Last night I taught the first of a series of creative writing workshops at the C.H. Booth Library in Newtown CT. It's the second year I've taught these workshops and despite the travel to get there and back (it's an hour each way) I really love doing them. I teach two groups - one rising 6th-7th graders and the other rising 8th-9th graders, each for an hour-and-a-half.
In our session last night, we talked about how writers get ideas and did some brainstorming exercises.
As a writer, I find teaching these workshops incredibly energizing. After all, these are my people, the kids I write for - okay, maybe some are little younger, but I do plan to write a middle grade again some day. I learn so much from them by listening.
Last night, what I heard broke my heart. In my younger group, the 6-7 graders, I asked the kids for some books that they'd really loved. And from one of the most promising writers in the group, I heard this: "I read this really long book and it was a waste because it wasn't in Accelerated Reader."
I died a little inside. Actually a lot. And then I said to her, "It's NEVER a waste to read a book you enjoy."
The girl next to her said that she'd started reading the Harry Potter series and loved it but then she "got stuck in Accelerated Reader."
This generated a whole discussion amongst the kids about AR. One girl complained that she likes to read high school books but because she is at the 8th-grade level on AR, she is only allowed to read those books. Out of 10 kids in the class, there was one kid who was happy with AR, and that was because she'd won a pizza party with two friends because she'd got to 500 AR points and it was a big source of pride and accomplishment.
But this is a kid who is involved with Odyssey of the Mind, multiple after school activities - a clearly bright and motivated child. Is anyone telling me that AR got her to read and that she wouldn't have been reading anyway? That she couldn't have been motivated without "points"?
During the break between my classes I spoke to the librarian who runs my CW workshop about how heartbroken I was to hear this. She said that the school librarian at the elementary school was a big proponent of AR, because it had shown marked benefits with the reluctant and average readers.
I'm not convinced training kids like puppies with "treats" is the way to turn them into lifelong readers. I had the privilege of hearing our National Ambassador for Young People's Literature, Walter Dean Myers speak in May at the Hudson Children's Book Festival, and he convinced me more than ever that it's adults modeling enthusiasm for books and reading and getting books into the home EARLY through programs like Reading is Fundamental and First Book that really makes a difference. That and investing in early childhood education.
Instead we are cutting library funding and school librarians, cutting funding to literacy programs, and school systems are spending money on programs like AR, because it seems like an easy, one size fits all fix, instead of letting teachers work their magic. And in doing so, we end up with kids thinking that reading a really long book they enjoyed is a "waste." That makes my blood boil. It makes me wonder who the hell is making decisions about education in this country and if they're doing for benefit of kids or for financial benefit.
For more on Accelerated Reader from those in the trenches here's some further reading: