Monday, September 28, 2009

How to Discourage Young Readers: Turn Books Into Numbers

In first and second grades, I had a hard time with reading. There was trouble in my family. My mother had been hospitalized, and my dad was a struggling graduate student, caring for two small children. I got stuck in the lowest reading group at school. I sat with other "under-performing" kids, obsessively drawing pictures of horses.

Oddly, I was a whiz at arithmetic. I'm guessing that numbers didn't scare me, stripped as they were of drama. But stories? The ever-shifting relations among words and meaning? Too risky.

Decades later, books are my profession. I'm now running a blog called WOMEN = BOOKS, and have encountered far more book-blogging sites than I ever would have dreamed. (Did you know that the second annual "Book Blogger Appreciation Week" kicked off in mid-September?)

Yet how I learned to read can't be distilled into an easily reproduced action plan with "metrics." I've been thinking a lot about reading education lately, in part because my seven-year-old son has yet to discover the joys of chapter books. (I'm a little worried, though I know I shouldn't be.) More to the point, Accelerated Reader, the bane of many a literary parent in the public schools, has clumped into my awareness like a bully with no sense of humor.

In "Reading by the Numbers" an excellent but disturbing New York Times essay, novelist Susan Straight reflects on the rise of AR, a "reading management" software system produced by Renaissance Learning.

It's been around for awhile, so my only justification for ignorance until now is that my son's just reached second grade and is going to a groovy private school. Still, in an earlier piece that I wrote about Straight's essay, I was surprised by the loathing for AR expressed by some parent- and teacher-commenters.

Here's my friend Angela Mann, mother of two teenagers in California: "Ah, the AR system. My pet hate. My kids have been forced to use this hideous reading system for years."

Here's another old friend of mine, a long-time teacher in Washington state who wishes not to be named: "As a Title 1 Reading instructor in an elementary school, I have experienced Accelerated Reader and detest it. My opinion, garnered from my 18 years experience in public education, is that teachers who use it are lazy."

It's hard to blame public schools for pushing reading as if it's the answer to everything from McJobs to Global Warming. (They're pushing math and science, too.) But parents and teachers have every right to be angry about mindless quantification just to "make the numbers."

The education bureacracy, lashed on by companies that profit from curriculum "systems" like AR, are trying to trap the equivalent of a many-armed goddess in a soda can.

Accelerated Reader is used by upwards of 75,000 schools around the country, notes Straight. Participating students get points for reading books, with a goal of 50 points for outside reading in a given class.

That means students get a point tally instead of that tingle of recognition when a story speaks to them. As my teacher-friend explains,

Teachers use AR to measure comprehension on "leveled" books. The child says he/she has read a book. The teacher tells them to log on to the computer, answer the questions, and return with a printed-out score. Why not listen to a child read and talk about the book to measure comprehension?

Then there's the way books are rated. Straight says she delved into the mathematics of the ratings system, which likely has something to do with page length, average sentence difficulty, and percentage of tough vocabulary words. In this scheme, according to Straight, Willa Cather's My Antonia gets 14 points, while Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix gets 44.

I like the Harry Potter books just fine, but comparing one to My Antonia is not only apples and oranges; it's simply the wrong message about what makes a great book great.

Renaissance Learning's website carries the tagline: "Advanced Technology for Data-Driven Schools." But how do you measure character development and emotional catharsis? My friend Angela doesn't hold back about AR's banality:

I've seen it turn readers into point counters and strategists. What can I read to give me enough points? Why should I read this when I've already got my points for the semester? Why should I read this when it is not an AR book and doesn't count?

My teacher-friend in Washington adds:

A few years ago, shortly after AR was purchased by our school, I took an AR test myself on a book I'd read many, many times. Rather than focusing on the deeper meaning of the beautiful historical fiction story by Joan Lowery Nixon, the historical facts, or the motivation of the characters, the AR test asked me about the color of a dress a character wore. I had no idea. I was stunned. The question had no relevance in the story at all.

Not all parents and teachers hate Accelerated Reader, but as I've discovered after googling around, opposition to it is nothing new. On the Family Education Network's site for parents (, an entry about Accelerated Reader has generated 30-plus reviews going back to 2000. Titles range from "Excellent" and "AR Encourages Reading" to "AR Sucks!!!" and "AR Can Shame Readers."

The latter review, posted in 2004, opens with, "My son is now in 5th grade. He used to love to read. Hates it now." This writer concluded, "I am forming a parent organization to fight AR current policy. Anyone want to join?"

