This morning at breakfast my daughter sadly eyed the book I’d gotten her for Chanukah, Alice in Quantumland. This is the sort of nerdy, unusual book I love to buy—once we’re done with it we’ll donate it to our library and hopefully they’ll make it available to other nerdy unusual kids in our community.
But why was she sad?
When you have kids who are avid readers, they run into different obstacles than the general public understands. Our children’s publishing industry is focused on “hi-lo” books—high interest, low readability. In other words, books that are very similar to the type of kids’ movies that Hollywood puts out. The producers of these books assume that:
- Kids don’t like to read
- Kids have to be enticed into reading by high concept stories
- Kids are terrified to come across a word they don’t understand
- Kids will refuse to pick up any book that’s heftier than their iPad
Problem is, there are tons of kids who don’t fit this model, but because they are “doing fine,” no one is paying them much attention.
In the past, I’ve written about two periods of childhood in which avid readers run into roadblocks (pre-K/K and tween) and also how hard it is for science-minded girls to see themselves in kids’ literature (here).
Our daughter, now that she’s doing 7th grade in school, has run into another avid reader roadblock: Accelerated Reader.
In concept, AR sounds great. Kids read books on their own, log into AR at school, take a quiz about the book*, and get credit for reading time. At the beginning of each year, teachers set AR goals for all their students. Not having much of an idea who these kids are**, they set a low goal for the semester and kids like my daughter blow through that goal in a couple of months.
You can guess what happens next: The teacher doesn’t say, wow, this child has mastered everything she needs to in the area of reading, so I’m just going to encourage her to keep reading things she loves and stop worrying about proving that she’s reading certain, approved books. Instead, the teacher says, oh, no, this child reached the goal so early, I’m going to have to set a much higher goal.
So kids like my daughter learn a lesson that perhaps the teacher didn’t mean to teach: If you enjoy something that school cares about, make sure to hide it and pretend you’re just like everyone else. If you don’t, you’ll be punished with more busywork that will keep you from doing the things you want to do.
Here’s why my daughter was sad this morning. She clearly wants to read Alice in Quantumland. But she has to meet this new, high AR goal her teacher set soon after winter break has ended.
And Alice in Quantumland is not listed in AR. That means she can’t take a quiz to prove she read it. That means if she reads it, in her words, “I’ll be reading it for no reason since I won’t get credit.”
Oh, no! Reading for no reason! This terrible impulse must be quashed!
I can never get over the irony of being someone who understands how our education system works while listening to politicians and concerned community members talking about education. They want kids to read (mine does), be inspired (mine is), and learn (can’t stop mine from doing that). Yet they push our system for more and more “accountability,” which ends up quashing any interest in reading, any inspiration the teachers might be able to uncover in their students, and any real, deep learning that can’t be proven on a standardized test.
My daughter’s at school only because she wants to be. She knows that when she complains about AR, it’s not my problem. She could be homeschooling right now like her brother is, determining her own curriculum, reading books that inspire and excite her whether or not AR thinks they’re worth reading.
But for some reason, she’s continuing on this social science experiment that she started last year. I still stand firmly behind my reasons for letting her go to school: If I believe in child-led learning, then I have to let her see this through.
But when I saw her lovingly and sadly flipping through her new book, it gave me pause. It’s the last day of school before winter break. I could just say, “Come on, let’s be homeschoolers today.” But she had her celebratory cupcakes for her Humanities class party, and she was ready to go.
“Well,” I suggested. “Perhaps you will have time during vacation to finish your AR goals and then get to this book.”
And then we went to school.
* They take the quiz to prove they actually read the book—I won’t start on my rant about how unnecessary this is if educators were given the time to really work with and get to know their students…
** Another homeschooler rant here: If teachers had fewer students, if there were more continuity in our public schools from year to year so teachers didn’t have to depend on assembly-line teaching to try to serve their students’ needs, if we didn’t think we had to have “accountability” for each and every smidgeon of learning our kids do…