Sunday Reflections: How Misuse of the 40 Book Challenge Made My Kid Hate Reading and Why (& How) I Pushed Back
Thing 2, age 10, started the 4th grade this year. We already knew she was behind in reading as she had been diagnosed with dyslexia and given a 504 plan to provide her with accommodations. I had fought tooth and nail in the K, 1st and 2nd grade to get her diagnosed and on track, and there is a lot of push back when it comes to getting our kids accommodations because of concerns about money. We’re willing every day in many ways to sacrifice the health and well being of our children for a few dollars and serving kids with special needs is no different. You can read about our struggle to get a diagnosis and what I learned about dyslexia here. But let’s jump ahead now to the 4th grade.
So the 4th grade began and I soon learned that our kids would be participating in the 40 Book Challenge, an original concept that was made popular by Donalyn Miller but has been bastardized in many ways by school districts every where. They have taken her original intent and tried to regulate it and grade it in ways that make its original goal and premises basically moot. She has even addressed her concerns about the ways that teachers incorrectly and harmfully implement her 40 Book Challenge here.
In our district, kids were challenged to read 40 books. They would read 20 books the first semester and another 20 books the second semester. They had to read a very regimented list of books and were required to keep a reading log AND to fulfill a one page question sheet for each completed book to get credit. They were graded and after the first semester, when many of the kids hadn’t read the first 20 books, they had to turn in a sheet each Friday and if they didn’t their punishment was to give up their recess to walk laps. Only two of the options each semester were free choice books, everything else was designed to make them read a variety of genres. Half of the books had to be over 80 pages in length. It was a one size fits all approach that left little wiggle room for the various types and stages of readers. It was limiting, punitive, and left little room for enjoyment or exploration. And it highly regulated our children’s freedom outside of class, which is incredibly difficult because school time is now so very regulated and regimented.
This is how that first semester went in our home. As I attempted to keep my child on task to meet the various requirements and goals, we fought. A lot. My child, already behind and feeling a lot of insecurity and resenment towards reading, responded exactly as you would expect. She cried. She fought. She procrastinated. She told me she hated reading. She told me she hated me. She told me she was stupid and a failure and that she hated herself. It was a very difficult semester in our home, for everyone. But most importantly, I worried that she wasn’t going to make it out of the 4th grade with any positive emotions surrounding herself, me or reading. It felt like everyone was being harmed and damaged.
So this semester, I took a different approach and we read. We read whatever we wanted. I ignored the sheets and the genres and the assignment and we read. If Thing 2 asked for a book, I got it for her. If she tried it and she liked it, I got her more books in that series or by that author. When she asked me to buy her a book because she wanted to own it and I could afford it, we made that happen. I gave her money for the Scholastic book fair. I checked books out from my library. I took her to the half price bookstore. And we read. We read whatever she wanted, whenever she wanted. We ignored the assignment altogether and just worked on developing her personal reading skills at her own pace and on cultivating an enjoyment of reading.
When she asked me to read to her, I read to her. When she asked to read to me, I listened. I allowed her to skip a night of reading if she expressed that she wasn’t interested in reading that night. I made it my personal goal not to fight with her about reading because I recognized that a lot of things were happening in her life to give her negative associations with reading.
Over time, she started reading on her own. I can tell you based on the books she has read that she is still not reading at level. She is an insecure reader and she has to work through the fear and negative feelings before she develops confidence in her reading skills. Those fear and negative feelings are in part because she is a child with dyslexia, but also because we teach and enforce reading in ways that are negative for our children. So now we are undoing all of those things in our home.
Every night now, she goes to bed with a book and a flashlight. She takes a book in the car with her. She carries a book or two in her backpack. She asks for books. She reads books. She read me a book of poetry from another room over a walkies-talkie because why not. Just this morning she came to me with a list of the books she wanted to read next and the order she wanted to read them in. She is developing joy and confidence in reading in her own way and at her own pace.
Last week, I bit the bullet and wrote her teachers a long email explaining to them that my child would not be completing the 40 Book Challenge as outlined by them. I explained to them that it is not being implemented in the ways intended and that I thought it was doing more harm than good when it comes to developing strong, confident readers. I shared with them the research I knew as a librarian about the value and importance of personal choice when it comes to children and reading, about the recent research on the decline of interest in reading around the age of 9, and about how as a mother I felt it was more important for me to nurture my child’s life long love of reading as opposed to fulfilling this one assignment because I challenged the impact and efficacy of the assignment.
It was really hard for me to write that email because I’m a rule follower who believes in and supports teachers and public education. But in my gut, I also knew it was the wrong approach for my child. I had seen it first hand. I will also admit that I made a lot of mistakes along the way. I probably should have asked for 504 accommodations immediately. I should have spoken to the teachers much sooner. I should have stopped enforcing the rules much earlier when I realized the damage that they were doing.
Over the course of this school year, my child has now read well over 40 books. They just aren’t the right kinds of books or the right length of books. Sometimes she read a book multiple times, and that doesn’t count either. She has read 11 of the 12 Here’s Hank books (she thought the one with a zombie would be too scary), she’s read all 8 Raina Telgemeir graphic novels, she’s read several Magic School Bus and Black Lagoon books. She’s read like 20 pictures books over and over and over again. She’s read a couple of nonfiction books about space, because she’s really into space. She has read. She has grown as a reader. She is growing more confident as a reader.
We haven’t fought about reading all semester. She hasn’t cried about reading in months. She hasn’t called herself stupid or a failure in a few weeks now. She tells me she likes reading now. I have come to realize that I made the right decision for my child.
I talked about this some several times on Twitter and Facebook and last week I shared that I was saying no to the assignment. Many people asked me about the school’s response. I would like to say that it was positive, but they basically said if she turned in what she had done to date that she would probably get a 90 and with her current grade, she would probably still pass the class. That was obviously not the response I was hoping for.
If you are a librarian or a teacher or a parent I hope that we can all learn from my horrible, miserable, no good, very bad experience with the 40 Book Challenge. Implemented in the ways intended by Donalyn Miller, I believe it is and can be a good model. I recommend even more reading and following some of her newest research in Game Changer! But whatever we do, moving forward, let’s learn from the experiences of my daughter not to take the joy out of reading. A one time grade isn’t worth the long term harm we’re doing when it comes to reading.
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About Karen Jensen, MLS
Karen Jensen has been a Teen Services Librarian for almost 30 years. She created TLT in 2011 and is the co-editor of The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services with Heather Booth (ALA Editions, 2014).
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