Category Archives: reading

Raising Readers (Or, Why I Don’t Approve of Book Logs)

Why I Don't Approve of Book Logs at amyhoodarts.com

Last week I had a little twitterrant about book logs and similar assignments that extend a teacher’s reach into reading a child does for pleasure on his or her own time. I’ve made a lot of mistakes as a parent, but one of the things I’ve got right is raising kids who love to read. I’ve been at it for over a decade now, and my methods have been proven successful, so I really bristle when school reaches in and messes with it. My oldest and only schooled child is in sixth grade. None of his teachers have bothered him with a book log since he began school in second grade; he entered reading voraciously and well beyond grade level. Earlier this spring his teacher went on maternity leave, and the sub decided he needed to fill out a book log. At parent/teacher conferences several weeks ago, I brought it up and got him excused, pointing out that he’s often read the assigned 20 minutes per day before he even gets to school, because he reads on the bus. He also frequently reads entire books in one school day because he finishes his work early and they have nothing else to offer him. Last week, he came home and told me she’d now assigned him to write a weekly summary of a book he read on his own time for fun in place of the book log. This is beyond the reading-related assignments he does for school. She told him she wanted to make sure he understood what he was reading.

He takes standardized tests that measure reading comprehension. He writes summaries and does assignments for books assigned as class reading. I know he understands what he’s reading because I talk to him about what he’s reading. A book log is a tedious exercise in time wasting, and writing a summary of a book you chose to read for pleasure just so school can check a box is odious. Both of these activities attach a chore to reading for fun, which is exactly the opposite of what we should be doing if we want to raise kids who like to read.

I’m not just against book logs for established readers. My younger son, who was schooled from K through second grade, was not reading fluently when he began second grade. It hadn’t clicked for him yet, by which I mean he hadn’t crossed that magical bridge when you cease to think about reading and find yourself simply doing it. When his teacher assigned a book log, I explained that we wouldn’t be participating. I knew my child; he has a contrary streak and requires ownership of his learning and doing. I worried that if he got a whiff of an idea that reading was something he should do because school said so, he’d decide it wasn’t for him. Also, writing down everything you read is, as I’ve said, tedious; I’ve tried it. I wanted him to come to reading in his own time, without pressure, and develop into someone with a lifelong love of books. I wanted that much more than I wanted to not be the Difficult Parent.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that both teachers with whom I’ve had to discuss book log requirements have said they didn’t like to read as children. Book logs begin with the assumption that kids won’t read unless we force them to and then hold them accountable. I don’t like this assumption. To me, the fact that schools require them as a matter of course demonstrates that schools have given up on the idea that kids will read for fun and they view it as one more thing that needs to be forced down kids’ throats like medicine. That’s not the attitude my kids have towards reading. So, how did we do it?

My husband and I both read, and the kids see us reading. But setting an example isn’t enough. We hope the kids love to read, but having that hope isn’t enough. We have a family culture that values books and reading, and I feel that’s why we’ve successfully passed on our love of reading. Our words and actions are all in line with the idea that we value books and time spent reading. I’ve been taking my kids to the library since they were infants, as much for my sake as for theirs. We remain heavy library users, and librarians at all three branches of the town system we use the most know all my kids by name. I can’t even begin to estimate how many hours of my mother-life I’ve spent reading aloud: it surely must be in the thousands. And not just stories before bed; we have shelves packed with books, and I will read aloud at any time of day. Some days it was all I did, reading entire chapter books to ill little boys. (Those are good memories!) While we ask the kids to save their own money for certain purchases, they know I’m a soft touch when it comes to books. Unless we decide it’s a book they’ll finish quickly and never re-read (in which case, it’s borrowed from the library), I will hand over money for just about any book purchase.

As a result of allowing the kids to learn to read at their own pace without external pressures, valuing reading and books, taking time to read aloud every day and almost whenever asked, providing the kids with books they ask for, talking about what we’re all reading, demonstrating in word and deed that my own reading time is just as important to me—as a result of all of this, I have kids who love to read, who won’t leave the house without a book in hand (and an extra, if they think they might finish the first one en route), who don’t understand why anyone would not want to read. Sometimes my boys and I, or the boys and my husband, will read the same books and discuss them. The boys pass series back and forth. My oldest has subscriptions to two adult science magazines and chooses his library books from all sections of the library: kids, YA, adult, fiction, nonfiction. My almost-10yo will still choose picture books even as he ranges up to the YA section for chapter books. He also loves nonfiction as well as fiction. My daughter can’t wait until she can read, too; she’s already planning to re-read favorite series that we’ve read aloud together. I have never once told any of my kids they had to read at least twenty minutes per evening and then hand me a list to prove they did.

