Sunday, December 7, 2014

Living in a World of Don't-Believe

As teachers we are asked to deal with or accept many educational issues in which we may not believe.  For example, Common Core Standards, merit pay, charter schools, or teacher evaluations just to name a few.

For me, one of those issues is Accelerated Reader.  I know many posts and articles have been written about AR, and I probably do not have anything new to add.  I work in a corporation where many teachers wholeheartedly accept and embrace AR.  I am not one those teachers.  Instead, I have learned how to live in a world of don't-believe by adapting my beliefs and what I know is best practice into a classroom that supports students as lifelong readers.

I have had several conversations with administrators and teachers where we debated our views.  Most of them support AR because they say it worked in their classrooms. I think it is important to clearly define the meaning of "worked."

If it means that students read for a nine week grading period four times a year, then I would say yes, it probably "worked" in their classroom.  If it means that their students were what I call "binge readers" where they read a lot in the last few days of the grading period just to make their goal, then I would say yes, it probably "worked."

But that is not my definition of what works in my classroom.  I want my students to be lifelong readers, not just readers for 36 weeks.  I want my readers to continue to grab a book after the gold stars are up, the pizza is eaten and the prizes are won.

I want my readers to get lost in books all year long.  I want them to develop empathy for people who are less fortunate than them.  I want books to connect who they are to who they want to become.  I want them to learn life lessons and develop into people who care about others and the world in which we live.  I want them to become friends with the characters and dread reaching the end of the story.

One teacher told me how she loved talking about the books after her students took a test, and how she recommended new books or genres to them.  She was thrilled when students' reading took off.  She believes if it wasn't for AR, that would have never happened.  It was not AR that did that.  It was the relationships she built with her students.  It was about having a reading relationship with them and talking about books.

Building reading relationships with students and developing lifelong readers does not happen because students read a book and take a test.  I believe this happens because of choice, time, and talk.


Research shows that when students have the opportunity to self-select books, their time spent reading, their motivation, and their comprehension increases.  Because of this, my students chose their books.  I do not hold my students to their ZPD or zone of proximate development, determined by the AR program.  If a student is reading a series and one of the books does not fall in his or her ZPD, of course he or she can read it.  I do not penalize students for reading outside of their levels because I would not like to be told I couldn't finish a series because "it wasn't in my level."

I also do not force students to "challenge" themselves by reading in the upper levels of their ZPD. Independent reading should be for enjoyment.  Students will be engaged readers when they enjoy what they are reading and when they get the opportunity to chose the book.

The way AR levels books does not make sense to me.  Here is why.  According to AR levels, this book and all of the books in this series

ATOS reading level 5.2
 are at a higher level than this book.

ATOS reading level 4.8

I have a hard time believing that The Diary of a Wimpy Kid is more challenging than Divergent, nor do I believe that a 4th or 5th grade student needs to be reading Divergent.  I will only use these as guides because clearly something is wrong with the system.

I wrote a post here about a document written by Renaissance Learning about reading levels and what students are reading.  After reading this document, I still had many unanswered questions about student choice.


Research shows that students who read more perform better on reading achievement tests.  Giving students time to read during the school day is vital, but becomes much more difficult at the middle school level because I only have 48 minutes with them.  I believe in putting time into what I value, but I was not living that in my classroom at the beginning of the year.  I was more focused on teaching standards and making sure all of my standards were taught in the designated time period.

If I want my students to see that I value reading and that independent reading is important, then I need to make time for them to read.  This is especially true at the middle school level when extra curricular activities begin to play an important role in their lives.

For the past six weeks, I have started each class with 10 minutes of reading time every day.  This has become a non-negotiable for me.  Spending time teaching standards is not going to matter if my students are not able to read grade-level text and have not built up the stamina to sustain reading during an assessment.


Reading is a social activity, and students need time to talk about the books they read.  They need to talk to each other and share their reading experiences before, during and after reading a book.  There is no better motivation than to read a book a friend or a teacher has just recommended.  When I finish a book, I typically want to talk to my friends or family members about it.  Social media has become my outlet and the perfect place for talking about books.  I have also brought social media to my students.  We try to tweet about books and blog about them to build up the excitement.  Just last week students "shopped" for books after I purchased a huge stack at the Scholastic Warehouse sale.  Monday we will have our first drawing to see who gets to be the first reader of the new titles.

I love the conversations I have with my students about books.  I love sharing my latest read with them, and how I stayed up late finishing the last few pages.  Students ask me how can I remember what everyone is reading.  My answer is simple.  What they read matters to me.  Points, tests and levels do not.

No, this is not a perfect world, and for me, it is certainly a world of don't-believe.  I am a rule-follower and a people pleaser, so I will continue to do as I am told...for now.  Our contract with Renaissance learning is up in 2017, and I will continue to share research with teachers and administrators.  But until then, I will hold on to my beliefs, and I will continue to build reading relationships and to develop lifelong readers.

Never underestimate the power of a great book 
in the hands of a teacher who knows how to use it. -- Steven L. Layne 


  1. Wow...thank you. We do AR in our school, but it isn't required. I hadn't really thought of some of your points, but you are spot on. I have struggled with AR at times, and have tried several different things. This year we are leaving it purely up to them and if they want to meet their goal or not. I will think about these things from here on out. Thanks again for sharing your thoughts.

  2. I appreciate your post! I wish all of the teachers and administrators who think that AR "works" could come listen to my college students talk about it. At the beginning of the semester in my Children's Lit class, students brainstorm a list of things school did to destroy their love of reading (because very few of them can even tolerate reading), and so many things from AR are on the list! So glad you're continuing to share research and resources with your administrators and fellow teachers.