For me, the ineffable thing about reading clicked by third grade. My dad had a teaching position at a local college, and we'd moved out of graduate student housing into a suburban tract. Suddenly I was reading chapter books. In my memory, it feels like the Doctor Doolittle series saved me.

Earlier still, there are family photos of me as a toddler looking at books with my father. He says "leopard" was one of my first words, because I loved animals. One of my favorite books in elementary school was The Golden Treasury of Natural History. (It took awhile before fiction ruled my universe.) Regardless, I didn't lack encouragement from my parents.

But fiction or non-, I always hated the canned reading assignments in school. By fourth grade, I was really hating the SRA program, which involved a series of color-coded stories and assignments that you worked through, moving up the levels. It was a competition, getting up to Gold or Purple.

The current promotion of AR has made me curious again about SRA—aka the SRA Reading Laboratories. These materials have now been used by more than a 100 million students, claims McGraw-Hill, their current publisher. On the publisher's website, the beginnings of the SRA reading program's 50-year history are described this way:

A lesser man would have given up.... [H]is oversized shoe box with its sections of coloured story cards and questions, which the students could mark themselves, didn't look like a text book; and that's what the educational publishers he took it to said...
Never mind that SRA ended up with McGraw-Hill, a textbook behemoth. According to this telling, the humble author of these shoebox materials, Don Parker, finally hit up a small publishing company called SRA (Science Research Associates): "It wasn't the sort of name you would associate with a schoolbook publisher, and indeed it wasn't—it produced aptitude tests for soldiers returning from the Korean wars trying to find a job."

Parker was supposedly doing battle with old-fasioned textbooks like "Dick and Jane." But the "Science" in SRA's name and those aptitude tests for soldiers tell the real story. When publisher Lyle Spencer of SRA agreed to take on the shoebox project, "It was the best decision he ever made."

Financially, no doubt. Yet for a self-motivated reader like me, nothing could have been more beside the point. I lived for free library days.

So how do we—or the schools—spark a love of reading in children? What matters most? I believe teaching students to be critical thinkers about what they're reading, whether it's a Twilight book or Pride and Prejudice, is crucial. But giving kids points for reading books neither encourages analysis (although Renaissance Learning would claim its AR system of quizzes does just that) nor a love of reading.

Consider this excerpt from Straight's essay and all it says about how novels expand our notion of the world in ways that can never be quantified:

One day last spring, after my eighth-grade daughter finished reading “To Kill a Mockingbird” (assigned reading for class), she sat on the couch, thoughtful and silent for a long time. Then she looked over at me and said: “I think that was one of the best books I’ve ever read. And not everybody could understand it. But I do. Especially Tom Robinson.”

Her father is 6-foot-4, 300 pounds and black. We talked about how American society has historically projected racial fear onto innocent men, and about how Harper Lee portrayed the town of Maycomb so vividly that you could see the streets and porches...

“To Kill a Mockingbird” is worth 15 points.

As I sensed at six years old, numbers are safer than stories; they can be pinned down. But a mom in the hospital? Racism? That requires something very messy—a lot of thinking and feeling.

Another version of this post orginally appeared in Talking Writing as "My Antonia Vs. Harry Potter: Crunching the Great Books." Thanks to writer Jeanne Schinto for sending me the link to Straight's essay.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Oh California...I'm Not Coming Home

In the 1970s, when I left the Bay Area to go to college, Joni Mitchell's "California" was my anthem. I was a wraith of a girl, a straight-A student. I was never a surfer, but Beach Boys songs reminded me of home, too. Back then, being from California seemed essential.

Here's Joni singing with all that youthful longing:

But my heart cried out for you California
Oh California I'm coming home...
I still love California. But I can no longer come home to it in a romantic swoon, and it's not just because the Golden State has been tarnished by economic and natural disaster. It's because I've lost the sense that any place can "take me as I am." My loss is personal and profound, and in it I recognize the calls for a return to an older dream of America.

I support the Obama administration, but this emotional recognition worries me. On Saturday, September 12, thousands will participate in the "Taxpayer March on DC." I hope White House staffers are paying due respect to the feelings under all the crazy talk. I fear they are not.

It's hair-trigger, the way so many leap from their own grief to political rage. I know my lack of security has everything to do with the fragile health of my parents. I'm outraged at the government, but letting my anger spill over to governors and presidents does me no good. Maybe it feels good for a few seconds, but then it doesn't, not at all.

If you look at websites for groups like the Tea Party Patriots, there's little content about policy. I tried to pull a quote with substance, yet all I found were references to "our Founding Fathers," "free markets," and "limited government." It's all about mobilizing, speaking up, resisting.

