Pixar This by Ryan Hanna
I had a sad conversation this summer.
I’m a regular at my neighborhood diner, The Echo. During the school year, I go on Saturday morning and read. My favorite server (l’ll call her Tanya) asks me about the books I’ve been reading, and then gives me her latest recommendation on a piece of receipt paper.
In the summer, I’m able to go to The Echo more and look forward to it because of the friendship I’ve developed with the owner’s eleven-year-old son (let’s call him Evan). He works at the restaurant to earn his allowance. Evan is a reader and enjoys books, but as I found out last summer, his school uses a program that assigns points to books, focuses solely on leveling, and moves students up an arbitrary scale in order to earn prizes. Evan and I spend time chatting about his hobbies and his reading, in between his futile attempts to teach me how to play Minecraft. As I leave, the owner always thanks me for talking with her son. (I haven’t told her this, but I prefer to talk to children more than adults. Can anyone relate?)
Just about a week ago, we had this conversation:
Me: “So, Evan, what are you reading this summer? Anything good?”
Evan: “Well, I haven’t read much. I don’t have to yet, because the books they assigned me aren’t due until school starts.”
Me: “Sorry to hear that! You could still be reading other books. What’s one of your assigned books?”
Evan: I have to read The Red Pyramid.
Me: “Awesome! I love Rick Riordan and that’s an exciting series. Have you read his other books? The Lightning Thief?”
Evan: “Umm…no. I missed my chance to read them in fourth grade and now they won’t count for points because they are below my level.”
Me: “Wait…you never read books that don’t count for points?”
Evan: “Well…no. I can’t earn points for books below my level. I’m not going to read them because I won’t get prizes.”
Me: “But they are so good! You should be able to read whatever you want.”
There’s so much wrong with this picture. Evan is a reader who has been limited in his reading choices, assigned books he may or may not want to read, and is conditioned to believe that the point of reading is to earn points and prizes. I want to restate that Evan is a student who, when asked, says he enjoys reading. The effect of these types of programs on reluctant, resisting, or non-readers is likely much worse. They do nothing to develop a student’s love of reading.
Educators who support programs with levels and points may argue that they reflect real life. They might say that when you do well at your job, you could earn a monetary bonus. Or they may point out that people walk more in a day because they want to feel their Fitbit buzz at 10,000 steps. These are good examples of people working for extrinsic rewards, but should not be used as justifications for turning reading into a similar quest. There is a specialness to reading that cannot be quantified. The main reason I attend nErDcampMI each year (a wonderful, two-day Edcamp) is to be reminded of my core belief: Students should choose as much as their reading material as possible and that limiting readers is harmful. (I can sometimes forget how important CHOICE is when I am bogged down in the classroom with mandates and prescriptive lessons. Can you relate?)
Educators who support programs that level and assign points may argue that students should read solely on their level. They may posit that students can’t get anything out of a book that is too difficult for them. I completely disagree. No, you don’t want a student consistently reading books that are too difficult for them to comprehend. If that happens, teachers should be conferring about better book choices. But sometimes readers will read a difficult book and they can get something out of it.
I was reminded of this when I recently saw Pixar’s new movie, Inside Out. As I looked around the theater, I saw many families with small children. I wondered as the movie progressed (while wiping my tearful eyes) – are these kids understanding what is going on? Most of the humor in Pixar movies is geared towards adults, while still having elements that kids enjoy – colors, action, and funny characters like Bing Bong or Buzz Lightyear. Imagine if we approached Pixar movies the way some educators approach reading. If we did, kids under a certain age wouldn’t get to see Monsters, Inc. or Up because they may be unable to understand all the humor or grasp the themes. Sounds preposterous, doesn’t it? The giggles surrounding me proved that the kids enjoyed Inside Out. But did they fully understand the meaning behind the story or connect with the emotional core of the film? Probably not. Does it mean they should not have watched it? Of course not! This movie was technically above their level, but when they see it again in the future (many times I’m sure), they’ll gain further pleasure and insight.