I realize teachers don’t know what happens in every household, but I was and always will be my children’s first teacher. I expect any classroom teachers they have to be my partner in this; information goes back and forth so we can both do our best. If our goal as teachers and parents is to nurture children who love to read and freely choose reading as an enjoyable leisure activity, then when my kid is doing just that, we’ve met our goal. Back off with the book logs and busywork summaries; they’ll just undermine the idea that reading can and should be fun. As for kids who aren’t there yet, introducing the idea that you read because school says so leaves no room for the idea that reading can be intrinsically fun. Rating books by level, telling kids what sorts of books they should be reading, valuing one kind of book over another, requiring a certain number of pages read in a certain time period…none of this creates a culture of reading. It creates a culture of control, and that’s no way to nurture kids who choose to read for fun.

(I never forced my kids to eat vegetables, either, and you know what? They all love them.)

Poem in Your Pocket Day

Today is Poem in Your Pocket Day, part of National Poetry Month, and I have a couple of poetry-related things to share with you. Firstly, we visited the Carle Museum earlier this week, and their art studio activity was, fittingly enough, illustrating a favorite poem using watercolors. This is one of my 9yo’s paintings:

butter butter butter butter at amyhoodarts.com

9yo’s illustration of Karla Kuskin‘s poem.

I love the looseness of his butter here. It’s a great illustration of butter! It’s also a favorite poem of ours and one we recite quite often, because…butter.

As for the poem I’d like to share with you…I recently finished reading E. E. Cummings: A Life, by Susan Cheever, so here is a really lovely stanza from his poem my father moved through dooms of love–but I hope you also click through to read the entire poem:

My father moved through theys of we,
singing each new leaf out of each tree
(and every child was sure that spring
danced when she heard my father sing)

Happy Poem in Your Pocket Day, everyone.

{PBL} The Fairy Project

It began late last fall. Gradually, a list of questions grew.

list of questions for fairy project at amyhoodarts.com

We went to the library to look up books in their computer, as you do, and came home with some that day and requested many, many others. Shortly after Christmas we were excited to find this book in a used book store, because we’d kept renewing our library copy:

fairyopolis

I need to compile a list of books my girl has found so far for this project so I can share them in another post. Our library search led us to The Fairy Ring, which I read aloud to both my homeschooled kids. My 9yo is just as interested in the magical and mythical, and fairies and their cousins the elves, goblins, etc, qualify, so he’s interested to listen along. The Fairy Ring is a nonfiction book that reads like a novel and tells the story of two cousins in early 20th-century England who posed a photograph with fairies. The younger cousin maintained all through her life that she did see fairies, but at the time, they were simply trying to get their parents to stop teasing them when they claimed they saw them. Word of their photographs gets around, and the situation becomes larger than they expected.

A Midsummer’s Nights Dream was mentioned in the book, so it’s been added to the reading list. That’s the way things go with projects.

G has lots of ideas relating to this project. She’s making a fairy comic, would like to plan a butterfly garden (in hopes that fairies are also attracted, since they favor the same habitat as butterflies), and she’s been looking through a book of fairy houses. She tells anyone who will listen about her project, and when she tells librarians, they often have books to suggest or, in one case, a friend who builds fairy houses on her front porch. That librarian said she’d see if her friend would mind if we visited.

G has also been taking notes. Sometimes, if she wants to record a lot of information at once, I write it. But mostly, she does.

taking notes for the fairy project at amyhoodarts.com

(toes!!)

I’ll keep you updated on this project, definitely. Just as I thought with my son’s monster project, this project is proof that project topics don’t have to be “real” or close by in order to provide huge opportunity for learning. She’s writing and researching, we’re reading, she’s drawing. She’s planning a garden and wants to build fairy houses in the spring (nature). We’ll be reading Shakespeare again soon. If a child is interested and curious, a topic is rich and can lead anywhere.

Enough With Your Summer Reading!

My boys last summer, reading in the yard.

My boys last summer, reading in the yard.

The reminders are everywhere this time of year, and have been for a while. Amazon and Scholastic are sending me emails with book lists for my children. Pinterest is full of summer reading posts. The local librarian has visited my oldest’s classroom, encouraging the kids to sign up for summer reading, dangling the carrot of performances and prizes if they’d just, you know, read. I’ve heard all the arguments in favor of these programs, but you won’t convince me. I don’t believe in bribing kids to read. I am wary of extrinsic motivators, and I want—and have—children who read for reading’s sake. I’ve been told that some kids just won’t read all summer without summer reading programs, and while that may be true, summer reading is not solving a problem here. It’s a cosmetic fix for a deeper, underlying problem that isn’t being addressed. Why don’t these kids want to read to begin with?

