Muddling through the blogosphere

November 30, 2014
by blogwalker

Helping Students Flex Their Reading Level/Lexile Muscles

I grew up in a home with books. In the room we referred to as the “den,” an entire wall was lined with my parents’ books and book collections. There was also a small glass three-shelf bookcase that did not require any climbing and reaching on my part and that held “the book.” It was The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rowlings. But it was N.C. Wyeth’s illustrations that drew me to this classic. Other than my dad’s golf books, few of their books were illustrated. N.C. Wyth’s illustrations were gripping and fueled the imagination, as you can see by scanning the online Project Gutenberg version.

I think it’s entirely possible that I actually learned to read at home, not at school. I remember being assigned to reading groups according to reading level. I can’t remember ever coming home wanting to talk about any great stories from the classroom readers. Although when my first or second grade teacher introduced me to Charlotte’s Web as a read aloud, I know I begged to have my own copy.

Back to The Yearling. When I first discovered the book, I was still in the primary grades. Even though I couldn’t read it, I could tell from the illustrations that it was an animal story, a favorite genre then (and still today). When I told my dad how much I wished I could read The Yearling, he gave me a great piece of advice: Just keep checking back every so often, because at some point you will be able to read it.

Looking back, I’m pretty sure it was the Nancy Drew detective series that helped boost my reading level up to The Yearling’s lexile. Although totally done as outside reading, separate from classroom readers/anthologies, I regularly brought my latest Nancy Drew book to school in order trade with friends. Sort of an organically organized early book club. I’m guessing it was about 5th or 6th grade when I realized The Yearling was now an accessible read.

Years later, as a parent, I watched my daughter jump start her reading with The Babysitter Club series, which she traded, just I had with Nancy Drew. When she was in 5th grade, we moved to a small two-school district – which, thankfully, used outstanding literature instead of readers/anthologies. She quickly moved on from the Babysitter Club to Anne of Green Gables and onward in her journey as an avid, life-long reader.

With my son, I watched him as a 2nd grader pick up a wrestling magazine with Hulk Hogan on the cover, and, on the spot, become a reader. Only weeks earlier, he’d had the opportunity to see Hulk Hogan live in Sacramento, a memorable event for a 7-year old! He opened to the magazine article with the confidence and content knowledge of a highly proficient reader – clearly no longer limited by any “lexile levels.” Like his sister, he too became hooked on great YA authors, such as Gary Paulsen, via the excellent literature introduced at school. Pretty impressive what interest level + background knowledge + teacher enthusiasm can do to boost a kid’s reading level.

A recent situation has prompted me to reflect back on when my children and I began flexing our reading level/lexile muscles. The event has to do with Accelerated Reader (AR) and what I now refer to as “AR non-best practices.” A teacher at one of my district’s elementary schools contacted me about changing the AR school year end dates to include the summer. I am the district administrator for the AR program (by assignment, not by choice). The site wanted to require that students take AR quizzes during their summer break. The AR points would then be factored into the students’ reading grades for the first trimester of the 2014-15 school year. Despite my attempts to present a case for summer being a time to read simply for the joy of reading, apparently the entire site, including the principal, wished to formally reward or penalize elementary students for their summer reading habits.

At least this was an isolated case of AR non-best practices … or so I thought. I shared the story with a colleague, who, as a parent, shared his frustration with teachers “making an advanced reader read below his/her level to meet class AR requirements.” As parents, we know we need to be advocates for our children, but it’s not easy to speak out within our own districts against a program once it’s ingrained in a school’s culture.

I shared both of the above the examples with a National Writing Project (NWP) colleague, who is now an elementary school administrator. She responded with a story from her previous district, where, during her first week as principal, she explained to the staff why their school library, which was organized by lexile, would be reorganized by author. She further explained that if a student became interested in a certain author, the student would be allowed to check out any of the author’s books, regardless of lexile. How about that for a AR non-best practices easy fix?!

For the most part, I remain quiet about programs such as AR, out of respect for colleagues who truly believe that the programs boost reading skills and promote a love of reading. Occasionally, I suggest that teachers go through Google Scholar to read the research on AR. Or I send links to articles such as Stephen Krashen’s 2003 journal article. Or maybe suggest reading what Kelly Gallagher has to say about AR in his wonderful Readicide piece.

