Who Wants to WIN!?!? Anatomy of a Bummer

At the beginning of the year, I posted about the reading competition Chestnut's 6th grade teacher had initiated. Each kid was supposed to fill out a "mini-review" slip of paper for every book read, and whoever read the most books, won! Wow, winning!

What did they win? It wasn't clear, it was all about winning! Because you read the most books! Big numbers of books! Triumphing over your enemies!

When it started, I mostly felt bad about the kids who wouldn't win—kids who aren't into reading, and who would feel even worse about all this. My kid, I noted blithely in the comments, would be fine, fine, fine, because she liked competition, and loved to read.

Well guess what?

Here's how it went down.

First, was the reading. The compulsive reading and filling out slips and reading and filling out slips. Then came the nervous/proud keeping track. Who's reading the most? It looks like she's reading the most. But what about this other kid—maybe she's reading more? Then came the reading in response to that: the head down, dogged reading. A grim grind, book read, slip posted, book read? Slip posted. This went on for weeks.

Then, a few weeks ago, came the tears, in a heartfelt bedtime torrent. What I got, more or less, was this:

"At first it seemed really fun, because I really like to read! And then I read so many books that all these kids started to pay attention. And then they wanted me to beat this kid in the other class, and every day they asked me if I read more books, and how many did I read, and how many was I going to read that day, and then I started to not read books that were really long, because it would take me too long, and now…now I almost don't want to read at all, because every book just looks like the thing I will have to write a review of, and I don't even like to read anymore almost, and I don't know what to do…."


What did I do? Gave her what was probably crappy advice (sometimes every day seems like an opportunity to give your kid reasons to berate you in some unspecified future): I told her that she could just stop. She'd done what she needed for her class, it didn't really matter if she won, or if anyone won, and if it was robbing her of pleasure, she should just stop. Not stop reading, just stop posting the damn reviews.

It seemed to calm her, at least.

My concern: that I'm telling her not to try, not to participate but to hold herself apart. Which is not what I want her to do. Which is what I worry I am somehow demonstrating by the example of my own life. When is not trying to win holding on to what matters to you, and when is it copping out because you don't want to get roughed up?

My conviction: This is a profoundly crappy way to get kids excited about reading.

My irritation: I know, I KNOW that classes are too big, and there is no time for teachers to get excited with each kid but…I miss that kind of English teacher. The one who slipped you some book or another and said "I think you'll really like this," which gave you a whole new way to see yourself: as someone who would like that. The one who could just talk to you about books, and it was exciting.*

I am trying really hard not to be unbearably precious about all of this, but it's…it's just so disappointing. I mean, it's not like I thought "Middle school! Where my children will experience great literature, and true happiness!" I know the teachers are doing their best. I know no teacher was thinking I would have to deal with a weeping 6th grader who just…couldn't…take…the…pressure! But still. It's just a bummer.

*Note: I don't know that I myself actually ever had an English teacher
like that, it is entirely possible that I am cobbling together this
vision from having seen too many inspiring movies/read too many moving
coming-of-age novels.

12 thoughts on “Who Wants to WIN!?!? Anatomy of a Bummer

  1. Oh my God, this is horribly sad. It is a HORRIBLE way to get kids “excited” about reading– viz., you have a kid who is already excited and who was made miserable to the point of tears by this exercise– good for you, seriously, for telling her to stop. Why keep going? The point of this “fun contest,” after all, was to encourage kids to read; your kid reads already and it made her miserable about doing a thing she loved. The lesson you’re teaching her is that you need to find the core of merit in everything that is set out for you, and if you fulfill that thing in spirit– i.e. if you’re an avid reader and you’re already reading to beat the band, or whatever other thing that translates to in whatever comes next in her life– then by hell do not go the extra mile if the extra mile makes you freaking cry. This is something that adults don’t necessarily live by and I think we all should: if it makes you cry, it ain’t right. So keep telling her that, and you’re being a good parent. God. I feel so bad for you all right now. Ugh.


  2. Well, as you know I’m a voracious reader and always have been, have looked on reading, as perhaps the only constant in my life, but when I think of my middle school English teacher, Mr. Morell, I don’t think of much else but that he was good-looking and that I had a crush on him. It wasn’t until high school that I felt INSPIRED by my English teachers. I’ll also add that I entered the summer reading contest at my local public library and won several summers. I remember the time I read 75 books and had my name emblazoned over the children’s section — since I never won anything again that pertained to reading, well, it’s a good memory. (And the reading slip thing sounds utterly useless and highly annoying!)


