This week Colby Sharp posted the most heartfelt message about Accelerated Reader and to say it went viral is an understatement. Colby’s passion and ire about a practice that we’ve long known is counterproductive bleed through in this video . If you haven’t watched it, you should. It’s as real as real gets.
Colby is mad and rightfully so. This topic is not a new one. We know there is little research to confirm that AR increases reading achievement, or turns out readers beyond the books in the system, as Donalyn Miller wrote extensively about 7 years ago. We know the assessment that “places” these readers and provides a reading level range is flawed. Pernille Ripp digs into that assessment in this blog post which includes a response from Accelerated Reader’s parent company, Renaissance Learning.
We know all this, and yet AR is still widely used as a reading achievement indicator and reading incentive. Colby’s message lit a fire in me and I went down the rabbit hole of reading the comments. The sheer number of those in defense of AR still baffles me but what I really took away from these comments was that human connection was never mentioned. I find it difficult to believe that a computerized program alone is the sole factor in a school’s increased reading engagement and achievement. I would strongly argue that a computer is not what gets kids excited about reading….people do.
The school I work at is the only elementary building in our district that does not participate in Accelerated Reader. At a district-wide meeting a couple years ago, this came up and a colleague was utterly shocked. She didn’t ask about our readers. She didn’t ask about our teaching. She didn’t ask how we focus on literacy in a very large, very diverse school. She only asked, in an incredulous voice, “How do your kids pick out books?” In my shock and disbelief, I didn’t reply. What I would say today is this, “We build relationships with kids, and each other, around books. We get to know the learner behind the numbers.”
So how do kids pick out books in a non-AR school?
- You read. Whatever your role in teaching is, you should be reading and talking about it with kids. No excuses.
- You know authors. If you don’t, get to know them. They love to connect! Visit their website. Go to an author event at your local library. Follow them and connect on social media. Skype with them. Many authors Skype for free. Kate Messner’s website provides a nice list here.
- You connect. Connect with kids over books you’ve read in common. Connect with other teachers in your school, district and on social media. Connect with other educators on Goodreads. Connecting leads to relationship building. This is where the magic happens.
- You book talk. Put yourself out there and be a role model. Kids will read what you recommend.
- You let students book talk. Kids read what their peers recommend. Katherine Sokolowski has a great post about student book talks over at Nerdy Book Club.
- You give them total choice in the library. To quote our beloved librarian and some teachers in our school, “This is a library. They can get what they want.”
- You use technology to provide more access to books in a variety of formats. Have you heard of Epic? I strongly encourage you to look into this because it’s FREE for teachers. It includes thousands of high quality titles and students can access through the web or mobile app. If your school or district has a digital library, include audiobooks. This can be a game changer for many kids.
- You talk to kids about what they are reading. This is a great way to personalize connections with students. You can get a lot of mileage out of a few well-planned questions. The wonderful thing about talk is it can happen in a variety of ways. It can happen as you’re greeting them in the morning, lining them up for recess, waiting during restroom breaks, etc.
- You listen. There is nothing quite as authentic as giving your complete attention to a child when they are talking about a book. It shows you care about what they have to say. If you are doing reading conferences with kids, take a step back and just listen. Don’t always make it about completing a form.
- You display what you are reading. Staff members all over our building display book covers of their reading lives. Kids notice.
This list is by no means conclusive nor is it earth shattering or cutting edge. However, it does address the age old question of how your kids pick out books without a computerized system. It starts with you. People are what drive engagement and achievement not computers.