What You

November 18, 2014

Posted By: Shaunescy


My earliest memories are of reading.  Big surprise.

My great grandmother lost much of her vision when I was young and she wasn’t.

Audiobooks were not a product on the consumer market, and her love for reading didn’t go away with her vision.  Every month she received a catalog from a Federally funded service available only to the visually impaired, though—no pictures, no prices, just lists of books. Hundreds and hundreds of books, plus small plot summaries.

Ironically, the print in this catalog was really small.  Probably four points smaller than the font I’m using now, in middle age, as my own vision takes a noticeable and drastic turn to the worse.

My mother would sit down at the kitchen table and read the catalog aloud.  My grandmother would signal which books she wanted to hear this month, and together they would decide whether or not to order vinyl album, 8-track, or (near the end) audio cassette.

Grandma kept a brown rocking chair in the corner of her kitchen, and all of the stereo equipment that the Feds provided sat on a little table within easy reach.  She sat in her chair, and I sat in her lap, and we listened to what seemed like an endless series of novels:  Jaws comes to mind, along with The Amityville Horror (both of which I read within a year of first hearing them, although I couldn’t have been more than ten).  I have dimmer memories of listening to a book about a little boy who ran away from home; the only details that stick in my mind are the facts that he cleaned his room before he left and that he caught a ride with a family that owned a motorhome.  I probably remember these things because my own room wasn’t always as clean as it could be…and even at ten, I’d seen more than a few horror movies that involved some poor family heading into the woods in a motorhome.

Periodically we’d get to talking about something—maybe something in the story, maybe not—or my great grandfather would wander through, letting Grandma know about an errand he was going to run.  Grandpa’s “errand” was probably a lie, given the level of criminal behavior he sustained from childhood until his death.  But the books were awesome. I read early.  I read a lot.  I read thousands of comic books, ending up with things like The Warlord and Conan, after a long detour into The House of Mystery and The Witching Hour; I started with Richie Rich, Casper, and Hot Stuff—many purchased used.  It creeps me out now to realize that the only place that sold used comic books in Butte back then was a porno shop.

That store is still there.  I don’t think it has comic books for kids anymore. I’m not sure why it carried them then, but the price was right.

I returned to comics later—although they’re “graphic novels” now, a term that at least seems slightly more respectable—with things like Predator vs. Alien and The Walking Dead…plus more than a few iterations of Batman’s story and Preacher (a sweetly blasphemous mix of The Davinci Code, Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, and Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs).  It was a great distraction from writing my dissertation, mostly across the summers of 1999 and 2000.

From those early comic books, I graduated to reading…whatever I wanted to try to read. I didn’t keep a list of things I read or anything like that, and I’ve emptied out my library regularly my entire life.  I’m a reader, not a hoarder, so I tend to remember what I’ve read only when I see the covers.  In the fourth grade, though, I know I read The Hobbit for the first time (a copy borrowed from one of my great grandmother’s daughters, an “aunt” who lived in Big Timber).  I took a stab at Frankenstein and muddled through, even though my disappointment was epic when I realized how little the novel (pretty weak) had in common with the classic horror movie (pretty wicked).  I read Dracula and struggled to follow the form of the novel—a story told in fragments, spread out across diary entries, letters, journals kept by characters with different viewpoints.  I struggled, but I loved that book, which I kept in my bag for months, hauling it to and from school endlessly.  At the same time, I read whatever I was told to read, although most of those specifics have slipped my mind, too, other than Island of the Blue Dolphin.

What matters isn’t that I liked to read when I was a kid.  I’m an English professor; it’s unlikely that I would have ended up here if I’d grown up hating to read.  Not impossible.  But unlikely.

What matters is that I loved to read because I grew up surrounded by readers, just as my own twins have, and the school did nothing but reinforce my reading choices.  Each year’s curriculum had a range of assigned texts, but I always had other books on other burners. The Hobbit was a tough read and took me the summer before 4th grade and part of the fall, but I beat it into submission and then made a run at The Lord of the Rings.  I couldn’t get beyond the first couple chapters of The Fellowship of the Ring, and I put the books aside.  When I came back to them in 7th or 8th grade, I devoured them.  I even faked sick a couple times just to spend the entire day reading.  I didn’t catch every detail, but the act of reading fantasy fiction caught me.  It held me for the next six years or more, and I still run with it from time to time. Dracula was a lot for a 4th grader to handle.  Too much, really.  But I got through it, enjoyed it, and learned from it—learned to read a story told in a non-traditional form.

