Once upon a time, there was a little girl who loved to read. Her mother read her books. When baby sisters came along she read books to herself. Her dad would take her to the library. Her teacher suggested books to her, including Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret when she was in fourth grade. It became her anthem into adolescence. She read Harriet the Spy three times, long before there was a movie adaptation. She learned that some books were too cold, some too hot, but most just right, all without someone telling her. No context clues. No five fingers. No color-coded levels or reading logs. Nothing was forbidden or taboo. When her great-grandmother gave her The Secret Garden, she used her own judgment to put it aside until she connected with it a year or so later. She would read anything and everything. Stories and information fueled her imagination.
My apologies for using third-person point of view: I needed to get outside my own head for a while and look at the bigger landscape. What a pure joy, to develop and cultivate a reading life before it was a “thing.” Of my current 90 students, I have one girl who tears through my #ProjectLit books as if they’re a bag of Takis. She is a reader. She tested far and away the highest ‘level’ IRLA from the American Reading Company can test. She is proud of her reading and her intelligence, as well she should be. Meeting her mother at conferences I thanked her, and her mother said they read at home.
Now another 8th-grade girl said she doesn’t need to read The Hate U Give because she already saw the movie. She said this in a defensive, snotty tone, challenging me to push back on this notion. I didn’t try. And please don’t misunderstand: I am not critical of her: she’s a teenage girl who doesn’t see the value in spending time with the book, with the author’s prose and structure and doesn’t want to think beyond that. She saw the movie, and that’s enough.
So we’ve had years of reading logs, and accountable talk, and for what? Now I’m in a district that uses a program called IRLA from the American Reading Company that says it doesn’t level readers, only books. When a representative from the company visited my room, she wanted to demonstrate the program with a student, and I chose a young girl who’s been reading anything scary I have in my classroom library. She was reading Through The Woods. The rep look at her computer screen leveled this book, and immediately told the student the book wasn’t at her level, “she was an orange level” and to go get an orange book. My student did what she was told.
That is a true story.
And what is also true is after the rep and group left my room, I went into damage control. I told her to never, ever worry about what level she or a book is in terms of what she wants to read. Read and talk about whatever she wants.
But I am left with my own accountability for using this program with students, and my evaluation is based on how much growth students show over this year. It’s on my TPEP evaluation goals, which my administrator crafted. I didn’t have a say in what my goals were or should be. Okay. This is the reality thousands of teachers face in schools across the country. I have the screenshots. We are required to teach and use instructional time for this program. The research I’ve done is dominated by the American Reading Company, so it’s difficult to find independent data. I am a solution-oriented person: if this is what I am required to use, then I will also tap into my professional expertise (by reading Donalyn Miller, Kylene Beers, Kelly Gallagher, et al) and make it work. Fortunately, Cult of Pedagogy addressed this issue: What are the best ways to use leveled texts?
And now, for those in the back: READERS ARE NOT LEVELS. BOOKS ARE.
One of the biggest mistakes Serravallo sees is labeling students by text levels. “Levels are meant for books, not for kids,” she explains. “There’s really no point in time when a kid is just a level, just one. There’s a real range, and it depends on a lot of other factors.”
Please: protect your readers. And be transparent about how and why you’re protecting them. You are fighting for their love of reading, but they need to learn how to do this, too, and advocate for their reading lives.
I’m returning to my Burning Questions unit soon. Not sure I ever stop, actually. Time to flip the script on reading instruction and give authentic and honest hope in our agency.