This year, I’ve starting looking beyond elementary school to see how teachers at middle and high school are promoting a love of reading. In September, at the same time the elementary site was asking how to pull a report on summer AR quizzes, I read high school AP English teacher David Theriault’s post Why Do We Give Students Summer Assignments? Seriously, Why? I love his ideas for Alternatives to the typical Summer Activities section, especially Idea #1:

What if teachers on the campus created a Google Slide. One for each teacher. On the Google Slide was a list of ideas for students to learn about their world during the summer. Here’s an example:


Even if every teacher just had four ideas on a slide, students and their parents would have a ton of ideas and these ideas would help students and parents get to know the teachers better. Heck you could ask every staff member at your school to contribute including the district office. Can you imagine the conversations that would take place in the hallways the following school year?”

In October, with AR non-best practices still on my mind, middle school English teacher Pernille Ripp posted The Things I Did that Stopped the Love of Reading to her blog. Right off the bat, she addresses locking students into reading levels/lexiles:

I forced them to read certain books because I knew better.  Armed with levels and lessons, I have forced many a child in giving up the book they were certain to struggle through and handed them a better suited one.  Better suited based on levels, reading abilities, but typically not interest.

Students have free choice to read with few restrictions.  Throughout the year they have to read 25 books, 15 of which must be chapter books.  If a child is continuously abandoning books we discuss, adjust, and try new things.  We also spend time selecting books together and work on strategies to get through books that may be a bit out of their “level.”

In all fairness to AR (and to help sites justify the annual subscription renewal fees), I know I should also be collecting AR best practices examples. Here’s one: During a unit of the American Revolution, 5th grade students have access to books at their reading levels. Having taught 5th grade for several years, I can see the value in students being able to easily pick out books identified by reading level from the school library as they begin a new unit of study.  In my classroom, my personal American Revolution library included a wide reading range, including multiple copies of My Brother Sam Is Dead, which Scholastic marks as grades 6-8. Every year, students at all reading levels borrowed my copies of this book, with many reporting that they couldn’t put it down. No reading level/lexile limitations. No points earned for completing an online quiz. Just reading based on interest.

If there are more examples I could add to an AR best practices chart, I warmly invite you to share them.

More importantly, I would  love to learn about any districts that have opted out of AR – for reasons other than budget cuts. Was it a top-down decision or teacher driven? Was it research-based? Was it widely embraced? Any information and tips would be much appreciated.


January 1, 2011
by blogwalker

Reports from Cyberspace – Heading into the New Year

What a great start to the New Year! I woke up to beautiful snow (something we get only a few times a year here in Placerville, CA) and my morning edition of The nwp Daily, full of thought provoking posts, Tweets, and links for stepping into 2011.

The first link I clicked on took me to Troy Hicks’ Summarizing of Our Reports from Cyberspace. Attending the NWP / NCTE Annual Conference was just not in my budget this year, so I tried to attend virtually, which proved to be a challenge.  For example, following the Twitter stream of #nwp10 and #ncte10, proved to be a bad idea.  With the 140 character limit, session-goers tended to Tweet what a great session I was missing – something I already realized. And one session I really, really wanted to attend was TroyBud Hunt, and Sara Kjader’s Three Reports from Cyberspace workshop.

But thanks to Bud’s video editing and Troy’s post, this morning I was able to click on the YouTube link and virtually attend Sara’s excellent part of the threesome’s workshop – Assessment in the context of digital teaching and learning. There is something about viewing a presentation “live” that is simply more impactful than reading about the session. I’m starting the year with a firm resolution to think more deeply about assessment: assessment of learning; assessment for learning, and, more important, assessment as learning.

Also in The nwp Daily was Paul Allison’s link to a post by one of his 8th graders  – Speak with the Heart, an invitation for other students to collaborate on a multimodal piece that will be hosted on the Voices from the Gulf project.  I’m  imagining this project will fit Sara’s description of a “messy work in progress…making it authentic…making it ‘commentable.'” And “keeping it real,” to quote Paul’s take on teaching and learning in general. And such a good use of cyberspace!

Right up there with my New Year’s resolution to get a better handle on assessment in a digital age is my resolution

to delve more into technology as a tool for English Language Learners. I am fortunate, in my current position as technology integration specialist, to support K-12 teachers with their technology questions, concerns, and visions. Sure, I still visit classrooms that are having “test scrimmage” or “power down days,” but I also, on a very regular basis,  witness powerful teaching and learning. Heading into 2011, my reports from cyberspace will include sharing some of the best practices and tools for ELLs…starting with the Stories from the Heart project – with a shout out to Audacity.

Looking forward to a year of sharing, collaboration, learning, and attending some great conferences – in real time and/or virtually;-)

July 18, 2010
by blogwalker

AR – Good Bye Accelerated Reader – Hello Augmented Reality!

