Sunday, September 6, 2009

My Antonia Vs. Harry Potter: Crunching the Great Books

By Martha Nichols for Talking Writing

"Reading by the Numbers" is an excellent but disturbing New York Times essay by novelist Susan Straight that's worth getting up in arms about. In it, Straight reflects on the rise of Accelerated Reader, a "reading management" software system produced by Renaissance Learning. Accelerated Reader is used by upwards of 75,000 schools around the country, writes Straight. Participating students get points for reading books, with a goal of 50 points for outside reading in a given class.

The problem? How books are rated. Straight notes that 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. But in this scheme, Straight says that Willa Cather's My Antonia gets 14 points, while Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix get 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 web site carries the tagline: "Advanced Technology for Data-Driven Schools." (The link to Straight's essay was sent to me by writer Jeanne Schinto via Facebook.) But how do you measure character development and emotional catharsis?

I'm still searching for answers to those questions. I'd also like to know what other people think about sparking a love of reading in children: How do we do it? What matters most? I'd be especially interested in hearing from teachers.

The comments to Schinto's link to the essay on Facebook—which she titled "Outrageous"—evolved into a discussion of who liked or didn't like Harry Potter. I noted a similar back-and-forth on the Facebook comments about Karen Ohlson's "The Real Trouble with Twilight," which was first published on Talking Writing. Another long comment stream followed "I Won't Read Moby Dick and You Can't Make Me" on Open Salon, in which various participants debated whether children should be allowed to read whatever they want for credit in school or forced to read great books.

I think you do both. 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 system of quizzes does just that) nor a love of reading.

Consider this excerpt from Straight's essay and all it says about how great 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.


  1. 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. 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?

    The AR "point" requirement for some teachers can be too much for struggling readers (those are my focus groups) and can actually thwart a child's desire to read. I have seen it happen many times. And once a child "hates" reading, it can be difficult to get them back.

    Let's think about the inconsistancy of the point assignment. A teacher can "require" say, two points per week for a child in the third grade. The classic story Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown (30 pages, mostly one line of text, some pages have no text)counts as a .5 book as does an early chapter book in the Magic Tree House series by Mary Pope Osborne (around 60 pages). For a third grader who isn't reading at grade level Goodnight Moon would be a "baby book" and yet, easy to get that .5 point. To read 4 Magic Tree House books in one week to make the requirement may seem like an impossibility for that student. AR becomes yet another system struggling students have to learn how to get around to survive.

    And should a child read for "points"? No, a child should be introduced to the magic of literature through read alouds and discussion-rather than a forced requirement. Parents should model reading at home. Show your child not only do you read, but you enjoy it.

    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 actually asked me what the color of a dress a character wore. I had no idea. I was stunned.The question had no relevence in the story at all.

    Sorry to ramble on about this Martha. This subject really strikes a nerve with me and has been one of my pet peeves for many years.

    ~Julie "L." E.

  2. Ah, the AR system. My pet hate. My kids have been forced to use this hideous reading system for years and 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 so therefore doesn't count? Look, I can read several easy readers and get enough points and not have to read anything that takes any time. There is no way that this system helps foster a love of reading nor an understanding of the books or the underlying concepts of those books. And I was appalled the first time I encountered the program and saw Harry Potter got more points than Lord of the Rings. My list did not include My Antonia!

  3. I recall a program called SRA when I was in 4th grade. You read through a series of short stories and essays in varying color groups. Each color was graded at a certain level of difficulty. Gold, I believe, was the top.

    The interesting thing about SRA is that the whole system came in a big box that sat up in the front of the room on a table. The reading units were these pamphlet-like cards bordered by their associate color. The cards also gradually grew in size as you advanced up the scale. Usually you did SRA for free reading time in class. That meant that you went up to the front of the room with everyone else working on class assignments. So with everyone watching you picked out your SRA card and went back to your desk to read. And everyone knew what color you were on.

    To me I saw it competitively. Ann Rogers and Nancy Duncan were not going to get to gold before me. I distinctly recall Ann Rogers hitting the reds one day before I was out of the browns. She was two levels ahead of me.

    Only Ann Rogers ever got to the gold that year. Nancy Duncan and I got bogged down in silver and never advanced. I think back on SRA often when my kids come home and tell me about whatever new reading program they're forced to endure. Kids like Ann, Nancy and me moved through everything in school with ease. We were always competing to finish our math assignments first and answer every question in social studies and science. Ann got to the gold because she was always the first and the smartest.

    What I didn't think about back then is how incredibly stupid SRA was and probably how damaging to all of us little 4th graders in Mrs. Schaumberg's class. It set up a stratification system that everyone could see. And while those of us at the top were just having a good time competing, everyone else was literally put in their place. I can only imagine how much frustration and envy some felt. And how damaging a system like this must have been to those in the class more challenged by reading, and everything else for that matter.

    In the end, though, these reading systems really aren't for good readers and those of us who naturally (or un-naturally) love books. They're designed for the rest of the group -- and the teacher. The object is to provide the teacher with an efficient way to raise the reading level of the average and the challenged reader. I have no idea whether SRA worked on that level back in the day, but I know that it would be another five years or so before I came to the simple understanding that reading books was something you did for your own enjoyment, not to show how smart you are.

  4. I remember SRA, too, when I was in elementary school, and oh, how I hated it. The Accelerated Reader system made me think of it all over again, and now your comment, David, makes it come back even more clearly. Fourth grade was a tough year for me, as I recall, so I don't remember any competitive thrill to the program. I just remember how incredibly bored I was by the canned stories. I wanted to read Doctor Doolittle and Nancy Drew--equally escapist stuff in a year when both MLK and Bobby Kennedy were shot--but at least they gave me the illicit whiff of other times and places, not the word-coded, color-coded muted version of reality found in that SRA box.


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