The first time I went to work in a school library, I had no experience other than the practicum hours I completed during my masters program. My principal at the time hired me to open a brand new library in a new middle school. I’m pretty sure a lot of people thought he was crazy. I thought he was kind of crazy. I had no idea what I was doing and was scared to death!
I’ll never forget him asking during the interview, “What is your opinion of reading reward systems?” I asked him, “Do you really want me to be honest or tell you what I think you might want to hear?” He asked me to be honest. I was.
Even though I had never worked as a librarian, I did have six years experience as a classroom teacher. During those six years I worked at two different schools, both of which were “AR” schools.
Disclaimer; what follows is not an AR bashing post, but is just my own personal experience. That’s all I really have to share here!
Accelerated Reader was never something I really pushed as a classroom teacher. If students wanted to take tests and earn points and look for dots on books, I never stopped them. But I also never forced them. Some of my students loved AR and thrived on the competition. But I can tell you my struggling readers hated it. I never tied their grades to AR and didn’t post point averages for the whole class to see. Some of my students were very motivated to get the big prize at the end of the year, but many of them read just because they loved reading.
My love of reading aloud to my students was probably the largest deciding factor when I chose to pursue a master’s degree in library science. If you had asked me what my favorite time of day was, I would tell you it was anytime I was reading and sharing books with my students. If you had asked me on any given day how many AR points my students had or what the class average was, I couldn’t tell you.
But I could tell you what books we were reading. I could tell you that Olivia was several grade levels ahead and her favorite part of the day was literature circles. I could tell you we had the most fun practicing reading fluency with reader’s theater and performing for our parents. I could tell you I had been to my school library that week (and every week) to check out books for my classroom that tied in with the curriculum. I could tell you I read aloud to my students every chance I got. Every day. And I could tell you that they may not have left my classroom with the most AR points, but that every child left my classroom loving books.
And I could tell you that every child in my classroom grew academically. My teaching career began as we ushered in No Child Left Behind and teacher accountability. Every year I evaluated my data and my students made gains. Even my brightest students who can be the hardest to show growth.
I’m not sure if my honesty during that interview is what got me my first job as a librarian. Last week I sat down with a new principal who will open a new school in the fall. She wanted to know how I developed the library program we currently have. Where did my inspiration come from?
I told her we opened the middle school without Accelerated Reader, largely because as a new school we just didn’t have the money for the software. As a librarian, this forced me to think outside the box right from the start. All I had to fall back on was what was successful in my classroom, so that is where we started. Yes, some of the teachers and parents were a little freaked out that we did not have AR. How would we get our students to read? Would they read if we didn’t make them? What would our reading program look like?
When I decided to return to the elementary school library, the administration decided to cancel Accelerated Reader. Many of the same questions that plagued us at the middle school were now being asked of me in my new position. Again, all I had to fall back on was my experience. It has taken several years (you notice I said years) to develop our library program. Literacy has evolved at my school and is still evolving, and if it ever stops evolving I will know I am no longer effective at my job.
But one thing has never changed in the sixteen years I have worked in education: reading is reading. Reading is not a program. Accelerated Reader is not a program, it is a software product. It will not read the books for your students. It will not discuss their favorite parts or the characters they learn to love. It will not share the books they should read next because they love fantasy or graphic novels or books about dinosaurs. Years after your students have left your classroom, AR and reading programs will not be the memory of your voice as you read aloud to them everyday after lunch. Reading great books and listening to great books will be the memories they carry forward.
In my experience and what research shows, growth in literacy is directly tied to the amount of time spent reading, not how much time is spent answering comprehension questions, filling out packets, or completing workbooks and worksheets. If you want to increase literacy rates in your classroom, look for ways to carve out more time to read aloud to your students or for them to read independently. It really is that simple. Time spent reading doesn’t cost thousands of dollars. It is free and it will create memories your students will carry with them well into adulthood.
Book-talking is one of my most powerful tools as a librarian, and I would argue for any educator. When I talk about books, students want to read them. I don’t need a computer or a software license to do it. It doesn’t have to take long, although I do sometimes include chapter or two if time allows. Book-talking is little effort with big dividends. This was a fun week of book-talking and it has paid off; my students are reading!
One of our district goals this year is to bring nationally recognized authors to visit our schools. Our students need to see real authors talk about their writing process and discuss authentic texts. This summer, along with our district reading interventionists, I traveled to the International Literacy Association conference. We were privileged to meet Jerry Pallotta and even hear him speak at the Scholastic authors breakfast (which was worth the early wake-up call)! Jerry spoke about the influence of teachers on his decision to become an author and how we can engage students in literacy. We are excited to welcome him to our district this November!
