A recent post in the Future Ready Librarians Facebook group on reading levels had me reflect upon my reading experience as a student. If it weren’t for my high school librarian, Dr. Shirley McDonald, I do not know if I would have discovered books by Maya Angelou, Alice Walker, or Toni Morrison, which were a far cry from the Fear Street novels I had been bingeing since junior high. I look back fondly on visiting the library in high school and having Dr. McDonald introduce me to new authors. She simply asked me a few questions about what I liked and pointed me in the right direction. Fellow school librarian Yolanda Hood had a similar experience. “I am who I am today because my librarian let me check out whatever I wanted” (2021).
At some point between high school graduation and the return to my former school system as an educator, a labeling program had taken over my school, and all the schools in our district. Gone were the days of pointing students in the right direction based on interest. Free choice, independent reading had been turned into a grade, and students’ grades were based on how well they scored on the labeling tests. Not only that, but students were required to select books in a narrow zone.
My first few years as an English language arts teacher, I went along with the status quo regarding the labeling program. Over the years, I began questioning this practice, especially when I would see the light go out of kids’ eyes when they could not check out the book they wanted, or every time they failed a test on a book that they read. If the book didn’t have a test, or the book a student wanted to read wasn’t in their zone, they were encouraged not to read it. When the students visited the school library, they were only allowed to check out books “on their level.”
I started reading and sharing articles with my colleagues, but I felt like I was talking and the mic was off. An article by Dr. Stephen Krashen noted, “None of the studies provides any clear evidence supporting the use of AR as a means of increasing literacy development or improving attitudes towards reading” (2005). Why then, were we as a school and district, so dead set on this program? I decided that there wasn’t much I could do to change the whole school, but I could change the practices in my own classroom. I gave students plenty of time to read in class, focused on finding them books they’d be interested in reading, regardless of reading level, and no longer took the labeling program for a grade. The reading climate not only improved dramatically, but my students’ test scores improved. When I transitioned from a classroom teacher to school librarian, I decided enough was enough and I set about challenging this practice school-wide.
My very first task as a school librarian was to present my school’s administration with articles and studies on labeling. I also had them participate in a simulation where they pretended to be students who were denied access to books, which completely changed their mindset. I convinced my administration, but then I had to convince the rest of the faculty. I offered an optional book study on Donalyn Miller’s The Book Whisperer, and over half the staff joined the study. Things were starting to look up! I also began to examine my role as a school librarian. I was no longer a classroom teacher, and my goals as a librarian differed. In my opinion, a librarian should never deny a student a book based on level. Librarian Katie Steele sums it up best,
I let my kids check out whatever they want. Every year I also send an email to teachers saying that they cannot limit a child’s book choice in the library because of their first amendment right to freedom of information. If teachers do want their students to have a book that can be read independently, I always allow for additional checkouts. I believe the shame in being denied a book because it is perceived as “too hard” for that student runs a greater risk of being detrimental to their love of reading. The library is a happy place, full of bridges and opportunities. Access, not barriers. (2005)
Stay tuned for part 2, where I will delve deeper into how librarians can convince other educators to adopt a different mindset, including training tips and resources, and what librarians can do in lieu of using labeling programs to encourage a positive reading culture in school libraries.)
Hood, Yolanda. 2021. “I am who I am today because my librarian let me check out whatever I wanted. I’ve been searching for Antoinette Walker, from East Elementary, to thank her.” Facebook, Future Ready Librarians Group (Feb. 21).
Krashen, Stephen. 2005. “Accelerated Reader: Evidence Still Lacking.” Knowledge Quest 33 (3): 48-49.
Steel, Katie. 2021. “I let my kids check out whatever they want. Every year I also send an email to teachers saying that they cannot limit a child’s book choice in the library because of their first amendment right to freedom of information.” Facebook, Future Ready Librarians Group (Feb. 21).
How to Accelerate a Reader by Donalyn Miller
On Accelerated Reader and All the Other Computer Programs by Pernille Ripp
Author: Amanda Jones
Amanda is the 2021 School Library Journal Co-Librarian of the Year, a 2021 Library Journal Mover and Shaker, the 2020 Louisiana School Librarian of the Year, and a 21 year educator from Watson, LA. She’s a teacher-librarian and certified reading specialist at a 5-6 grade middle school. She is Vice President of the Louisiana Association of School Librarians and is the 2019 AASL Social Media Superstar Program Pioneer. Amanda is an active member of several committees for AASL and is on the Louisiana Young Readers’ Choice Awards Committee. Visit her library website at lomlibrary.org and/or find out more about her at http://librarianjones.com/.