Wednesday, June 12, 2013

You Lost Me at Accelerated Reader, NPR

Social networking sites and the blogosphere have been sparking with fury over an NPR News article questioning "What the Kids Are Reading in School and Out."  Over on The Reading Zone, Sarah has penned an eloquent response to the NPR article: "The Kids Are Still All Right, Despite What Accelerated Reader Might Say."

I have some additional thoughts:

Reading the line "research shows that as young readers get older, they are not moving to more complex books" reminds me of Mark Twain's warning about research: "There are lies, damn lies, and statistics." 

We should heed Twain's sage and classic words when considering any claims and "research" from Renaissance Learning, a for-profit businesses and the company who has plagued many schools and young readers with the dreadful Accelerated Reader program. 

As Sarah explains, many classics also have relatively low reading levels based on the formula RL uses. The company's goal is to sell a product, not produce life-long readers and lovers of books. 

For sure, Renaissance Learning marches to the beat of numbers. That's why they use metrics to determine reading level: count the words in a sentence to determine sentence complexity; count the vocabulary words to determine the complexity of diction. Count the number of books a kid reads based on the number of comprehension quizzes the student passes. Record all the numbers and boast. 

Then claim students don't read complex books after middle school. Clearly, RL wants to move AR into more high schools:

"Last year, we had more than 8.6 million students from across the country who read a total of 283 million books," says Eric Stickney, the educational research director for Renaissance Learning.

Follow the numbers: If RL can get 8.6 million students to read 283 million books, think what they can do for high school students poor reading habits--for a price. 

This reminds me of the Pardoner in Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales: "I preach for nothing but greed of gain," says the Pardoner in his tale. 

My district uses Accelerated Reader. Not once have I heard a student proclaim: "I love AR. It really pushes me to be a better reader and to want to read." My own children detested AR, and as a parent and teacher, so do I. 

In fact, many students have told me that they hated AR and so have teachers who are forced to use the program. Say AR to the most passionate teachers using the program, and you're libel to get an ear full of ranting laced with expletives about how dreadful the program is to student reading progress. 

In its support of RL, the NPR article cites several novels students regularly read, but the tone suggests something sinister and wrong with assigning students these texts:

  • Of Mice and Men: What's wrong in this era of bullying with having students read a tale about friendship and accepting and cherishing those whose abilities differ from our own? 
  • To Kill a Mockingbird: What's wrong with continuing to assign this seminal work of literature that arguably is a cultural, shared icon? 
  • The Help: What's wrong with students reading about the treatment of African American women working for racist white women in the 1960's? 
  • The Kite Runner: What's wrong with students reading a heart-wrenching story about life in Afghanistan, a country in which we have been embroiled in a war for more than a decade? 
Then the article fallaciously claims that "in 1989 high school students were being assigned works by Sophocles, Shakespeare, Dickens, George Bernard Shaw, Emily Bronte and Edith Wharton," as though teachers never assign these writers in 2013. Nonsense. 

In my school, students read at least three Shakespeare plays in their English classes, and I teach Shakespearean sonnets in my basic speech classes when we study oral interpretation. Many of our ninth graders read Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities and A Christmas Carol. I have taught Shaw's Pygmalion this century, and a couple of years ago we ordered additional copies of Wharton's Ethan Frome.  And I've only just scratched the surface with these titles.

In a press release last April, Renaissance Learning posed the question: "Boo Radley or Katness Everdeen: Who's Motivating Kids to Read?" I have an answer: It isn't Accelerated Reader or the CCSS, as the press release claims.