My twins are in 4th grade now.  They would never be allowed to read either the original Dracula in school or The Hobbit.  After all, Dracula has an AR level of 6.6.  The Hobbit’s AR level is also a 6.6.

I hate AR levels.  Didn’t even know they existed until a few months ago.

John and Sam?  Their AR levels top out in the 4.5 or 4.8 range right now.  The difficulty  level of each book seems to depend on complexity—vocabulary, sentence structure, page count.  Whatever.  The reading level of each kid is established by a series of reading tests.  I won’t go into the breadth and depth of my problem with such tests, tests where the complexity of a task like reading is reduced to a closed system in which four answers are offered, only one right.

The kids started a point or so lower on the AR scale at the beginning of the year.

They’re required to read books at their sanctioned level (at any given time) and to then take a test (ten questions).  If they do well on the test, their AR levels increase by an increment or two up the scale.  (I don’t think it’s possible to go down the scale, and there’s far more complexity than this summary suggests.  Colored dots are involved, plus a pretty hefty dose of subjective “bumping” up the scale, according to the whim/judgment of the teacher.)  The theory is a simple enough one, though, despite the colored dots and subjectivity and multiple-guess testing:  Students read books that are at their appropriate reading level—in a not too hard, not too easy, just right sort of way.  Because the books they read are so perfectly matched to their abilities, the logic of the system argues, they are challenged but are not faced with an insurmountable task.  That way they read but don’t get frustrated.

Of course, they can’t read anything below their AR level or above it.  They read at their level.  Period.

There are a lot of kids’ books on the market now, and it’s even possible to do a search by AR level alone at the school library.  I know.  I spoke to my daughter’s teacher about the AR system and then spoke to the librarian—just to make sure I understood what was required.

I spoke to the teacher and the librarian because Sam and I kept going to the library.  We kept leaving frustrated.  And it was because of the AR levels.  Sam can always find books she wants to read; that isn’t a problem and never has been.  Both she and John started reading young—no surprise there, since I spent a lot of the time during their early years laying on the floor, reading.  (I have a great picture—somewhere—of the two of them, barely toddlers, laying together and reading Go Dog Go intently…despite the fact that the book is upside down.)

They’ve read, both with me and on their own, for as long as they’ve been able to string a few words together on the page.  They write stories (Sam especially).  We spend more time at Barnes and Noble than Gamestop.

Until this year.  Until the AR levels became all that mattered.

The kids aren’t allowed to read anything above or below their AR level in school.  They can’t read such unauthorized works for pleasure, and they can’t test on them, either, as a way to improve their AR score (which makes sense if we’re talking about “easy” books, of course). But who looks for books according to how hard they are, at least as the first criterion?  Readers judge books by their covers, by their titles, by their topics.  But searching for book by cool cover, interesting title, or engaging topic is a recipe for frustration for a parent and a 4th grader who need to find a 4.8 AR book and nothing but a 4.8 AR book.

By twisting the process, making the alleged complexity of the book the controlling factor in whether or not it can be read, the system short circuits itself.  Stuck reading not what they want but what they must…John and Sam don’t want to read at all.  Books they were reading two years ago are off the table because their AR levels are too high.  Books marketed to their age group can’t be considered because their AR levels are too low.  A series of books can’t be read because each book has a different—sometimes radically different—AR level from every other book in the series.

Sorry, but the parent in me says it’s a crock, and the professor in me agrees.  My inner  reader just wants to weep but doesn’t because he’s not that kind of guy. John and Sam want books still.  They look at them at the library.  They look at them at the bookstore.  But then they check the AR level, and if it’s too high or too low, they walk away. I made sure that I understand the system, which I’m assured will loosen up next year.  I  don’t second guess the teachers.  This is the system they’re working in, and I won’t be that dad,  that guy who dumps on everything and sends his kids into the classroom with a bad attitude about what’s expected of them.  This is the way things are in 4th grade now, and it sounds like they’ve been this way for at least fifteen years.

Ok. I won’t do anything to make the teachers’ jobs harder, but I can’t say that the school’s  AR system is doing much for me.  Or the kids.

And I may need to wait two years to talk to them about Dracula and The Hobbit.  Jaws doesn’t have an AR rating at all…


With Love, Dad

Shane Borrowman is a native of Anaconda, father of twins, and professor of English at The University of Montana Western.  He has published on a wide range of topics, including the development of boxing in Renaissance England, medieval Arabic philosophy, and American zombie films.  He is editor or co-editor of four writing textbooks and six collections of original scholarship.

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