Donalyn Miller points out that wild readers often read above and below their reading capacity. Imagine how boring our reading lives would be if we only read books on our level. I personally would miss the chance to crack up at Babymouse’s babysitting antics and I’d never get to enjoy ‘Mr. Browne’s Precepts’ in my favorite book, Wonder. Not to mention that I would not be a college graduate, because many times it was necessary to read and comprehend texts that were WAY above my reading level.
At the start of this new school year, I hope that teachers – reminded of the importance of students self-selecting their reading material – choose choice over points and prizes.
Ryan Hanna is a sixth grade teacher in Cincinnati, Ohio, and has been teaching for eleven years. He served as a Scholastic Book Clubs Teacher Advisor for two years and was named his school’s Teacher of the Year in 2012. Ryan is a fortunate member of the Nerdy Book Club and is a fanatic about reading (and recycling). You can find him on Twitter @rantryan and on his blog at www.seipelt5.blogspot.com.
Thank you for your post. I agree 100%. Students picked up schedules and visited classrooms this week. The number one thing said about reading is I don’t like to read a whole lot because I don’t always like the books THEY pick for me. We need to teach kids how to make informed choices, but choices that are their own, not because they might earn. I was my granddaughter, who started reading at age 3 was failing reading because she was failing those tests for points. They wouldn’t let her pick her book and she hated their choices. She had to read a certain number so she did it quickly. When they finally let
let her choose her own book, 2 grade levels higher, she started passing the tests because they were books she liked. We do a disservice to kids with these programs.
Our school is very clear that these test are not to be used as a grade, only to be used as and indicator for the teacher to know if a student has full comprehension of the text they read. Main use is to motivate and to have the opportunity to target optomum growth for your child
Ryan, I agree with everything you wrote! I find it hard to believe that there is a school out there that has a program described in your post. It seems so outdated and restricted! Unbelievable!
Thanks for your post! Your message is soooooo important.
Children need to choose their own books!
Bravo, Ryan! I love your comparison to Pixar movies! It’s perfect in so many ways – there are layers that appeal to all ages and levels. I also love that you’ve befriended Evan at The Echo (have you read Echo at The Echo?;-). Maybe you’ve planted a seed, and he’ll get to The Lightning Thief one of these days!
Reblogged this on booksandbassets and commented:
Awesome, awesome awesome post.
So true and so sad. I’m glad Evan has you in his life to encourage reading for reading’s sake. I’m hoping these reading programs go away. Reading should be about choice, just like eating is. Good luck and have a great school year!
I am a librarian and fighting hard to get rid of this program at our school. We are to the point where teachers do everything they can to make sure their students get to go bowling and skating, and I mean everything. My principal worries that if it is not required, kids won’t read. Any suggestions on how to get kids to love to read, who are used to the whole AR program?
Went to a workshop with reading teachers across the district and had that very argument of which I was the only one arguing for CHOICE. It does make me rather popular when they get to 6th grade and I tell them they get to choose what they read. If those teachers that think these computerized worksheets are really great would just try choice, they would be amazed at those struggling readers who become readers because of choice.
The thing is there are lots of schools out there with this approach. One of my friends twins go to an exclusive private school and they do the same thing. Kill readers. The twins were so excited I had a book coming out and it was written for their age. That is, until they found out it wasn’t on AR yet. They only read for points. My hope is, we all evolve as educators, and that some day we’ll evolve past such practice. But we all have to keep saying something. Thank you, Ryan.
I preach this same sermon to hundreds of teachers each year at workshops and professional development venues. Many buy into it, but some (unfortunately) do not. Those who don’t are often ultra defensive and extremely vocal about their viewpoint. But…I’ve been in this game for half a century and have developed broad shoulders and thick skin. They serve me well when we cover the developing lifelong readers versus reading for points, pizza and parties issue.
Ryan – thank you so much for writing this piece!! Right on, Teach!