  3. I remember the same experience as a child in middle school. The exact same tragectory. My mom wasn’t involved in the discussion but at some point I just decided to stop. There is no reason reading should cause tears and and anxiety in a kid who already loved reading. She doesn’t have to make a big deal about ceasing to do it. I had read some ridiculous number of books but realized I wasn’t going to win because some kid was accumulating a ton of below grade level reading. I could have stooped to that but decided reading one more awesome challenging book was more rewarding than “winning”


  4. I believe that I would speak with the teacher. Not in a “you need to fix this situation that’s hard for my kid,” kind of way, but in a “I thought you should know how this is playing out,” kind of way. She may truly want to know that this is making life miserable for the readers and let’s face it, the non readers are not going to even try to compete because they know the readers will “win.”
    My sixth grade Reading teacher was one of those. I find it strange now that we had a “reading,” class in sixth grade, but there was also “Language Arts,” and “Writing.” It occurs to me that maybe we spent half our day on English. Anyway, she slipped me books from time to time and is responsible for me reading quite a few things that I love to this day.
    The challenge-y thing in her class was Newberry winners. There were these little quiz cards in a recipe box and for each Newberry book you read, you had to answer a quiz card. At the end of the year, all the students with 20 or more cards done received that year’s Newberry Winner in hardback! at the awards ceremony. I was an over-achiever, so I tried to read them all. I think that’s a better way to handle it. Set goal, give reward. The contest doesn’t really accomplish much except stress and feelings of incompetence.


  5. I agree with Jessi. I had a similar experience in middle school…instead of a “contest”, we would get extra credit for reading more books by the authors we were reading in class (eliminating the “reading books below level” gaming-the-system reaction). You had to fill out an index card with some info about the book and submit to (an admittedly stressful) short interview with the teacher about the book (after school). I went sort of hog-wild on this, thinking no one but my teacher would know how much “extra credit” reading I was doing. Then one day the teacher put my name up on the board for all the day’s classes to see, and told everyone that they should follow my example. I had some trouble living it down.
    I think my take-home opinion is that, if you’re going to make reading about some goal other then, well, reading, it should be just between the teacher and the student.


  6. We never had that kind of competition. My daughter never had an English teacher, but a series of great community and school librarians did make those kind of suggestions- which is how she discovered James Harriot and a few others.


  7. Oh, I feel so terrible for all of you, too. I’m so sorry at how this has played out. I don’t think you need to feel guilty for a minute at advising Chestnut to hold herself above the fray. What’s the goal here? For her to be a lifelong lover of reading, yes? She does not need to participate in the insanity of a freakin’ fill-out-a-slip, get-rewarded-for-reading-short-books contest. I agree with the commenter who said you might want to mention to the teacher how this has played out; surely, as the commenter suggested, the kids who don’t read much/don’t like to read gave up long ago, and the kids who are readers are miserable. Everyone loses. Sympathy to all of you –


  8. This is a textbook illustration of Alfie Kohn’s theory of the value of intrinsic vs. extrinsic rewards. Chestnut’s normal reading is for the internalized, intrinsic reward and, as such, it will be longer lasting and more personally meaningful to her.
    Chestnut lives in a family of readers so she will rebound–though I hope her teacher, who surely was well intentioned, will think these things through better the next time. I, for one, hope you share Jessi’s idea with her.
    What’s sadder to me is that this little classroom competition is part of a larger picture: many local and national education initiatives are asking schools and whole districts to compete against one another for limited funds–indeed for their very existence. The implications, especially for underserved children, are tragic.


  9. I also wanted to share with your readers a story I read about another school competition. Not that many people commented on it, so perhaps I overreacted, but the idea of counting number of words read really bums me out.


  10. I think you made the right choice – she’s done her part, so just let it go. It feels like these contests are punishments for the kids who love to read. I’m very fortunate that both my kids love to read, but let me tell you they *hate* having to track their reading habits. Isn’t it enough that they read every single day and they love it?
    And the last poster’s article on actually counting words read – wow. Just wow.


  11. This just makes me sad. I remember when you first posted about it and I was less then enthusiastic then. Now, even more so. I would have given the same advice…”Stop.” Or, “Just read like you always do. You can fill out a slip or not. Whatever.” Somehow when I act like it isn’t a big deal my (overly sensitive) daughter can take on that attitude too. And if people are bugging her to READ MORE! then give her some words to make it okay for her to read how SHE wants.
    I am so sorry this happened!


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