In preparation for our author visit, we read aloud Who Would Win? Tyrannosaurus rex VS. Velociraptor. In this series, Pallotta pits two creatures – usually apex predators – in a battle royale . The kids love these books! As soon as I shared it with my students they begged me to order them. Since my library bound titles have come in, they have stayed checked out! This series is great for teaching compare and contrast, fact finding, and citing evidence in the text. This book would make a great back drop for a persuasive essay or opinion piece. Who do you think will win? You will have to read to find out!
Sharon Draper was always one of my most popular authors at the middle school. She also offers several must-read books for upper elementary. Last year, my library assistant read Out of My Mind and often recommends the book to teachers and students alike. Naturally, I had to read it and book-talk it!
Cerebral palsy has left Melody Brooks unable to speak, write, walk, or even feed herself. Trapped by her body and unable to communicate, nearly everyone around her assumes she knows very little. What the world doesn’t know is that Melody has a photographic memory and remembers virtually everything she sees and hears. Melody longs to be a normal kid, wear cute clothes, and be part of the quiz team at school. It seems she is finally going to have a chance at a ‘normal’ life when she receives a communication board. She soon finds out the world may not be ready to hear all that she knows. Draper draws upon her own experience raising a child with cerebral palsy. Anyone working in a school setting or with students with disabilities must read this book. Fans of Wonder and Rules will find this a worthy read.
Wednesdays are always a fun day because I have time built into my schedule where I can collaborate with classroom teachers. Sometimes I cover an extended class so a teacher can attend a PLC meeting. These are fun days because I have more time than my regular scheduled 50 minute blocks, which allows me to plan with other teachers, pull resources for classes, do research with students, virtual field trips, and technology projects. This particular week I used this book with a kindergarten class as an extension of Jerry Pallotta’s book Who Would Win?
Have you ever wondered what our world would be like if the dinosaurs were still alive? This classic read aloud by Bernard Most seems simplistic on the surface, but we used the text as a springboard for our own book-making project. In the book If the Dinosaurs Came Back, a small boy takes the reader on a journey through his town as if the dinosaurs never faced extinction. The colorful dinosaurs contrast with the black and white sketches of his town and pop right off the page. We used the app Book Creator and the repeated phrase to create our own If the Dinosaurs Came Back book. First we wrote our sentence and then illustrated. Using the app we combined each student’s page – which they narrated – into a digital book. I recommend this classic for PreK-1st grade.
With a lexile measure of 570 (2nd-3rd grade level) some educators might overlook this title when selecting books merely by grade level. It may be too advanced or too far below their reading level, but this book provides lessons on humanity for every child and adult. There is so much that can be taught with character traits, voice, point of view, and plot structure. I’ve never had a student tell me they did not like this book or finish this book when I recommended it. If you have an apathetic reader, this is the book for them.
The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate is one of those stories that you can’t put down, but are sad when it comes to an end. I could read it again and again and learn something new each time through. Based on a true story, Ivan – a silverback gorilla – is captured in Africa and put on display at the Exit 8 Big Top Mall. There he passes the years with his friends, an elderly elephant and a stray dog. When Ruby (a baby elephant taken from her family) arrives at the video arcade, Ivan learns there is life and love beyond the glass walls of his cage. Recommended for ages 0-99 because every human being should read this book.
Pair Applegate’s novel with her narrative non-fiction text Ivan: The Remarkable True Story of a Shopping Mall Gorilla. Beautifully illustrated, this text provides the factual account of Ivan’s journey to Tacoma, Washington. She includes photographs of Ivan which make it the perfect companion to compare and contrast with The One and Only Ivan.
Teaching in Memphis, I am acutely aware that students need to read about diverse characters that look and act and live just like them. We need authors to write these books and for too long the publishing world has left this literary landscape largely untouched. At both the middle and elementary school I have made a concerted effort to provide books with diverse characters and one of my go-to authors is Nikki Grimes. My students (many african-american) can relate to her characters, because just like them they struggle to make sense of the world. Most of her work is geared toward young adults, so I was excited to hear about her new book for middle grade readers, Garvey’s Choice. I was even more excited when I got to meet her this summer at the ILA conference!
This year – for reasons outlined above – our school is participating in the 40-Book Challenge developed by Donalyn Miller. While emphasizing student choice, we are asking our students to read forty books from different genres. We want them to read more poetry, so naturally I had to book talk Garvey’s Choice. Written in verse, Grimes tells the story of Garvey who struggles with the person he longs to be and the man his father wishes him to become. His coping mechanism is food, until even that stops working. This book offers funny and heartbreaking insight into the journey of boyhood to manhood. Books highlighting eating disorders often feature female characters and this book is a nice break from that common refrain. Recommend for grades 3-8 and would make a great father-son bookclub selection.