Monday, November 16, 2009

Surviving Guided Reading

My 3rd grader brought home her Guided Reading book this weekend. It was not a book she wanted to read, but she'd been out-voted by the rest of her reading group. Here's what she brought home:

You'll notice that this is a Newberry Honor book. Usually that means it's good.

Anyway, she was having a snit about being forced to read it, so I told her I would take a look at it. My thinking was that if I could read it first, I could help her get engaged with it and smooth the way a bit. Hey, I was an English teacher; I did not in any way intend to let her off the hook.

So I read it. I was only about 4 pages in when I began to be uncomfortable. It's about a boy named Jake who has been kicked out of every school he's ever been in. Rumor has it that he may have actually burned one of his schools to the ground. His parents are both in jail -- for growing marijuana in their basement and "offering" it to an undercover police officer. Though the book doesn't explicitly say so, I think this is euphemistic language for "selling."

Perhaps you can see where I was beginning to have trouble with this book.

Kicked out of yet another school, Jake is sent to the Applewhites, an artistic family with an "academy" -- basically a homeschool set-up that will allow them to pursue their artistic endeavors free of the stultifying influence of the public schools. Jake has a colorful vocabulary, as you might expect from a juvenile delinquent. His swearing is not explicitly recorded, but the Applewhites have a parrot with a potty mouth, so comparisons are drawn between the two.

I turned the book over and looked at the back to see what, if any, commentary it had. And I saw this:

Can you see it? Here, I'll make it bigger:

My daughter is 8. Obviously, we've got an issue here. The marijuana selling and the swearing aside, this book dealt with themes that are just too mature for an 8 year old. The two main characters are 12 and 13, the first clue that this book was probably going to be thematically beyond her. Generally speaking, the age of the protagonists is the approximate age of the target audience.

This is not, let me hurry to say, a bad book. It would be fine if my daughter were in 5th or 6th grade (the age when, incidentally, my 12 year old niece read it). But there's a certain innocence that my daughter still has and that I want to protect as long as I can. So, I emailed the teacher. In my email, I specifically mentioned the marijuana growing, because I really felt that that by itself should preclude the book even being offered to 3rd graders. I assumed the teacher had probably not read the book and was operating out of ignorance.

As a parent, I have absolute authority over what my child reads. The school district cannot force her to read something that I find objectionable. I cannot dictate what anyone else reads but I can dictate what my child reads.

The teacher was willing to have the whole group change books, something I didn't expect. I was prepared to have my daughter reading something independent of the group, but this was a nice surprise. Problem solved. Sort of.

Here's the next book they wanted to read:

Now, I know a lot of people have read and loved Neil Gaiman's stuff, and this book is "recommended" for 9-12 year olds, so it's close to my daughter's age. But -- and this is a big but-- this book has strong elements of horror in it. And since my daughter has suffered from nightmares most of her life, you can see where I might have trouble with this one, too. No argument from her at all -- she wanted to read it -- the problem was all with me. I told her I'd have to read it first before I could sign off on it.

At that point, I contacted the teacher and asked for a list of the books they had to choose from. Forewarned is forearmed, my mom always says.

The purpose of guided reading is for kids to read in a small group with others at their reading level. They read aloud, which enables the teacher to see what mistakes they're making as they read, either with decoding or comprehension, and support them so they can improve.

Now, I want to tread carefully here so my point is not lost. If, like me, you have a strong reader, you may run into the problem of a child who can read many grade levels above their chronological age. The teacher may have trouble finding books which stretch your child's vocabulary and reading ability because to get them to the right level, they must choose books that are geared for older children. Older=Harder, right? But sometimes Older=Inappropriate when the audience is much younger than intended. Just because they can read books for older kids doesn't mean they should.

I suspect I'm in a minority here, because I know many children my kids' ages who routinely see PG, PG-13 and even R-rated movies. Obviously their parents aren't going to object to either of the books I've featured here. But there is a certain innocence in children that should be protected, and that's my job. I don't expect the teacher to have read all the Guided Reading books -- that would be asking a lot of one person. But I can, and will, vet every book my child is asked to read. I'll put it through my mom-filter and decide whether it's okay. I wish I didn't have to do this in 3rd grade, but I do.

And you do, too. Don't assume that everything your child is given to read is okay. Much of it probably is, but do yourself, and your child, the favor of reading it yourself and seeing how it stands up to your mom-filter. At the very least, get on or and read what others had to say about it. Check their listings or the publisher's website to see what the age of the target audience is. Ask the teacher for a list of the books they're expected or allowed to read. Don't assume the teacher is trying to corrupt your child. Politely request another book if something sets off your alarms. This bears repeating: be polite.

There's a lot of stuff out there that 8 year olds don't need to be thinking about. Once their innocence is gone, it's gone.

Know what your kids are being given to read.

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