I know that some of you take issue with my occasional questioning the value of the Accelerated Reader program in a 21st century classroom. As of today, when I write about AR, I’ll be referring to Augmented Reality, not Accelerated Reader.

As a write this post, I’m downloading the cAR Locator app to my iPhone, my first augmented reality app. For $0.99 download fee, cAR Locator will allow me to save a snapshot of where I’ve parked my car, with a car graphic superimposed. I’m looking forward to being able to easily find my car in the Sacramento Airport lots, for instance, totally eliminating my biggest jet-lag issue;-).

I started thinking about classroom possibilities for AR after reading the 2010 Horizon Report’s section on a vision for technology in two to three years down the education road. And now I’m a roll, gathering AR research and resources:

ARISE – Augmented Reality in School EnvironmentsOut of the UK, “The aim is to create an innovative teaching aid, enabling teachers to develop, with a moderate effort, new teaching practices for teaching scientific and cultural content to school classes in an easy to comprehend way.

HARP – Handheld Augmented Reality Project – Out of the Harvard Grad School of Education.

Augmented Reality Takes Hold in Classroom – From the e-School News folks, this article will be a good starting point for your colleagues.

Layar Augmented Reality 2010 – a little help from YouTube to make the concept and possibilities for AR a bit more visible.

Anything you can add to the AR resources and conversation would be much appreciated! I’ve yet to really come on board with some of the virtual world programs, such as Second Life – but it’s this seamless intersection of the real world with a virtual world that has me excited.  Hey, I’ll be able to find my car in the midst of any parking lot (a “skill” that’s likely to impress family and friends who’ve traveled with me previous to today’s cAR Locator download;-). Just think of the possibililites for AR applications in the classroom!

February 6, 2010
by blogwalker

Reading by Numbers – One last AR rant

straight-600I promise this will be my last rant on the widely popular Accelerated Reader program, but I feel the need to share an essay posted last summer to the New York Times.   Author Susan Straight’sReading by Numbers” gives a parent’s perspective on the negative impact this “reading management” software that reduces reading to a system of points and rewards based on multiple-choice online quizzes can have on young readers, even when they are growing up in what I assume is a highly literate home environment.

Librarians and teachers report that students will almost always refuse to read a book not on the Accelerated Reader list, because they won’t receive points. They base their reading choices not on something they think looks interesting, but by how many points they will get. The passion and serendipity of choosing a book at the library based on the subject or the cover or the first page is nearly gone, as well as the excitement of reading a book simply for pleasure.”

I can’t help wondering about the  8th grade language arts teacher Susan Straight references in the first paragraph, who announced at back-to-school night that she “refused to use the program.”  Did her administrators and English department colleagues know about her refusal? If so, were conversations about the impact of  AR on nurturing “a lifelong love of reading and learning” happening? Were parents joining in the conversation?

Or was this teacher the lone dissenter at her site? I hope not.

I know that districts tend to value programs they have to pay for (an observation shared by NCTE colleague and mentor Allen Webb) and that given all that teachers have on their plates already, it’s understandable to like a program that can be reduced to automated scoring. So depending on the climate and culture of a site or district, taking a stand on AR could get messy.

If you or any of your colleagues are looking for some support, I recommend reading the comments posted to:

As always, your comments are welcomed!

January 16, 2010
by blogwalker

Accelerated Reader- Four questions for administrators

As school districts everywhere brace for yet another round of budget cuts, I have a question: Why not attendance7drop the annual online testing fee to Accelerated Reader? This question has been on my mind  ever since NCTE colleague and mentor Allen Webb shared his observation that “school districts tend to value programs they have to pay for – regardless of the actual value or impact of those programs.”

I fully support the first two components and possibilities of the AR program:

  • provide students with a rich library of books, from beginning to advanced reading levels, thereby making a wide range of topics accessible to all readers.
  • provide students with regular chunks (at least 15 minutes) of sustained silent reading (SSR) time.
  • It’s the third component – test the heck out of students with online multiple-choice tests – that I find troubling. As to the fourth component – provide students with prizes – I think researchers such as Alfie Kohn have already made a compelling case against reading incentive programs.

    I understand that change is hard, especially if it involves giving up programs sites are currently paying for. But given the realities of the  budget crisis, I think it reasonable for an administrator to consider the following questions before renewing the annual AR subscription:

    #1 Have you checked into the research on AR? No, I don’t mean the research the Renaissance Learning folks post about their own products.  I’m talking about research such as the above paper by Alfie Kohn, or recent findings by Stephen Krashen, who has generously shared his insights on the English Companion Ning:

    Accelerated Reader (AR) may be “the most influential reading program in the country” (“If you’re shopping, find the books that work for kids,” December 17) but there is no clear evidence that it works. It fact, it might be harmful.

