I wished that he would be a part of a world where his set ways were seen as strengths rather than an oddity.

More than a year later and that picture book we talked about is ready to have its cover revealed.  When Josh asked me if I would do the honor, there was no other answer than yes.  After all, this would perfectly coincide with another announcement I had planned; Josh Funk is a contender for Global Read Aloud 2018!  His books are some of my 7th graders’ favorites, as well as my own childrens’, and will be perfect for sparking conversations around the world.    I have wanted to tell him for some time but thought a little surprise would be better.

So surprise, Josh, thank you for trusting me to reveal Albie Newton to the world.

Who is Albie Newton?

A clever scientist?

A brilliant artist?

A mischief-maker?

On the surface, it might seem like ALBIE NEWTON is a cute little story about a boy’s first day at school and how he attempts to make friends (and fails with hilarity), but everything eventually works out in the end. Hopefully, you’ll revel in the adorable illustrations created by Ester Garay. And I certainly want you to laugh at the silly STEAM-related situations in which Albie finds himself. For example:

Arjun ate his snack and finished Albie’s cleanup duties,

while Albie built a science lab and found a cure for cooties.

But there’s a deeper level; one I really struggled with getting right. And Pernille Ripp helped me realize exactly who Albie was and how to keep his character true.

We talk about the need for windows and mirrors. I believe Albie will be a mirror for some kids who often don’t get to see themselves in everyday, non-”issue” related stories.

Let me back up. One of the very first lessons you learn as a picture book writer is this:

The main character must solve the problem on their own – and learn a lesson in the process.

It’s a basic picture book paradigm – flip through pretty much any picture book and you’ll see what I mean. And this generally makes sense. Stories are far more satisfying if the main characters figure out how to solve their own problems. It’s less satisfying if a parent or teacher solves the problem and didactically explains the lesson.

But as an educator, you’ve likely encountered some students who, in certain social situations, have difficulty solving their own problems. And in some of those cases, kids may not even notice that they’ve caused problems … until it’s too late.

Back to Albie’s story, on his first day of school, he ends up unintentionally and unknowingly alienating his classmates one by one on each and every page of the book. As the tension rises and his classmates’ anger reaches a boiling point, Albie is still unaware he’s caused a conflict.

And then, I had my own conflict: How do I end this book?

Does Albie solve the problem himself? Does he apologize? Does he learn a lesson? That was the textbook answer according to the “Picture Book Paradigm”.

But I knew Albie’s character. He wouldn’t apologize on his own. I didn’t even believe he would change throughout the story. Would this be a satisfying ending for the reader? Would it be believable? After several phone calls and emails with my agent AND editor about this very topic, a decision had to made. Deadlines loomed. The illustrator was already hard at work.

And there I was, having coffee on a bench at the Hynes Convention Center for ILA 2016 in Boston explaining my struggle to Pernille Ripp. If you’ve read Pernille’s writing (and I’m assuming you have because this is her site, after all), you’ll know she’s got passionate opinions. And that day she didn’t disappoint.

Pernille said that she’d had students like Albie. And sometimes social interactions are incredibly challenging, to say the least. She adamantly said I needed to stick to my gut and have Albie NOT apologize or learn a cliché lesson. Because that’s how it would have been for many of the Albies she’s taught. And especially not because that’s just how picture books work.

Pernille’s encouragement gave me the confidence to keep Albie’s character the way I’d always intended – a mirror for those who need him to be one. And hopefully, Albie is a window for the rest of your students, who often have trouble interacting with and understanding the Albies of the world.

You might even say that Albie Newton isn’t really the main character of ALBIE NEWTON; the main character is everyone else in the class. And they’re the ones who learn that valuable lesson and come out of the story changed.

Without further ramblings, explanations, and ado, here is the cover of ALBIE NEWTON.

 

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Thank you, Pernille, for hosting this cover reveal. And thank you for giving me the advice and confidence to make this book the way it needed to be.

ALBE NEWTON by Josh Funk, illustrated by Ester Garay, published by Sterling Children’s Books will be available everywhere on May 1, 2018.

Bio: Josh Funk writes silly stories and somehow tricks people into publishing them as books – such as the Lady Pancake & Sir French Toast series (including The Case of the Stinky Stench and the upcoming Mission: Defrostable), It’s Not Jack and the Beanstalk, Dear Dragon, Pirasaurs!, and the forthcoming Albie Newton, How to Code a Sandcastle (in conjunction with Girls Who Code), Lost in the Library: A Story of Patience and Fortitude (in conjunction with the New York Public Library), It’s Not Hansel and Gretel, and more coming soon!