Completely agree with everything you have written here. What concerns me is that I have seen numerous such posts in the recent past, including Cynthia Lord’s wonderful post here earlier this week. How can we get through to the powers-that-be other than continue to preach, teach, and plead?
Superb post! Thank you, Ryan! Last year, my 1st grade son, an avid reader, came home in tears because he wasn’t permitted to choose a book he wanted form the school’s media center. The sticker on this book didn’t match his color coded STAR testing level. I was so disheartened, I took him to the public library and let him choose whatever he wished. About a month later, my older son, a 4th grader who reads at a 10th grade level, wasn’t permitted to take an AR test on a picture book he loved because it was below his level. The system is so stifling. I want to thank you all for “getting it.” It is so rejuvenating to read these blogs and comments. Teachers, educators: please be as creative as you can to keep doing what’s best for your students, despite the unfounded mandates. Your posts give me hope.
Great article! I wholeheartedly agree!
Reblogged this on David Macinnis Gill.
Excellent post! The Pixar connection will be great to use with parents at Curriculum Night.
This is such an important piece! I wish there was a way to have it in every teacher’s hand as we return to school this year!
Thank you for this post. There are many children out there who don’t bother to read. Some parents don’t even encourage them to pick up a book to discover what is in store. To some kids reading just isn’t cool, so they don’t do it.
Preach on! I agree 100% as both a parent (my kids HATED these programs) and as a literacy coach!
This is a sensitive subject. I teach gifted students who sometimes don’t do well on AR tests because it only tests the lowest comprehension level, recall. My students don’t read for that purpose. There’s got to be a better way, but our school system has sunk a great deal of money into the program and money matters, you know. Sometimes more than kids.
I agree with you on so any levels!
My son read HP when he was “younger” than the projected grade level and his school wouldn’t let him test on it. The reasoning was 1) He COULDN’T have read the long of a piece on his own – um, yes, he did! & 2) He COULDN’T retain all the information. “I” allowed him to take the test during the following Summer and he made a perfect score. Boo-yah!
My point is like yours, you can’t frame a reading level on a grade or age. Some readers are reluctant. While others gobble up any book they can get their mits on. By assigning a grade level on books and not encouraging readers to read ANY level, we are doing a disservice.
I would never get to take a test. 😊 My favorite reads are surrounded by pictures and usually only count as a .5 point book and WAY under my reading level.
I firmly believe students should have a choice in what they read. In my classroom library, it is arranged by genre, not level. Students love the freedom of choice. If a book proves to be too difficult, he or she will simply check it back in and get another. Success in my class is when a student tells me how much they enjoy(ed) reading a particular book; not how many AR points they have.
Prizes for summer reading – yes. But points for books? What a perfect way to destroy a love of books! Kids should be encouraged to read widely, in diverse genres – from picture books to graphic novels and everything in between. And even encouraged to watch movies about books they are a bit intimidated to read – because having seen the story, sometimes it’s easier to read the book (how I got my kids interested in Shakespeare).
What a horrible system! There is some merit to leveling if students are allowed a wide variety of choices within that level. Still I prefer that children have the ability to choose books that are not in their immediate reading range. What is wrong with a challenge?
“Evan” sounds a lot like me growing up. I liked reading, but, especially as I got older, didn’t read much outside of the required curriculum. Not only was I a slower reader, which left less time for “pleasure” reading, but I got so burned out of the stuff I “had” to read that the last thing I wanted to do for pleasure was read. I am very grateful that my kids’ schools do not have a point system like this. They have required reading, of course, but also have some choice (esp. at the elementary level).
I am a retired elementary teacher and I agree with your article. I never felt comfortable with this program. Reading for points seems to miss the best part of reading.
Ryan, sometimes we read just the right book at the right time. Your post was just what I needed to read at the right time after having a tearful (me) dialogue with some colleagues about these very damaging to reader practices. Additionally although I know the question was rhetorical, yes I DO enjoy chatting with children more. They are the purest form of human and thinking. Thank you for sharing!