Summer Series of Saves: free-range reading

Buy this book, please.

What do the middle years of teaching look like, because I am in the thick of it now? Do they come with a mix, much like the middle of a marriage or middle of life, where we know just enough to feel competent, still open to new ideas, and enough doubt to gnaw at our knowledge?

Last week my new district offered two full days of new hire training. The training sessions offered overviews of their pillars, including a brief introduction to the IT department, ELL, ELA, and their prescriptive reading program, IRLA, or Independent Reading Level Assessment developed by the American Reading Company.  I am looking forward to helping students become stronger readers with this program, and will sort out some confusion as I move through it with students. Kelly Gallagher’s Readacide was recommended during this session, and immediately I thought of how Gallagher might push back on the notion his work would be used in a prescribed context.

I know one of my new colleagues levels her classroom library, too, and it was suggested by a leader that I might want to do the same, and I thought about it, and this is where that muddy middle-years teacher speaks up: no, I don’t think so. But what would be the harm?

Fountas and Pinnell were my gurus when I began teaching, as Nancie Atwood (especially The Reading Zone) and Kylene Beers and Bob Probst have shaped my reading instruction tremendously.

But one thing I don’t want to do is create a culture where students only choose books “at their level.” What does that even really mean?!

In an article by Kiera Parrot, Thinking Outside the Bin: Why labeling books by reading level disempowers young readers, she quotes the amazing Pernille Ripp:

Research says that students should spend most of their time in ‘just right’ or ‘at their level’ books, but that research does not say to limit students and what they would like to read,” says Pernille Ripp, creator of the Global Read Aloud and author of Passionate Learners: How to Engage and Empower Your Students (Routledge, 2015).

And my other reading hero, Donalyn Miller:

Donalyn Miller, author of Reading in the Wild: The Book Whisperer’s Keys to Cultivating Lifelong Reading Habits (Jossey-Bass, 2013), has called leveling “educational malpractice.” Schools have gone too far, she believes. “There is a lack of fundamental understanding by many educators about the limitations of leveling systems and their role in children’s reading development,” she says. “Matching children with books solely by reading level removes the teacher’s responsibility for knowing much about children’s literature or teaching children meaningful strategies for self-selecting books beyond level.”

When I’m in my book club, no one ever, not once, asks me what my reading level is.

In a 2012 article for, “Guided Reading: the Romance and the Reality”, Fountas and Pinnell cautioned that they “never recommended that the school library or classroom libraries be leveled or that levels be reported to parents.” Using leveled texts in classrooms following the “A to Z” matrix, Lexile, or other systems, however, seems to contradict this advice, as educators report that more schools are leveling, with some districts mandating it. Teachers often discuss individual reading levels with their students, and some let students know one another levels.

I am coming to the point, promise.

Last night, in a short time, I read Wishtree by Katherine Applegate. It is far below my “reading level” and I suspect many of my middle school students’, too. The book is illustrated, and on a text complexity chart would not rank as very complex.

But that is incredibly deceptive.

Wishtree is what I wish The Giving Tree was–a beautiful story about friendship, family, longevity, and bravery. And if someone told me it was “too low” for me to read I would be indeed, disempowered. I don’t want to put a number on my personal classroom library books: I want the texts to draw students in and have them count on their own intuition, thin-slicing, and desire to read a book. If it’s too challenging (Black Diamond slope, as Lucy Calkins would say) then there is no shame in putting it down for the time being and moving on. The reading instructional time is devoted to creating readers with a rich reading life: explicit skills and strategies, with the desire to find things and curiosity that speaks to their lives.

So: I will keep asking — please contribute to my classroom library of mirrors and windows for students. A reading life isn’t built on levels alone, but the view when we can see all around us.