“We have 30 minutes for our reading time. See how far you can get today!” “Read for speed.” “Read for comprehension.” “Quickly, quickly!”
SRA Reading system. Designed by an evil wizard to turn reading into literature’s version of “The President’s Council on Physical Fitness” exercise program. Designed to suck the pleasure out of lingering over a description, contemplating a new word, rereading for what was not said. No, it was: Reading for glory! Reading for star stickers! Reading for the RED Folders!
The SRA reading box consisted of 8×11 cards filled with reading material aligned in colored sections (Blue, Orange, Brown, etc.). It sat on the wall heater counter next to the windows that faced the playground in my 4th grade classroom. Just about every day we had SRA reading period right after lunch. The colors indicated the level at which you read. The colors indicated to everyone else the level at which you read. You wanted to be reading at the Red level. It validated your commitment, it validated your prowess, it validated your measure as a student.
There were quizzes at the end of each card – quizzes which measured your comprehension. When you were done with your card, you returned it the box and took the next card in the colored section you were working and read it. Once all the cards and the quizzes were completed – and stars for every card carefully placed on the grid next to your name – you could move up to the next color section.
The questions at afternoon recess: “How many cards did you read today?” “Did you break into the Orange?” “What color was Joseph reading?” Joseph McC. was always first to break territory into the next color. I had a crush on him. Boy’s choir, altar boy, SRA Champion – what was not to swoon for?
SRA cards were the going currency for who was in and who was out – momentarily, anyway. An economic system based on reading accomplishment. A way to measure reading. A way to beat those Communists. A way to ruin the pleasure of reading.
We had SRA card boxes through 6th grade. They were no longer present our 7th grade curriculum. I guess they figured we could read fairly quickly by that time. I don’t think they anticipated that those cards would put the kabosh on reading.
Library book checkouts were down, they claimed. “Seventh graders need to read more. We will have library period twice a week now.” Book check-outs increased. YAY! We didn’t read the books. There were no comprehension tests for “Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm” or “Gulliver’s Travels”. There was no way for them to check on our comprehension beyond the book reports – which could be gleaned from book jackets or by reading the last chapter. But there were stars on the grid. Joseph McC. still had the most stars. He had added basketball team to his curriculum vitae by that time, and he still caused my 12 year old heart to pump a bit faster.
What we learned was that the measurement was important, not the reading.
The SRA system and Book Checkout measurement had significant consequences on my reading life. It taught me how to circumvent the system. It taught me how to meet expectations without doing the work. It taught me creativity in making others think I had complied. The operative syllable in the last word of the previous sentence is ‘lied’.
I recovered from the literary wounds of SRA (and ChickenFat exercise records) – eventually, but not without great cost to myself.
Technology has a golden gleam promising to make life better. The glare of that promise blinds us to the unintended consequences that technological change produces.