I have two areas of parenting where I’ve nailed it (yes, only two). All of my kids love books and reading, and they all eat a variety of foods. As I thought about this, I realized that these areas are where my intent, priorities, and desired outcome are completely aligned. We have a hard time, for example, explaining to our kids that they shouldn’t swear when both their parents have a bit of a potty mouth. Until I change my own behavior, all the explanations in the world aren’t going to have an effect. However, I don’t eat cookies while asking my kids to eat an apple; because I value healthy eating and sweets in moderation, they naturally followed my lead. I don’t stare at a TV screen while telling my kids to read a book, either. I have my nose in my own book, thank you very much. Sometimes I’m asked how I “get” my kids to read, and this is my long response to that question.

I began taking my kids to the library in their infancy. Yes, even my firstborn. I spent hours trapped under a sleeping baby who’d awaken if I tried to slip away. I needed books, lots of books, to pass the time, so the baby and I went to the library. As more babies came, they were brought to the library too, and now all of us pick out so many books combined that certain librarians duck when they see us coming. From the beginning I instituted the Mama-First Rule: Mama gets to pick out books first, and then (and only then) will we go to the kids’ section. It’s like putting on my oxygen tank first. Now, of course, I have some kids old enough to wander off by themselves to pick out books anyway. The library, in other words, is a regular part of our life and routine and always has been.

I also began reading aloud to my kids in infancy. My oldest would sit and listen for as long as my voice held out. He was (and is) a placid child. By age two he was listening to chapter books, and at age four he could repeat, word for word, his favorite stories—including The Polar Express, which is quite a long one. I thought he’d be an early reader, but it didn’t click for him until he was seven. He was homeschooled at the time, and he was allowed to learn to read without any external pressures whatsoever. By the time he started school in second grade he was reading well ahead of grade level.

Younger siblings, of course, hear read-alouds from the very beginning. My second child wouldn’t sit still and listen like his brother. He’d squirm off the couch and onto the floor, where he’d busily play. He was a mover. No matter; I knew he was listening. When my oldest began to read on his own, I didn’t stop reading out loud (of course, I had two non-readers at the time, too). Books are part of the activity choice in our house along with toys and other playthings, and were not reserved just for bedtime stories. I read in the morning, the afternoon, and evening. When both my boys were in school, my daughter and I would see the bus off and then come inside to read. I’d sit with my coffee and the stack of books she’d selected and sometimes read for an hour or more before we continued with our day.

My middle child was in school during his learning-to-read process. At the first parent/teacher conference, I told his kindergarten teacher that I didn’t care if he was reading by the end of kindergarten and, in fact, didn’t expect him to be. (This, I was told, was not the normal parent statement about reading in K.) I didn’t want reading to turn into a source of anxiety or pressure. By the beginning of second grade he could read, somewhat laboriously, but it hadn’t clicked for him yet. In the meantime, I told his teacher that I would not be having him fill out a book log, because such a thing made reading a chore. (Have you ever written down everything you’ve read? So boring.) It also reinforced the idea that he should read because school says so and not because he wanted to. Knowing my son’s oppositional nature, I felt there was a risk he’d simply rebel against reading if he felt it wasn’t his decision. No book logs for us. My job was to run interference while my child got his reading feet under him. By mid-second grade, reading had clicked for him, and by the end, he, too, was reading beyond grade level. Still, when we began homeschooling, I continued the morning routine of reading books aloud, now with two kids instead of one. Just because a child can read to himself doesn’t mean he doesn’t enjoy cuddling up and hearing stories read out loud.

So how did I end up with kids who love reading? I take them to the library and always have. I read aloud, early, often, and even when they can read to themselves. I read books myself, where the kids can see me. I occasionally ignore them because the book is really good. I pick out books for myself at the library. I make sure they are allowed to learn to read at their own pace and without externally imposed pressure, anxiety, or stress. I don’t judge their reading material. Both boys take out books below their reading level along with harder books. I simply remind them to make sure they bring home some longer books, too, because otherwise they finish all their books too soon and I have two kids moping around the house complaining, “I’m out of book.” They love graphic novels and read them again and again. I suggest books I think they might like, I find books they’ve requested, I give books as presents, I provide magazine subscriptions. I thoroughly support their reading habit, as I support my own.

So there is no quick-results answer I can give when someone asks me, “How did you get your kids to read?” It’s a lifestyle; it reflects what’s important to me. These readers of mine are the product of the sum total of my time as a mother; getting a kid to value reading isn’t a quick summer project involving McDonald’s coupons and a magician at the library. Of course, there are outliers. There are people who love to read who grew up in bookless homes, and kids who don’t read at all whose book-loving parents are mystified. But in general, results begin with what you value and where you put your time, which is why my kids love to read and often ask for apples for a snack. They didn’t learn to read because I sat down and made it a chore, and they don’t read now to earn prizes at the library. They read because books take them to different places, different times, different universes, carried along on the wave of a fantastic story. They read for reading’s sake.