I read the first chapter of Peter and the Sword of Mercy to my son tonight at bedtime. It's the 4th in Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson's great series about Peter Pan. Frankie lent me his copy this afternoon after school. He had already finished it. When he ran up behind me on the bus lane one day a week or so ago, he had shouted, "Hey, Dan, Dan ! I got the new Peter and the Starcatcher's book, it's the 4th one, it just came out this weekend, have you seen it?" I hadn't even heard that it was out, yet. So much for staying abreast of children's literature; I've been spending too much time doing F & P assessments lately, I guess. I had smiled to myself after Frankie walked away. We had talked a bit and I said I was looking forward to reading it, but I hadn't read any in the series to my current class yet I wasn't sure if it would be good to start at the end of the series.
When Frankie had started in my 3rd grade class two years ago his parents had pulled me aside to talk about their concerns that Frankie wasn't reading 'at grade level' yet. His older sister was an A+ student in high school now and had never had any trouble reading anything she wanted to read to date. They wanted to know what kind of tutoring they should get for Frankie to get him caught up. They looked at me a little warily when I said, "Why don't you just let me work with him for awhile, first." As it turned out, I got to have Frankie in my class for the next two years due to the multi-age grouping we do here at Marcy.
Not every student makes the kind of progress that Frankie did in the two years he spent with me, and I certainly can't take much of the credit. Most of the credit goes to Frankie and his parents. They all did their jobs - Frankie did his homework and his parents made sure he did his homework. They called and stopped in frequently over the last two years. His dad's cell phone number is still in the contacts list on my cell phone.
I used lots of tools to help Frankie become a better reader: parts of a Houghton-Mifflin curriculum that the district had sanctioned a few years back (they're now sanctioning the F & P system and scowling at those H-M 'texts.' Anything that looks like an anthology is out of favor these days.) I also used a whole variety of lessons on our Moodle site. Frankie was in my first class to use that great reading and writing tool. I can't even imagine wanting to teach writing without it today.
One of the things that really helped Frankie was the Accelerated Reader system. A.R. has taken some slams lately from the likes of Alfie Kohn; he makes a living slamming this, that or the other thing related to education. Lots of his ideas are worth considering like his take on merit pay, but I don't think he's ever really used Accelerated Reader and its assessment companion, StarReader. A.R. was especially useful to Frankie's parents. They used it to find books in the public library that were at Frankie's optimal reading level. The A.R. list of quizzes is available anywhere there's an internet connection and most of the reference people in the Mpls Public Library know how to help kids and their parents find the right level of book, at least, after I've done a few assessments, had them try a few books, and given them a reading level.
Accelerated Reader is a way of keeping track of where you're at if you're a growing reader; it also helps teachers and parents keep track of how their child is progressing. It's certainly not the only tool that a teacher or parent should use to nudge a child along the literacy path, but it's useful. It's useful like stats are to Joe Mauer, or a stop watch is to Adrian Peterson's coaches. Are Joe and Adrian going to be star athletes without those tools? Probably, most likely, we could even say for sure, but they use the tools anyway. Pros use tools that are useful. Ira Socol has a fairly well developed Toolbelt Theory for Education. Like Ira, I made my living for a short while wearing a toolbelt standing on a ladder with my head above the ceiling tiles punching down 25 pair cable. I've found Accelerated Reader to be a useful tool to help kids be better readers, and I can even go so far as to say that it's helped build a culture of reading in my classroom and in our school.
So, I wasn't that surprised when Frankie caught up with me after school today. He held out the book rather awkwardly. I don't think he's lent out too many $19.00 hard cover books before, and to a teacher to boot. He said, "I've finished it and I thought you might want to read it, but I think you should start with the first one with your class." I said, "Wow, you sure cruised through that book fast." "Yeah," he said, "it was really good." I said, "thanks a lot for the book; I haven't had time to get my own, yet. And, I'll go with your advice on starting with the first one with the class. We gotta get through Hoot first." And then Frankie said, "Oh, yeah, those are great books, too. I read Splash this summer. And do know that Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson have another series about Fighting Prawn and the Lost Boys? It's great, too."
Frankie's mom was there to pick him up after school. I could tell that they had talked over his lending me the book. Her smile told me she was proud of her son for more than a few reasons. It's great having a job where I get paid to read good books out loud to kids.