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.