It's relentlessly personal. It's feeling-driven, just like a pop song, and what an irony that the language of lefty organizing—all that attitude about "Sunset pigs," in Joni's words—now does service for conservatives. Our supposedly lost country is a long way from 1971 and Laurel Canyon on her album Blue. Yet in that California dream, everyone wanted their own freedom, too. They wanted to sink into a reverie of pleasure.

No bourgeois values. No war. That was just a dream some of us had.

California has always had a libertarian strain. My dad the political-science professor understood this well, starting with the election of Ronald Reagan as governor in 1966. But I didn't get the zeitgeist shift earlier this summer, when my family happened across a "tea party" rally in Times Square. One block was suddenly packed with white skin, and there were exhortations about "not taking it anymore" from revved-up guys on megaphones.

I did feel the shift by the end of August, however, in San Diego. An old friend we visited in La Jolla says that on election night, when she ran out her door to cheer for Barack Obama the minute the polls closed, she heard only one other answering yodel blocks away.

There was far more cheering in the Bay Area and Los Angeles last November, but the aggrieved conservatism is also California. As a teenager, clutching both Blue and David Bowie's Diamond Dogs as identity totems, it was easy to sneer at Southern California. Yet its dreams of beaches and surfers and casual hook-ups most evoked what I called myself then.

We're all culpable in our desire for a metaphorical home. The longing for a golden past is easily manipulated by conservative interests, who use code words like "individual liberties" and "fighting change." But existential angst is what I'm talking about here—a complex brew that can send the strongest of us running to a cause. Progressive politicians reveal their own biases when they don't see how much the current dissent is animated by hurt.

Oh California. You symbolize more than you know.

My home is elsewhere and has been for years. But I visit the Bay Area often because my parents are both ill. My father, in particular, is slipping into the frozen darkness of Parkinson's Disease. On a good afternoon, he and I might spend ten minutes under the lemon tree in his backyard, an occasional hummingbird buzzing in the leaves. I smell my past there: the scent of the dry hills. I smell my dear father, in his baggy sweatshirt, as he talks about letting go, about having lived a good life, about his worries for my mother.

Yes, I'm scared that one season is ending as another begins. But to conflate my loss and fear with the state of the country would be to lose my soul—and these days, my soul is the thing I come home to.

Joni has lost her amazing young voice, too. But some would say she's attained something richer and more hard-won. Even by 1976 and her album Hejira, she was on the endless road again. Ron Rosenbaum's paean to her transcendent song "Amelia," about the "ghost of aviation," explores longing in a far more complicated key:
I was driving across the burning desert
When I spotted six jet planes
Leaving six white vapor trails across the bleak terrain
It was the hexagram of the heavens
It was the strings of my guitar
Amelia, it was just a false alarm
As Rosenbaum notes of the many meanings of false alarm, "when used colloquially, [it] is more often taken to be analogous to—if not synonymous with—'false hope.'"

Joni was never a romantic swooner. In a review in NOW Magazine, Susan Cole complains of a difficult interview with her in 1994. Cole quotes Michelle Mercer, author of the biography Will You Take Me As I Am: Joni Mitchell's Blue Period, as saying, “Joni Mitchell is not like us. She’s driven to recreate herself as an artist in ways that very few people do. She’s been through so many stages of regeneration.”

Last week in La Jolla, I took a walk to the beach by myself before heading to the airport. At the end of a cul-de-sac, among all these deceptively modest bungalows in a million-dollar neighborhood, I stepped out on a ledge between houses. There was the blue Pacific and the white sand and a watery haze in the air. I expected to feel a last "ah," a sweet snort of Southern Californian fun and sun to take back with me to the east coast.

Instead I was suffused by sadness. My eyes blurred. I watched several surfers up the beach, black crescents in their wet suits. The swells were large but orderly, and when one surfer stood, he or she descended into beautiful white froth, then paddled back out to do it again.

I kept watching them, counting seconds, daring myself to wait until they took another wave—and two did, cutting down the same swell and into the same sparkling froth—not graceful, but fully alive and present.

I thought of myself, getting up and roaring down another wave, of the need to keep getting up and splashing down into the cold froth. I thought of my father, who often needs a push to get started out of his chair just to take a few mincing, wobbly steps forward, who needs my help now to lift his legs onto the bed before descending into sleep.
Oh it gets so lonely
When you're walking
And the streets are full of strangers
All the news of home you read
More about the war
And the bloody changes
Oh will you take me as l am?
Will you take me as l am?
Will you?
Oh California. I will remember you. I watch the surfers and also feel ecstatic. The day I don't find myself yodeling down a wave is the day I die—or so I tell myself, under a misty blue sky, my body still brown and whole and able to lift me up.