Home on the Range

I don’t know how old I was when I learned how to read. I wasn’t a prodigy and I wasn’t a laggard. I do remember reading my first word: I was fidgeting in a check-out line at the local department store, waiting for my mother to buy pantyhose and curtain rods, when I suddenly realized I could comprehend the four letters glowing, urgent and red, above the door: E-X-I-T.

How fitting that it was a word that represented escape — and not just from the torture of running boring errands. It was like, Woo, look at me! I’m free to exit babyhood and enter the big-kid world of independent reading! In what would seem like the blink of an eye, I’d graduate from signage and cereal boxes to Easy Readers and Little Golden Books to Nancy Drew and V.C. Andrews to Trollope, Tolstoy, and, um, the Twilight series.

Summer used to represent that kind of freedom — from rules and routines, worksheets and spelling tests — but as anyone with a kid in the statistic-driven public-school system knows, that is no longer the case. On the last day of first grade, my 7-year-old brought home a half-inflated beach ball and an autograph book, along with TAKS-prep materials, math practice sheets, and — bleh — reading logs.

Of all the drilling and “teaching to the test” that goes on nowadays, I think it’s the concept of reading logs that bums me out the most. This crazy obsessive-compulsive behavior is introduced in kindergarten: Students are supposed to write down every book they read (or, initially, every book that’s read to them). Their progress is tracked on elaborate sticker charts, and rewarded in a variety of ways — fancy pencils, special lunches, coupons for free ice cream, the thrill of hearing their names read on the morning announcements.

In first grade, students continue diligently keeping logs and earning rewards while their parents make sure they’re reading independently for the required 20 minutes each evening. Enforcing the 20-minute rule isn’t always easy — especially if you’ve got more than one kid and they’re not all natural-born bookworms. Hence the existence of gimmicks designed to prod the reluctant reader, like the Mark-My-Time Digital Bookmark, a $9 strip of neon plastic with a digital timer affixed to the top.

According to its ad copy, the device “communicates to the child that reading is a priority,” though any timed activity — outside of a race — sounds more like a punishment, a “time out,” to me. Maybe I’m being histrionic but I wouldn’t be surprised if someone patents a book that dispenses M&Ms at each turn of the page. Perfect for the preschool market! Or how about a device that delivers little shocks when a child’s attention begins to wander? A bookmark brought to you by the good folks at Taser International!

Over the next few years, my daughter will start using “reader incentive” software at school, the most popular of which is Accelerated Reader (AR) by Renaissance (“advanced technology for data-driven schools”). Basically, books in the school library are broken down by reading level and coded accordingly. Your child reads one of these books and then takes a quiz that proves she’s read it. With each quiz passed, she earns points that translate into … rewards.

This makes me queasy. Book logs and incentive programs turn kids into point-mongers, not “life-long readers,” which is ostensibly the goal. Even a 5-year-old catches on to the game pretty quickly — the shorter and easier the books, the more books I can read, and the more points I get. It reminds me of the frequent-flyer-mile-obsessed George Clooney character in Up In the Air. At least his reward points got him free car rentals and upgraded hotel rooms — but what do kids get for all the points they amass? Recycled Happy Meal prizes, pizza parties, a pass to Fiesta Texas.

At the risk of sounding like a total naïf — ignorant of the multitudinous screens and distractions that compete for kids’ ever-dwindling but increasingly medicated attention spans — reading is in itself supposed to be the reward. But then I came of age in the ’70s and ’80s, before reading logs, before email, when our brains may have been softened by unregulated Hanna-Barbera viewing (not to mention an inability to fast-forward commercials), but we had class periods in school devoted to “free reading” and “reading for pleasure.”

Hopefully some of my antiquated notions have rubbed off on my kids. On the first day of summer, my daughter — admittedly of a bookwormy disposition — spent three hours in her room reading. Meanwhile, I was at the computer printing — what else? — reading logs, for the Mayor’s Summer Reading Club and the Barnes & Noble Passport to Summer Reading. Read a handful of books and you get a free one? Even I can’t argue with that. •

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