I suggest that Renaissance heed the wisdom of the writers it references in its study when thinking about what motivates kids to read:

  • Avi, author of Nothing But the Truth, said, “I believe there are two powerful ways to motivate young people. The first is that they see their own parents, guardians, and siblings reading…The second most powerful motivator is to read to young people.
  • Christy Levings, executive committee member, National Education Association, said, “Not unlike adults, [students] used recommendations from friends and classmates as a major source of finding new things to read.”
  • Doreen Cronin, author of Click Clack Moo: Cows That Type, said, “The books kids read largely depend on which part of the world is calling to them, confusing them, scaring them, or making them laugh.”
  • Donald Driver, author of Quickie Makes the Team, said, “Kids read what they read to have fun! No other activity invites kids to use their imagination quite like reading does.”
  • Dr. Roger Farr, chancellor’s professor emeritus at Indiana University, said, “High-interest books motivate students to read. When books that engage adolescent readers feature interesting topics…students will read.”
Not one writer or scholar calls for more AR in schools. Not one suggests districts purchase another reading program or follow-up free reading with a quiz. Reading to take a quiz isn't fun. Choosing a book based on a colored dot isn't the way to engage students in a book; instead, it's a way to make reading a chore. 

My reading recommendations to students have never been based on a for-profit reading program or the research from a company seeking to suck bucks from school districts while denigrating the role of teachers, and that's exactly the subtext of Renaissance Learning and its Accelerated Reader program. 

Rather than bemoaning the impact popular culture has on student reading choice as Stickney does by complaining about the spike in students reading that resulted from The Hunger Games movie, he should cheer. That's because what holds true for HG is also true for The Great Gatsby this year, Life of Pi this past winter, and Beowulf a few years ago. 

As I read the NPR article, I couldn't help but think about the many times Professor Robin Bates, author of How Beowulf Can Save America and writer of my favorite blog, "Better Living Through Beowulf," has invoked Alice in Wonderland, a children't story to make a political point. A quick search of the blog archive reveals no fewer than 19 posts linked to Lewis Carroll. 

I also thought about the reading choices my students (seniors) made this year. For book clubs at the end of the year, students chose from the following: Life of Pi, Frankenstein, MAUS I and II, and The Great Gatsby. Both Life of Pi and The Great Gatsby were very popular because of the movie tie-ins. All students completed their books. When I asked students what was different in determining whether or not they finished this assigned reading when many have so often admitted to "never having read a book since seventh grade," they responded, "We got to choose." 

An important point Penny Kittle makes in Book Love and that many others reiterate is that we can assign all the whole-class novels, classics and contemporary texts alike, but if kids don't read what we assign, then we accomplish nothing. 

When bleating about the reading choices students make and the books teachers assign, Renaissance Learning should heed Shakespeare. Angry with his mother, Hamlet  charges: "You go not till I set you up a glass / Where you may see the inmost part of you" (III). Just as Hamlet saw the rat Polonious meddling behind the curtain, the rat I see is Renaissance Learning and its Accelerated Reader. 

My granddaughter Kayla, happily reading books of her choice. 
I received the following message via Facebook from a high school friend who has graciously given me permission to publish it here. Thanks, Tony, for these kind words and parental insights:

Read your article about AR. I enjoy your passion you display for your craft. I'm very fortunate my girls are very advanced readers and I don't think the AR program was the reason. I think reading to them as children ignited their desire for reading. I can't count how many times I've read hop on pop, and snug house, bug house. I think their should be a federal holiday for Dr. Seuss

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

"What We are Looking for...": A Coaching Manifesto for Teachers

Next week I'll begin my summer teaching job with the Idaho State University Trio/Upward Bound program. I taught in the program the summer of 2006 and am happy to be returning this year. Back in 2006, I taught speech, College Prep English, and English 12. This year I'll be teaching only one course: Communication 1101, which is the Early College Program dual enrollment class I teach at my home school.

After finding a handout given to one of the basketball teams, I began thinking quite a bit about the approches coaches use in guiding their players Both our boys and girls basketball teams placed 3rd in the state 5A tournament this past year. Here's a screen shot of the document.

I like that this flyer about playing basketball isn't labeled, for had it been, I might have tossed it into the circular file without a second thought. In doing so, I would have missed its implications for classrooms, both for students and teachers.

