Dear Teacher, with love from your bookseller

Cynthia Compton -- September 9th, 2019

Our school year is just three short weeks old, and there are a few items I’d like to address with our educator friends. Before we get any further into the semester, this children’s bookseller would like to make a couple of changes to the curriculum — and perhaps alter some school policies, for the good of the students and the sanity of both parents and my employees. Just for this school year, perhaps we could do away with…

  1. Reading Logs: Those cheerfully decorated worksheets, requiring students to note the amount of time they spend reading at home each day, and requiring parent signatures on a biweekly basis are the bane of many a peaceful family evening. Students are required to document their daily reading minutes, and an assigned amount of time per day adds up to 100–120 minutes of “free reading” each week. As the theory goes, reading improves with practice, and requiring students to read for 20–30 minutes each day will make for better readers. In reality, requiring students to read for a prescribed amount of time AFTER math homework and soccer practice and supper and piano and gluing-the-animals-on-the-diorama and baths and one-more-time through their spelling words (whether they are in the mood to read or not) is destined to fail. Reading becomes just one more chore, defined by time rather than content, and monitored by parents who are concerned with getting a signature on a form, not discussing a great book. True confession time: even your local bookseller has lied on her kids’ reading log. I signed it, and have no idea if they were reading or looking for their cleats for tomorrow’s practice.
  2. Accelerated Reading Programs: The scorekeeping testing device that requires students to read books at their level from a limited, well-known AR list, take a screen-based test on the material, and accumulate a certain number of points per semester, is just a slog. Parents circle our book displays on the days before the next AR “deadline,” seeking books which meet their child’s prescribed reading level, but can be finished quickly and tested on for comprehension. Most of the time, the student isn’t even involved in the book selection — it’s an algebra problem about dividing number of pages by available time remaining to achieve the sum of required points. Nothing about this process creates joyful reading, and all of it turns age-appropriate reading into a diet of pureed vegetables, required to be ingested irregardless of taste. There are many, many titles that do not appear in AR, but are completely appropriate and challenging choices for students to read. Let’s look at ways to open up the reading choices, and take reading for enjoyment out of a Jeopardy game parody.
  3. Genre Bingo Cards: These well-meaning but forced choice devices require students to complete one book of each genre over a grading semester or school year. One biography, one nonfiction, one mystery, one historical fiction, one sci-fi…. and so on until the bingo card is filled. The idea is great; if we require students to sample different genres, they will overcome their reluctance to try new types of reading, and develop new fluency and comprehension skills. The reality is often far less positive. Young readers have preferences just as adults do. Requiring anyone to read material outside of their current interest turns that reading into work. One of the ways we gain confidence, skill and fluency in any skill is through repetition, and for many young readers, that means sticking to a particular style or format of books for quite a while. I consider myself a “professional reader,” and yet I still go on reading jags of genre, author and series, which not only deepen my proficiency as a reader, but provide great satisfaction and enjoyment. (Side note: I’m in a binge right now with essay collections, and would welcome your recommendations!) The requirement to move between genres on a forced march may not be developing more fluent readers, but may actually be slowing down student development. Just as in the Accelerated Reader example above, booksellers often find ourselves scouring our shelves with stressed-out parents, searching for the shortest, fastest read to complete a student’s grid.
  4. Reading Buddies (stuffed animal variety): This sweet little practice of preschool and kindergarten classes, in which students bring home a plush animal for a weekend to join family activities and complete a “journal” describing their activities is just parent punishment. The child actually has no interest in the stuffed animal AFTER they are selected and get to carry the prized character to the carpool line… where it is tossed in the back of the SUV until Sunday, when the parent, who is now assembling the Monday morning backpacks, realizes that they must produce a two-page log of all the family adventures that the class mascot participated in that weekend, complete with pictures. Last week, a desperate mom of a four year old (with a teething baby in tow) called a few minutes before Sunday closing. “Can we come over and take some pictures with this stuffed dog/bear/I-don’t-know-what-it-is in the store?”  We assured her that we had staged these field trips before, and not to worry.
  5. Ten Minute Media Center: I’m not really sure what to call this problem, and frankly, feel a bit sheepish in complaining about ANYTHING that happens in a school library, as media specialist positions are eliminated nationally at an alarming rate, and library time becomes a “special” that is sacrificed for more time spent in state test prep. But as we crowd more and more curriculum requirements into library time, kids lose the precious minutes to browse the shelves. Reading choices take time. I can’t possibly select a book in just a few minutes, especially when all my friends are looking at exactly the same section. We need to give young readers time to learn to sample, to pull books from the shelf and put them back, to wander from the same old familiar series to covers that are new. That means that they need unstructured (but supervised) time in the shelves — and the literary discernment skills practiced there are as valuable as algebraic formulas and memorized state capitals.

So there’s my wish list, teacher friends. In exchange, I will provide you with author visits, book order forms, a completely forgiving attitude towards missed pre-order deadlines, extra free copies of autographed books for your economically challenged students, lots of ARCs and publisher swag, late night research and emailed lists of books for your unit on deep ocean creatures, and glance away from your weekly distribution of book fair flyers from the giant company that is not my store…. and oh, we’ll donate to the PTA auction, too.

But for the love of God, could we lose the out-of-print titles on the required summer reading list?

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About Cynthia Compton

Cynthia is the mom of 4 kids, a rescuer of English Bulldogs, and the owner of 4 Kids Books & Toys in Zionsville, Indiana. The 2600 sq. ft. childrens store was founded in 2003, and hosts daily story times and events, birthday parties, book clubs and a large summer reading program. She just completed her term on the board of the American Specialty Toy Retailers Assn, is a past president of the Great Lakes Bookseller Association, and her store was honored with the Pannell Award in 2013.

4 thoughts on “Dear Teacher, with love from your bookseller

  1. Erin

    Great list! An essay-collection suggestion: Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimerer. She explores life, motherhood, and the marriage of traditional and scientific knowledge in a series of truly engaging and illuminating reflections.

    1. Cynthia Compton Post author

      Erin, that was a fabulous recommendation. I picked up Braiding Sweetgrass on Friday, finished it this morning, and savored every page. Thank you. Cynthia

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