The day my son Alec was born I read him Jules Feiffer's Bark, George in the hospital. It was a gift from my cousin, who taught me the importance of daily reading to instill a love for books. Each day after that, I read to him. He attended early learning classes where he discovered literacy in a pre-school setting. He became familiar with Eric Carle and Chicka Chicka Boom Boom. He yelled to his teacher, Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! Alec continued to encourage George to bark as he reread his favorites and shared them with the other kids in his class.
By the time kindergarten rolled around he had dozens of characters he loved. He begged to drive an hour to a bookstore to see Barbara Park, the author of the Junie B. Jones's First Boxed Set Ever! (Books 1-4) series. I waited with him in line for more than three hours just so she could "make his book special by writing her name inside of it."
I remember the days of kindergarten when he just couldn't wait to tell me what Junie B. had done in school that day. She was his friend, and he was a reader. I will never forget the day I drove four of his friends to a birthday party and they insisted on listening to the audio version of Junie B. instead of watching a movie. His entire class was in love with Junie B. and books.
Then first grade happened. Alec arrived in his first-grade classroom excited to learn. He was ready with backpack in hand, supplies in his box, and lunch in his bag. He was really ready!
Maybe he wasn't really ready, because each day he came home with a different ailment. He visited the nurse each day. His knees hurt, his stomach hurt, he was tackled on the playground and everything hurt. This went on for days as we tried to figure out what was going on from home. One day he came home complaining that his eyes hurt. Alec does have eyes of different sizes and colors (a result of a premature birth). I took him to the doctor immediately. Okay – I took him to three different doctors who each said the same thing. "His vision is fine and his eyes are healthy." Alec still complained that his eyes hurt.
The Monday following the third and final visit, Alec bounded off the school bus with a solution! "Mom, I wore Collin's glasses in school today and I could see better. My eyes didn't hurt either. I think I need glasses." He was quite certain glasses would solve the problem.
Since I was sure he didn't need glasses just yet, I asked him to tell me more about Collin. "Well, Collin wears glasses and he reads a level L. My teacher says if you read a level L then you are a really good reader. I think I need glasses to read a level L."
Three doctors' appointments and $678.00 later, I discovered Alec wants glasses in order to read at level L.
As educators we know kids need "just-right" texts in order to scaffold their literacy skills. We are all familiar systems for teaching with leveled books. I agree that kids need time with just-right books or books they can read independently. But it is the teacher's job to place those books with care into the hands of children, and then eventually teach children to choose books themselves.
Did I miss the seminar that instructed us to run out and get bins labeled from A-Z so students could blindly (or with glasses it seems) make their way dutifully to the end of each bin?
My son, who read all the time in kindergarten, stopped reading for fun. Alec stopped reading for information and stopped reading to and with me. Each evening he brought home two books in an envelope. Each had a sticker with a capital letter proudly displayed on the cover. That letter became our nightmare.
Getting him to read those books was like pulling teeth. Alec has left the world of great illustrations and colorful language, and entered a world of texts with generic pencil drawings and meaningless phrasing.
I realize that very short texts will not have intricately developed settings, characters and plots, but these books seem comparable in interest and quality to the long-discarded Dick and Jane readers. Alec has lost interest in stories, which isn't surprising.
Our conversations about books changed. Instead of questions about characters, words or what might happen next, he asked, "Mom, what level is this?" He looked at the covers of books at home, almost expecting to find a label, and then exclaimed, "It has to be like a level X!"
My heart was breaking. At age six my son was now reading for competition. His purpose in reading was to get to the top. He didn't understand nor care about any other aspect of the reading experience.
I was devastated, and it became clear I had to set up rehab. Books that even resemble those books in the bins were forbidden at home. I needed what he once craved the most, but was now forgotten. I needed Junie B., and I needed her now!
As I presented a Junie B. book to Alec I saw it. It was the sparkle in his eye as he remembered his good friend Junie B. and realized these characters he loved were going on vacation in Aloha-Ha-Ha. We stayed up and read together until the book was finished. When it was over, we both fell asleep knowing he would have to take his books back to school and tell his teacher he didn't read the books in the envelope blindly chosen from his bin. He didn't read them because he didn't want to; he felt no ownership that comes with choice. He never browsed the bin because he saw no variety in the books.
Teachers, please reorganize those bins. Divide your books by genre, author, series, topic, fiction, nonfiction or favorites, but please stop with the bins of leveled texts with the A-Z or numbered labels.
Leveled books were intended to help teachers get just-right books into the hands of children. But please allow kids to choose books in an authentic manner and allow them to fall in love with books again. The level was never something students were expected to know.
Alec has been wearing glasses to school for the past four days as I write these words. They have no lenses in them but he is sure they will help him get to level L. He wears his glasses, and he's asked me to sign the note he has written:
Dear Mrs. N,
Please let Alec be a letter L.