So as I begin my summer teaching duties, I'll share some of these thoughts with my new students during the course. These students come from 13 Southeast Idaho high schools, so I'll need to work to build a classroom team of learners from the moment the first class begins.

I'll temper the rhetoric a bit while focusing on the general ideas.

Below is my interpretation, followed by the original wording of the document pictured above.

What I'm looking for: Original: What we are looking for:

  • A "yes I can" attitude: No excuses. No arguing about the course requirements (which I don't set). No interrupting me or a peer who has the floor. 
    • Original: A yes sir attitude (ah la Tim Tebow), No excuses, No back talk or talking when I or any other coaches are talking.
  • Focus 100%: Put in the time necessary to complete your outlines and speeches. This will vary for each student but will require substantial commitment from all. 
    • Original: Focus 100%, 1 1/2 to 2 hours to forget about life's issues.
  • Listen: Communication involves more that giving speeches and writing outlines. The ability to hear and understand what others say is equally important. We will engage in numerous activities designed to improve our listening as it is a skill that must be developed and practiced. 
    • Original: Listening we will be implanting a lot of drills to ingrain habits; we are looking for kids that want to get better and can listen and retain information. 
  • Teachable: Improving one's communication skills requires a willingness to learn new and complicated material, as well as a willingness to try new things. 
    • Original: Coachable players that want to improve and be coaches. 
  • Diligent: We have six weeks to learn the research techniques necessary for completing three speeches and outlines. This will be a marathon and a sprint combined. I'll be beside you, supporting you, guiding you through it all, but ultimately the work will have to be yours.
    • Original: Hustle at all times, we will be implementing a lot of drills, I want you to run and hustle in-between drills. (Not running in-between drills talking when I am, back talk, excuses, being late will lead to fines, for the whole team)
  • Hard Working: Hard work is tangible. It's evident in students who read the assigned material, review the online resources and aids, seek out of class help from tutors and the instructor, and in those who do more than the minimum research and preparation. And it it is evident in those who prepare far enough in advance of speech day that they have time to practice. 
    • Original: Hard Workers, players that are willing to go the extra mile, stay late, come early ask for help. 
  • Gracious: Students who want success for their peers and demonstrate their graciousness by supporting one another with applause after speeches, by practicing for one another, by peer reviewing using the assigned criteria, and by offering encouragement. We are a community of learners first and are on this journey together. 
    • Original: Proactive players that like to uplift others and congratulate teammates. 
  • Communicative: Talk to one another and to me. Talk to your tutors and support network.
    • Original: Communication on the floor, and off. 
  • Students who are committed to achieving their academic potential and who make wise choices in and out of the classroom. 
    • Original: Players that have good grades that are Smart and make good decisions on and off the floor. 
  • Potential and Willingness: 
    • Original: Skill and Dedication
The original document concludes with the following:

Basketball is not for you if:
  • You don't see any of the attributes above that are bolded.
  • Can't practice at 6:00-6:30 in the morning. (miss practice, lead to missing game time)
  • Bad grades or missing assignments. (missing assignments lead to missing practice, leads to missing game time)
  • Can't be a good teammate when you don't play. (you or your parents can't handle not getting in the game, no guaranteed playing time)
  • Can't handle coaching.
  • Don't want to improve as a basketball player, and a person.
When I first read the above caveat, I thought: "How would it be if teachers were allowed to enforce these same rules/guidelines?" But when teaching students and coaching athletes, one can only stretch the analogy so far. 

I don't need to see public speaking skill in Communication 1101 students on the first day to "coach" them into developing superb speaking ability. 

I do, however, need students who will attend class, who will complete all the assignments, who are a trustworthy member of the learning community, who can handle professional critiques of their work while realizing these will lead to improvement in their speaking ability, and who do want to grow as a student and citizen. 

So can teachers take a page from a coaching manifesto and apply it to our work in the classroom? Indeed. In the final analysis, we're all players in a metaphoric game, and during the season of learning, no one wants to be benched. It's time to take the shot.