 

Josh is a board member of The Writers’ Loft in Sherborn, MA and was the co-coordinator of the 2016 and 2017 New England Regional SCBWI Conferences.

Josh grew up in New England and studied Computer Science in school. Today, he still lives in New England and when not writing Java code or Python scripts, he drinks Java coffee and writes manuscripts.

Josh is terrible at writing bios, so please help fill in the blanks. Josh enjoys __(naps)_____ during ___(rain storms)_____ and has always loved ___(doing his taxes)_______. He has played __(old and wise)_____ since age _(2)_ and his biggest fear in life is being eaten by a __(goldfish)________.

For more information about Josh, visit www.joshfunkbooks.com or @joshfunkbooks on Twitter.

When We Punish Our Readers

Tomorrow my students will dig into their reading decisions over the past 6 weeks.  What have they read?  How much have they read?  What are they working on as readers?  Who have they shared books with? Are they growing or just being?

We do this in an effort for our kids to understand who they are as readers.  What they are doing well on and where they need to adjust.  They will figure out their comfortable reading rate.  They will see how much they should be reading on average in a week.  They will discuss the books they have read and those they have abandoned.  They will think, reflect, and set new goals.  I will mill around them, look at their reflection answers and support them any way I can.

Then they will share their reflections with those at home.

While many things will happen in tomorrow’s much too short lesson, there is a major thing that won’t.

Punishment.

For those kids who may not have read much, they will not lose privileges.

They will not be held back from recess.

They will not be punished into reading more in an effort to meet a goal set by me.

They will not be shamed.

They will not be separated from those where reading comes easy.

There will be no public dismissal of the kids whose reading lives are nor as established as others.

Why would there be?  How could we possible see positive change in those who are not reading, if we were to punish them?

Except in some schools, there are.

In some schools I see AR points, pages read, or books read used as a way to separate those who can and do read from those who can’t or won’t.  I see scores set by others determine how a child’s experience will be with reading in the future.

I see arbitrary measures shared with home as if the points from AR or another computerized test will truly tell the story of that child’s reading identity.

And I see punishment.  Privileges removed from the child who fails to meet their goal.  Reading rules implemented that instead of eliciting more positive reading experiences, completely undermine the entire experience.  And the kids stand idly by while we destroy their love of reading.

How has that ever been ok?  How have we ever agreed to this?  Have we lost our common sense when it comes to something as important as helping children become readers and remaining such?

So if you see this happening in your school, in your curriculum, to your child; I hope this post gives you courage.  I hope this post gives you pause.

We cannot punish children into reading.  We cannot make reading a punishment in itself.  We cannot let outside goals, set by us, determine what rights a child will have.

What we can do instead is support.  Is help.  Is create access to books and speak books with our students.  Give them time to read and have them do meaningful work.  Have them set goals that are meaningful to them and then help them accomplish them.  Help them reflect when they don’t.

We worry about helping children become readers but then fail to see our own hand in their unraveling.  Our kids deserve more than the punishment they get, why did we forget that?

If you like what you read here, consider reading my newest book, Passionate Readers – The Art of Reaching and Engaging Every Child, out August 2017.  This book focuses on the five keys we can implement into any reading community to strengthen student reading experiences, even within the 45 minute English block.  If you are looking for solutions and ideas for how to re-engage all of your students consider reading my very first book  Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.      Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.

 

Our Perfectly Average Child

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I have shared the story of our youngest daughter Augustine’s much too early arrival several times on this blog.  It is a story I share gladly as we think of what our students sometimes live through before they come to us.  It is a story I share to remind myself of how far we have come.  And yet, whenever I look at her I cannot help but marvel at just how far she has come.

How much she is versus what she was.

How far she has grown from how little she was.

The odds she has overcome to be given the best title in the world; perfectly average.

Average; meaning in the middle of a set of numbers, meaning typical, meaning the usual.

A perfectly average child who has fought her way to carry that label.

It is within her story that I am reminded of just how far “average” can be for a child.

How much our students sometimes overcome to simply reach it.

How far our students go to simply be typical.  To reach the usual.  To reach the middle of others.

How we sometimes forget just how much of a victory reaching average can be.

Of course, we should push our students to be more than what they were but don’t ever discount the average.  Don’t ever dismiss the journey of a child who happens to land right there, for we don’t know how far that journey has been.

As I look at Augustine run after her siblings I see a perfectly average child and I know that she will be okay.  That we will be okay.  And that average is right where she is supposed to be.

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