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This past week, I wrote a blog post that critiqued the results of The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) 2013 test. There was a 2% growth in reading scores over the past 41 years for students at age 17.
A 2% increase.
That’s all.
Billions of dollars, paper piles of legislation, incalculable time…..and the result has been an abysmal 2% increase.

In a subsequent post, I wrote how NAEP also provided data to prove independent reading was the key to improving test scores. NAEP reported that students who claimed to read for fun scored higher on standardized tests with the obvious conclusion that the more time a student spent reading, the higher the student’s score. This information, included in a report that demonstrated a failure of reading programs, offered a possible solution for increasing reading scores: adopt a no-cost, read for fun initiative in order to improve results.

I tweeted out the the link to my post:

2013 NAEP Tests show only 2% growth in reading by age 17 UNLESS students “read for fun”

I received this tweet in response: is a lovely site to use when you want to encourage kids to read for fun

So, I went to the Reading Rewards website, but I had some concerns. The headline banner read:“The Reward is in the Reading”, certainly a noble sentiment. However, below this banner was the text that read:

Parents & Teachers:
We know all about the rewards that reading offers, but sometimes our more reluctant readers need a little extra incentive. The Reading Rewards online reading log and reading incentive program helps make reading fun and satisfying. Find more about Reading Rewards’s benefits for parents and teachers.

The concept of an incentive program or reading for “rewards” is not reading for fun. Reading for pleasure should be the only incentive, and offering incentive programs can be counter-productive. Consider education advocate Alfie Kohn‘s explanation of his research that illustrates why incentivized reading programs are not successful:

The experience of children in an elementary school class whose teacher introduced an in-class reading-for-reward program can be multiplied hundreds of thousands of times:

The rate of book reading increased astronomically . . . [but the use of rewards also] changed the pattern of book selection (short books with large print became ideal). It also seemed to change the way children read. They were often unable to answer straight-forward questions about a book, even one they had just finished reading. Finally, it decreased the amount of reading children did outside of school.

Notice what is going on here. The problem is not just that the effects of rewards don’t last. No, the more significant problem is precisely that the effects of rewards do last, but these effects are the opposite of what we were hoping to produce. What rewards do, and what they do with devastating effectiveness, is to smother people’s enthusiasm for activities they might otherwise enjoy.

Kohn’s explanation in his A Closer Look at Reading Incentive Programs (Excerpt from Punished by Rewards 1993/1999) illustrates the problems that develop for late middle school and high school teachers (gr 7-12) experience once elementary students have experienced a reward program with their reading. Students who are conditioned to read for any kind of reward develop a Pavlovian response. They learn to expect a reward; once the reward is removed, however, they lose interest.

Sadly, most students are already in a “quid pro quo” educational experience. Even in elementary school, students are conditioned to want a grade for every activity. Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons poked fun of this conditioned response for constant feedback in one episode when Springfield’s teachers went out on strike, and a distraught Lisa begged her mother, Marge, to “grade her”:

“Grade me! Look at me! Evaluate and rank me!
I’m good, good, good and oh so smart!

LISA: "Grade me! Look at me! Evaluate and rank me! I’m good, good, good and oh so smart! GRADE ME!"

LISA: “Grade me! Look at me! Evaluate and rank me! I’m good, good, good and oh so smart! GRADE ME!”

While grades are not the currency for this website, Reading Rewards is perfectly positioned to be a commercial enterprise with language on the site promoting the RR “store” and “e-commerce”.  This initial shopping experience may be for some trinket in a teacher’s box, a homework pass, or a pizza party, but the potential for “shopping” on this site is certainly a possibility.

Here is the promotional text for teachers:

Screen Shot 2013-07-10 at 10.43.43 AM

The website advises teachers what items to have for students to “purchase”, and even suggests major retailers i-Tunes and Amazon:

Reward Ideas
Teachers and parents can create any reward they want and define how many RR miles are required to “purchase” each reward. Here are some ideas of Rewards selected by many of our users:

  • Movie night at home
  • Movie in the theater
  • Family game night
  • Sleepover with friends
  • Trip to the dollar store
  • Prize draw from a treasure box
  • Extra tickets for a classroom raffle
  • The right to choose the dessert after dinner
  • Make/decorate/eat cupcake session
  • Amazon credit
  • iTunes credit
  • Game console time

Again, Kohn believes that in teaching students to read, incentives should not be used. Instead he notes:

But what matters more than the fact that children read is why they read and how they read.  With incentive-based programs, the answer to “why” is “To get rewards,” and this, as the data make painfully clear, is often at the expense of interest in reading itself.

