Sunday, October 12, 2014

Why I Chose to Not Use AR

Wow, it's been a long time since I've posted. Writing another blog post has been on my mind for quite some time, but I just couldn't get myself to share anything. After some deep reflection, I realized I just wasn't feeling very passionate about what was happening in my classroom. Sure, good things were happening. We've been using our technology a little more everyday, and the students are growing in many ways. The things that were happening just felt very ordinary to me. This last week changed my mindset completely.

(Before I share what sparked my passion, please know that I don't mean to offend anyone. It needs to be okay for educators to feel differently about instructional practices - that's what makes each one of us so valuable. I appreciate differing opinions as opportunities to grow in my own abilities.)

The school I teach in uses Accelerated Reader (AR) to supplement its literacy instruction from first grade through eighth grade. As the year has progressed the other first grade classes have started identifying reading levels, choosing matching books, and taking daily tests. My coworkers were gently reminding me to get started with my students whenever the topic came up. I kept pushing it off and making excuses about how I was struggling to keep up with teaching a new grade level. I finally worked up the courage to confront my actual reason for putting AR off last Monday.

After researching the philosophy behind AR and looking at research on its results, I began to identify pros and cons and to formulate a plan. I wrote an email (a book might be a better way to describe it) to my principal late Monday night. In it, I shared my real reason for not starting AR: I don't believe it's in the best interest of my students.

Personally, I did AR all through elementary and middle school. It did weird things to my reading habits. I stopped seeing books as opportunities to learn, explore, and question and started seeing them as the point value they held. In 7th grade, I read over 300 points in order to get a trophy. I was a good reader, but I didn't enjoy what I was doing. It was just another job - another way to earn a good grade. Plus, I really liked seeing my name at the top of the points board in Mr. Mitchel's classroom.

I'm not the only one with stories like this. My older brother, who still holds the record for number of points in a year at our middle school, read books way beyond his comprehension level to get the points he wanted. My husband got terrible grades, because he read the books he wanted to read instead of the books that had AR tests. My younger brothers struggled with reading, and trying to reach their point expectations was torture for them.

Their were other aspects of the program bothering me as well. I cringed at the idea of telling a student what color of book to choose from the library.  When in life outside of school are we only able to select a book based on the color tab on its spine? That's not authentic. I value the idea of teaching students how to identify whether or not a book is a good fit for them. If a student is empowered with the skills to evaluate a book and judge whether he should read it, imagine what that can do for his reading level and self esteem. Not to mention the fact that students catch on to that color system pretty quickly. Having one student brag about what color he is reading to another student is not something I want to happen in my classroom.

As I was putting together my argument to not use AR in my classroom, one question was a part of each of my thoughts. Why do we read? I read to have fun. I read because I can experience places/events/people I wouldn't be able to experience otherwise. I read to learn. That's real life. I don't read to get a certain number of points. I don't read as a competition against my peers. Why would I ask my students do that? Once again, that's not authentic.

I sent my book email to my principal and prayed he would take it into consideration. The next morning, he emailed back wanting to set up a meeting to discuss other options. We planned for Thursday, so I spent Tuesday and Wednesday nights putting together a document with details on how I was going to build readers in my classroom without using AR. I'll go into those details in future posts. For now, I want to focus on his reaction. As we sat down, he told a story about a conversation that happened around his dinner table earlier that week. One of his kids, who was reading a Diary of a Wimpy Kid book, sat down and said, "I need to finish this books so I can get my points." What ensued was a family conversation about why we really read and what's important with reading. His story is exactly why I was struggling to ask my students to do AR. Needless to say, after a good 25/30 minutes of conversation, my principal was on board and gave me the okay to continue with my plans.

I went back to my classroom, and that afternoon I shared my plans with my students. After some assurance on my part, the students started to feel excited too. It was a little harder for the students who have older siblings who have done AR for a few years to come to grasp with not earning points. I understand that; it would be hard to see other people receiving awards while they are not. This lead to one of the best conversations we have had together all year. When one of my kiddos said, "Well, ****** already has 10 points." I knew that was my opportunity to talk about why we read. Together, we brainstormed all the different reasons we read. We talked about how important it is to get better at reading and how the best way to do that is to read and read and read. By the end of that conversation, one of my little critics looked at my assistant and said, "I think this is going to be better than AR!"

I have a lot to do to build this up, and I'm not sure what criticisms I'm going to get as a result of this decision. What I do know is that I'm teaching with my heart. I'm sticking up for what I believe is right for my students.

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