    AR has four components: It makes sure children have access to books, provides time to read, quizzes children on what they read with a focus on details, and awards prizes for performance on the quizzes.

    It is well-established that providing books and time to read are effective, but AR research does not show that the quizzes and prizes are helpful. Studies claiming AR is effective compare AR to doing nothing; gains were probably due to the reading, not the tests and prizes.

    AR encourages an unnatural form of reading, reading focusing on often irrelevant details in order to pass tests.

    AR rewards children for doing something that is already pleasant: self-selected reading. Substantial research shows that rewarding an intrinsically pleasant activity sends the message that the activity is not pleasant, and that nobody would do it without a bribe. AR might be convincing children that reading is not pleasant. No studies have been done to see if this is true.”

    #2. Have you polled your parent community on their opinions about AR? NCTE collegue (and former district colleague) Teresa Bunner recently shared her perspective (which is very close to a scene and conversation I witnessed last year at my county library):

    As a mom it often irked me to no end to watch a big deal be made at awards assemblies for earning so many points on AR when I knew my kids read all the time, just not AR books or not short easy read books that earned them points quickly! … Truly, truly when we take time to match kids with the right books, they enjoy reading. I believe that having taught elementary, middle and high school.”

    #3. Have you started a conversation with your veteran teachers on their views on AR? About a year ago, I first blogged my AR concerns. I’d like to re-post comments by two educators/bloggers whose opinions I very much value:

    From Mathew Needleman:

    We had a similar but differently named program at my last school and I absolutely share your concerns. The program we had took over the computer. In other words, teachers would use that computer exclusively to run (insert program name here). In addition to leaving behind advances in computing/technology of the past decade, I too felt that the quizzes really weren’t getting to higher level thinking and were essentially replacing the SRA kits we used when I was in elementary school. If we can do it with paper and pencil, why use the expense and electricity to do it on a computer?”

    From Cathy Nelson:

    I would wager that the improvement in reading seen is not from “students reading and taking tests,” but rather just from reading. The more practice one has at something, the better they get, and testing (even a computerized commercial program) has nothing to do with it. Do you really want to give credit to a program for the hard work you have done in getting kids to read? Credit goes to the teacher, not the tool. AR is as good as the one who implements it–not the tool itself. Let’s not inflate the egos of Renaissance Learning anymore than they are already inflated. This is a tool and nothing more. Success is based solely on the implementation (by the teacher.)”

    #4. What are you students saying about AR? A teacher in my district recently shared with me that one of her 4th graders brags about being able to pass an AR quiz just by reading the write-up  on the book jacket. Hmmmm…..In taking a closer look at the winning entries in our district’s No Excuses…Go to School poster contest, I’m thinking  this winning entry by a middle school student provides a window into the student perspective. I wish I could see the title of the book the student is gripping as he hops the fence to skip school.  What do you bet it’s not on the AR list AND it’s got “the flow” going for this escaping student.

    I’m sure there’s a 5th question administrators should be asking of AR.  If you think of one, please post a comment.

    August 1, 2009
    by blogwalker

    On Promoting a Love of Reading

    I finally bought a copy of Kelly Gallagher‘s Readicide.  I wish I had read it sooner so that I could have joined in the VoiceThread and the English Companion Ning discussions. However, I have it now and want to promote it to anyone working with K-12 students! In less than 150 pages, the author clearly explains “how schools are killing reading and what you can do about it.”

    If you are at a site that does not support a minimum of 15 minutes per day of silent sustained reading – read this book.

    If you are at a site that mandates AR (Accelerated Reader) – read this book.

    If you are at a site that mandates a reading anthology exclusively, at the cost of removing novels – read this book.

    If you are looking for strategies to engage students in literature and promote a life-long love of reading – read this book.

    With so many thought-provoking ideas, powerful strategies, and even links to the supporting research that are applicable to elementary through high school readers, Readicide would make for a great faculty book club read.  I’ll leave you with Kelly’s closing words:

    If we are to find our way again – if students are to become avid readers again – we, as language arts teachers, must find our courage to recognize the difference between the political worlds and the authentic worlds in which we teacher, to swim against those current educational practices that are killing young readers, and to step up and do what is right for our students.

    We need to find this courage. Today. Nothing less than a generation of readers hangs in the balance.”

    March 29, 2009
    by blogwalker

    Accelerated Reader – Time to Say “No”?