So while the key to independent reading is the key to raising reading scores, students should not be raising profits for software companies as well. There are other features on this software that are admirable. The site includes places for reading logs, creating reading wish lists, and peer sharing reviews, but those features could be accomplished on a (free) blog or wiki without the distractions of prizes or rewards.

I do not fault the teacher who was well-intended when she tweeted out this website. She wants students to read for fun. The NAEP report proves that independent reading can effectively raise scores when the reading is self-motivated reading for pleasure. Teachers should question, however, when reading for fun is linked to reading with “funds”.

The Simpson’s creator Matt Groening is a great satirist. In one episode in an exchange between the cartoon character Lisa Simpson and her Grandmother, he also demonstrates his ability to be a great literary critic:

Grandma Simpson: Don’t be bashful. When I was your age, kids made fun of me because I read at the 9th grade level.
Lisa: Me too!
Grandma Simpson: Although I hardly consider A Separate Peace the ninth-grade level.
Lisa: Yeah, more like preschool.
Grandma Simpson: I hate John Knowles.
Lisa: Me too.

I value Lisa Simpson’s opinion on literature, after all, this is a character who has been seen clutching copies of  The Bell JarEthan FromeMan and SupermanThe Corrections, and the more age appropriate Pippi Longstocking. So when she says she hates John Knowles, I feel validated. I have always disliked John Knowles’s A Separate Peace.
However, there are others who call this same book  “A masterpiece”(National Review) or ” deeply felt and beautifully written” (The Observer) or “Intense, mesmerizing, and compelling” (School Library Journal). The English Language Arts Common Core State Standards gives its recommendation since the novel has been, “Hailed as a literary masterpiece,” and that ” A Separate Peace is a classic novel with numerous teaching resources available.” The CCSS analysis of the text complexity reads:
“When considering the qualitative measures and the reader-task considerations, this novel is well placed at the 9th-10th grade complexity band. The complex themes, use of first person narrative—but with multiple flash backs and flash forward indicate higher level reading skills are needed by the reader. The Common Core Standards Text Exemplars also place the novel in the 9th -10th grade complexity band.”
 In a  2004 study titled A SeparatePeace:Four Decades of Critical ResponseLois Rauch Gibson writes:

“Rejected at first by American publishers, John Knowles’ A SeparatePeace appeared in England in 1959, where critics admiringly compared it to Salinger’s writings. American critics, responding in 1960 to the American edition, generally noted its depth, sensitivity, and ‘disturbing allegories'(Aitken 754). They did not entirely agree about what the allegories might be, nor have the four decades of critics since.”

I would argue there are no allegories in this short story “Phineas” that was expanded (unnecessarily) by Knowles into a full length novel. This is a fairly straightforward story of young white males at an exclusive prep school and their conflicts and competition during a last summer before entering the very grown up world of competition and World War II. I found the story dated when I read it in 1973, but Gibson felt the novel could  speak to today’s readers:

“As we approach the forty-fifth anniversary of the American edition of A Separate Peace,in a world where the all-male, all-white prep school environment has become exceedingly rare, John Knowles’ novel nonetheless continues to speak to adolescents. Once we fought wars against fascism, then against communism, now against terrorism. Before this background, teenagers attend school, bond with peers, lose their innocence, encounter hate and ignorance and what Knowles calls blind impulses; and each one inevitably struggles to develop an identity-sexual and otherwise. As the world continues to change, no doubt the next four decades of critics will have much to say about this resilient and compelling novel.”

I have always considered A Separate Peace to be the poorer literary cousin to J.D. Salinger’s 1951 classic Catcher in the Rye. Unfortunately, I like A Separate Peace’s  Gene less than I like the deluded Holden from Catcher in the Rye, and I like the object of Gene’s angst, Phineas or Finny, even less. This is a critical problem in the novel according to Slate Magazine’s Dec 2009 review The Secret of A Separate Peace by Stephen Metcalf:

