As an English teacher myself, I recoiled. "Hold students accountable"? That's language that police and prosecutors speak. As in, "We will find the perpetrators of these vicious crimes and hold them accountable."
We need to change that language. If we think of reading as something to which children (and adults, too) should be "held accountable," we are using the language of policing and prosecution. That's wrongheaded. That's the schoolmarm asking, "Why haven't you done your homework?" "Why aren't you sitting up straight?" "Why haven't you done your twenty minutes of reading?"
The original author of this unfortunate phrase, an educational consultant named Angela Watson, wrote it in a blog post that has some good ideas. She argues that requiring kids to write a tedious "book log" in which the hapless child lists the book she read, the author, and how much time she spent reading is a mistake. True--documenting time spent reading in this way is tedious, demoralizing, and robs reading of pleasure for everyone concerned--student, teacher or parent.
Still, much of Watson's blog post concerns itself with making kids prove they've done their required reading task. Her first three suggestions just change the form of the documentation required. Instead of a book log, Watson suggests a "reading journal." This is doing the same dreary activity--documenting reading--in a prettier place. "I let students pick out a beautiful notebook to record their reading[.] Having a special notebook they loved and felt proud of was much more motivating than scrawling book titles on a piece of paper or in a homework agenda book," Watson writes.
It doesn't matter if it's a piece of paper or a beautiful notebook, Ms. Watson. The chore of documenting is the chore of documenting. We're still in the land of "holding accountable."
I suggest we encourage kids to read by doing the following:
- Ask good, interested questions. "What are you reading now? What do you think about it? Is it as good as the last book you read? How does it compare with what we are reading in class?
- Demonstrate your own reading and the pleasure you take in it. "I'm reading Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. I love it. It's a complicated book for grown-ups, but I'm at a part where the process of collecting hay is described on the Levins' farm. The details are as interesting as the story."
- Save the written response for the classroom. Students should expect to work. But they should not associate reading with the chores of documentation. Give students opportunities to demonstrate their reading by writing about it . . . in class.
- Create reading communities. This is partially the goal of the "literature circle." And Watson does encourage students to share their thoughts and reflections in her eighth suggestion. Still, what about what the student's siblings read? What their parents and extended family read, or remember having read?
Please don't be the reading police. Resist the temptation to make students prove what they've read and when they've read it, which is what "holding students accountable" really means. Make things more fun, more free, and more spontaneous, and children will respond well. Watson's best suggestion is her ninth: Teach students that it's permissible not to finish a book they don't like. Hold them accountable, in other words . . . to not being accountable.