    Let me start this rant with a positive example of how the Accelerated Reading Program is used at some school sites. I’m thinking of the 5th grade teacher who is starting a unit on the American Revolution and is seeking historical fiction and biographies to supplement the history textbook.  The school librarian has used AR’s leveling and labeling system to make it easy for the teacher to provide his/her students with books that match a wide range of reading abilities.  If this is how AR is being used at your site, then I think the expense and time commitment is certainly justifiable.

    I fear the above use is not the norm though, and the more common practice is that students take AR quizzes in a computer lab…where they receive no feedback on their answers.  I think Robert Marzano’s research makes visible the harm in using technology solely for assessment rather than as a teaching/learning tool:

    I grabbed this screen shot from Marzano’s CUE 2009 keynote address (, which I highly recommend watching.

    In my district, many of our elementary sites are paying for the pricey web-based version of the quizzes. For the most part, I’ve kept silent on the value of the program, since so many teachers seem to like it.  Several years ago, I heard Cheryl Lemke share research from the Metiri Group’s research on AR. Their findings were that AR was “a wash” – some students would improve their reading; others would show a decrease in reading scores.  Following Lemke’s presentation, I sent out an inquiry to the NCTE‘s Talkies group.  NCTE friend and mentor Nancy Patterson shared that “cheating was a major issue” and what the research really showed was “buy the books, not the tests.” A quick Google search on Stephen Krashen +Accelerated Reader brought up a white paper entitled Does Accelerated Reader Work? Here are the findings in a nutshell:

    The results presented here strongly suggest that of the four aspects of AR, access to books, time devoted to reading, tests, and rewards, only the first two are supported by research. There is considerable evidence that providing access to books results in more reading and better reading and considerable evidence that providing time to read results in better reading. There is suggestive evidence that incentives do not promote additional reading in the long term. The AR research literature does nothing to change these conclusions.”

    What set off this rant? A computer lab teacher at one of my EETT sites asked if it would be OK to load AR onto the laptops in the wireless cart that had just arrived for the 4th grade teachers.  I replied to her with a copy to the principal that I was OK with it as long as the taking of AR quizzes did not replace the blogging and in2books reading and writing that the students were beginning to engage in.  Since the goal of the grant is to improve literacy skills, especially writing, I felt the need to make clear that AR would not improve student writing skills.  I had a sudden nightmarish vision of the $20,000 COW becoming a vehicle for mindless time spent testing, via multiple choice, recall – with no time left for connecting, creating, collaborating, sharing, or any kind of higher-order thinking.  The principal responded that he doubted that would be the case with these teachers.  And from what I have seen during classroom visits, the laptops are indeed being used to promote 21st century literacies (by a 4th grade team that is for the most part new to technology – but extremely dedicated, talented and open to new ideas).

    Because so many sites seem committed to the AR program (and expense), I’m hoping readers might have more and better examples of how AR is worth the time and expense. I’m all for the increased access to books; it’s just the testing part I question.  Am I missing something?

    May 5, 2008
    by blogwalker

    Days 4 and 5 – Comment Challenge

    As I continue on into Days 4 and 5 of the Comment Challenge, I realize what a valuable opportunity this project is for observing how a growing group of people, from around the globe and from all walks of life, come together to form acomment_challenge_logo_2.png community. And I now understand how coComment works. Unlike the more elegant co-mment that I mistakenly registered for yesterday, I am now able to add tags to my comments, just like I would to one of my posts. Well that’s pretty cool!

    Day 4 Activity: Ask a question

    On the project wiki, I clicked on a Day 4 link and wandered into the blog of a teacher of Portuguese (I think). The only post I could find in English was his/her take on the Day 4 activity. Since I could not really find anything about this blogger as a person (quite the opposite of yesterday’s venture into the Intrepid Teacher blog), my question to him/her was “As a teacher of Portuguese, what would you like to be asked about teaching in a digital age?” I would like to get a better sense of who this blogger really is.

    Day 5 Activity: Comment on a post you disagree with:

    In scrolling through Bloglines and Google Reader , I realize that I choose to subscribe to like-minded and inspiring bloggers. While pondering where I would locate non-like-minded bloggers, I noticed a front page story on today’s Sac Bee titled “Kids are reading, and not just Harry Potter,” written by Jay Mathews of the Washington Post. I couldn’t find the link at, so I’m copying basically the same story from today’s Modesto Bee – If the Sac Bee does not give online access to the comment feed for this story within the next 24 hours, I’ll hop into Modesto’s comment box and let readers know that not all educators value the Accelerated Reader approach to motivating young readers.

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