“We do not love Phineas as Gene does. His charm for Gene exceeds his charm for us. The less we are seduced by Phineas, the more we experience him not as an Apollonian boy-god lacking the normal ratio of ill-character but as a love object for Gene, and Gene alone.”
I remember reading the climatic moment of the novel, when Gene reflects back on the accident in the tree:
 “He [Phineas/Finny] had never been jealous of me for a second. Now I knew that there never was and never could have been any rivalry between us. I was not of the same quality as he. I couldn’t stand this. . . . Holding firmly to the trunk, I took a step toward him, and then my knees bent and I jounced the limb. Finny, his balance gone, swung his head around to look at me for an instant with extreme interest, and then he tumbled sideways, broke through the little branches below and hit the bank with a sickening, unnatural thud. It was the first clumsy physical action I had ever seen him make. With unthinking sureness I moved out on the limb and jumped into the river, every trace of my fear of this forgotten.”
“What the heck?” I distinctly remember thinking, “He intentionally caused him to fall! What kind of friend is that?” He lost me at “forgotten.” I considered the final “apology” of the novel a fraud:
“I never killed anybody and I never developed an intense level of hatred for the enemy. Because my war ended before I ever put on a uniform; I was on active duty all my time at school; I killed my enemy there. Only Phineas never was afraid, only Phineas never hated anyone.”
It’s a lie. Gene was responsible (indirectly) for the death of Phineas, and in this statement he is contradictory about killing his “enemy.” Apologetically glorifying Phineas at the end is probably meant to be sincere, but to me the conclusion reeks of Freudian dishonesty. Gene could never really know Phineas, so he destroyed him and then made him a god.
 Still, our 9th grade honors classes read A Separate Peace.
When I asked the teacher why she replied casually, “Well, they can read it in a weekend. They like it.”
“Do you do any real lessons with it?” I pressed her.
“No. They generally get it.”
“Get what?”
“Friendship, betrayal. Teenage angst.”
Ah, yes. A Separate Peace is awash in teenage angst. So is high school, which probably is the reason the book remains in the high school canon. That and the accumulated hundreds of copies available in English Department libraries. Of course, this wallowing in the imposed angst of teenagers reminds me of another brilliant Matt Groening observation, this time provided by Lisa’s brother Bart. Heading into an alternative rock and roll concert, Bart is heard commenting, “Lisa, making teenagers depressed is like shooting fish in a barrel.” Which explains why Lisa hates John Knowles.
Me too.

We now have enough copies of The Poisonwood Bible for several AP classes, and I have been warned that I am becoming dangerously close to a reality TV personality hoarding this text. At almost every sale, I pick up a few more copies.

I happen to love the book…all 560 pages of it, and that is the problem. 560 pages to the average teenager is 500 pages too many. The book was first published in 1998 and follows a missionary family who travels from Georgia to the Belgian Congo in 1959 during the height of the Cold War. Missionaries in the Congo? Kingsolver was way ahead of South Park’s musical creators of The Book of Mormon!

The other problem for most students with this text is Kingsolver’s use of multiple narrators: Rachel, Leah, Adah, Ruth May and their mother, Orleanna. Each daughter has a particular point-of-view of their attempt to “Save Africa for Jesus” ranging from the self-absorbed and shallow Rachel to the brilliant mathematician/linguist Adah and her dogmatic twin, Leah.

Someone placed the book on a list Best Page-Turners with Redeeming Social Value: “This Listopia is inspired by Nicholas D. Kristof’s “Best Beach Reading Ever” list, published by The New York Times, which includes great works of fiction with a social justice angle. He writes, ‘Summer reading often consists of mindless page-turners, equally riveting and vacuous. So as a public service I’m delighted to offer a list of mindful page-turners — so full of chase scenes, romance and cliffhangers that you don’t mind the redeeming social value.'”

I have amassed at least 50 copies of the paperback on a classroom shelf; a dozen more copies have been checked out for summer reading. Offering the book for summer reading will give me feedback on including the text next year. The students will keep dialectical journals (responding to quotes they select from the text), and I can review their notes about the plot, characters, and writing style.

560 pages! Daunting for students and teachers alike

The book currently sells at Amazon for $8.99. My total investment to date? Approximately $60.00 as opposed to the $539.40 the books would sell for new.

The book length is only matched by the number of themes, topics, allusions, literary devices, and clever word play used by Kingsolver. Her understanding of the post-colonial Africa wooed by the superpowers of the USA and USSR was an eye-opener for me. High school history for me ended sometime after the Civil War/Reconstruction. Similarly, I find that current high school history ends with a three day cursory treatment of the Vietnam War. 20th Century history-from 1950 to the present- is overlooked in schools today.

I am reminded of an episode from The Simpsons featuring students pouring out of the school ready to start summer vacation.
“Wait!” a teacher screams from the top of the stairs, “I forgot to tell you who won World War II…!”
The students stop their stampede for a moment while the teacher pauses before shouting, “We… WON!”
“YAY!” scream the students, streaming out of the building, chanting, “USA! USA!”

The failure of history classes to deal with recent history comically portrayed in Matt Groening’s scenerio is the reason to read The Poisonwood Bible. Fiction can make history very real, can make student readers more curious about a time or place, and can “sandpaper” their brains for understanding the past with a more critical lens. I am anxious about teaching The Poisonwood Bible because of the complexity of the politics,  but I believe the book is important enough to be included in a curriculum-as a core text or as an independent read.

While I am anxious about teaching the book, I have been banned from collecting more copies by members of my department…lest I be accused of hoarding!