All I’ve been hearing for the past few days on talk radio is stories and opinions about Tyler Weaver and the summer reading program in Hudson Falls, NY. Tyler is a nine year old who loves to read. I can relate, as the wee ones spend pretty much all their free time reading. It’s an amazing feat in the age of technology, but it will serve them well in the future.
Tyler, if you haven’t heard, is a nine year old going into fifth grade who signed up for his library’s summer reading program and won it by reading the most books. Again. He has won the program’s top reading prize for the past five years, garnering him prizes such as an atlas, a t-shirt, and a water bottle over the years. Pretty cool, right?
And the library knows he’s actually read those books because a) they have to be grade level books, which makes it fair so those who are in fifth grade can’t simply read fifteen page picture books and b) the child has to draw a slip of paper from a jar when he comes in and answer those questions about the book to verify that he read the book.
Tyler’s proud mom called the local newspaper to let them know that her son had won for the fifth year and suggested a positive human interest story, which is where the controversy started. The library director didn’t support the child, making comments about how he “hogs” the contest every year and he should “step aside.” She’s angry because other children give up because they feel like they can’t win, and now she can’t change the rules of the contest because of the publicity surrounding Tyler’s achievement.
Yes, the director the library wasn’t proud to note that a child over a six week period read 63 grade level books in her summer reading program and shows his love of reading. She didn’t spin this into a positive for the library and this nine year old boy, with possibly a footnote about how “we’re so proud of his accomplishments, and we want to encourage others to live up to his example. To help motivate more students, we’re going to change our summer reading program next year and we look forward to even more success.”
Instead, she issued ugly statements and trampled on a nine year old boy in the process. If I were his mom, I’d be just as livid as she was.
Of course, I only have part of the story, but I did a little bit of digging to try to get some more information. In looking at the library’s website, only 36 children signed up for the reading program. According to the 2010 US Census, Hudson Falls has 503 children between the ages of 5 and 9 who would presumably be eligible to sign up for the summer reading program. Only 7% of the eligible population signed up? And of those, only 30 completed the reading program?
Yes, the library has a problem. We have summer and winter reading programs in our library, and our percentage of participating children swamps that, as it should. There is only one grand prize winner who reads the most books (although, gotta say, it’s too bad we don’t live there because both Mister Man and Little Miss could easily give Tyler a run for his money given their voracious appetites), but every child who completes the program is invited to a special party with entertainment by Pirate Pete.
I love the idea of a party for everyone who completes the library program, and I have to say I don’t get why kids would quit because they don’t receive the grand champion title and potentially a water bottle. Is the message that we’re teaching our children that we have to come in first or it isn’t worth even doing anything? Do we want children to feel like they’re only allowed to accomplish so much? That’s where I have an issue with the librarian’s specific complaints, and those are the arguments I’ve been hearing over and over on talk radio.
To me the bigger thing is the library’s view of this. Their view isn’t that potentially the contest needs to be changed because they have less than 6% of their children age 5-9 completing the reading program, it’s that this boy is ruining it and should step aside. No, he shouldn’t. You set up the rules, and he followed them. This is his area of expertise, and you should be proud of his love of reading, not making him into a scapegoat.
Bottom line, it is never ok to blame a nine year old child for your contest failing when he followed the rules. And to do so publicly is beyond shameful. To give the library credit, the president of the library board of trustees has put out a statement apologizing for the controversy that spins it the way it should have been discussed to start.
This year, thirty children read ten or more books over their summer vacation. That’s the good story we should be sharing
and celebrating, and we’re sorry that some unfortunate comments have overshadowed the accomplishments of Tyler Weaver and all of the participants in our program.
Tyler has achieved an impressive record of reading the most books in our program for five years in a row, and deserves our
applause for that. In an era where technology too often keeps children’s noses pointed at text messages and video games, Tyler and the other “Dig into Reading” kids have embraced the wonderful world of books, and for that they should all be proud.
Looking forward, the Library Board and staff will be reviewing the way in which our program works to ensure that it continues
to meet its goal of encouraging as many children as possible to spend time reading over the summer.
I don’t disagree that the library can – and possibly should – make some changes to its program going forward to encourage more students to read. And I have some ideas on what they could possibly do.
1) Keep the party for everyone who achieves the goal. Ten grade level books in a six week period isn’t unreasonable. Don’t lower it, but publicize the party a lot.
2) Husdon Falls has only one school per grade level (kindergarten, grades 1-3, and grades 4-5), but create a traveling trophy that goes to the school or the grade with the highest level of participation. Create pride in a group effort in addition to having a grand prize winner.
3) Promote the library program. If they aren’t already visiting each of those three schools to promote the summer reading program, do it. And make the visit fun. Share some book recommendations for each grade. Talk about what makes books fun. Engage them with a skit or poem or song.
4) Help children find time to read. Explain the importance of having a “reading spot” where they can go to chill out and read, one that is welcoming to them and dedicated to reading. Talk about how it’s a great activity when they wake up in the morning before it’s time to get ready or while they’re in the car heading to school or an amusement park or church. Mention that reading is a great thing to do while waiting for a brother or sister’s activity to be over.
5) Work with local businesses to provide additional incentives to the children. Where I live there are so many companies that are happy to support community outreach programs, whether by schools or the library or other non-profits. They are willing to donate gift certificates for movies or ice cream or kids meals and more. Other businesses, like car dealerships or dentists or eye doctors the Lions Club, are willing to donate funds.
6) Work with the library board or use donated funds to purchase books for children so that each child who achieves an intermediate goal gets to pick out his or her own book. A love of reading is fostered by having access to books. Getting to choose a book for getting halfway or three quarters of the way to the main goal where kids earn the VIP party is a great way to motivate them along the way.
7) Host reading nights or book clubs. Have story hour for the younger ones, all of which encourage not just the reading of a book but the sharing of the love of that book – and hopefully others. Get reading to be not a solitary activity but something that kids can see others doing and help them relate to it on a different level.
8) Create inexpensive ways to reward reading during the reading program but also throughout the year. When children reach a milestone, have them create a book cover by taking a photograph of them with their favorite books. Use a program to include the new “book” title that the child creates and the child’s name as the “author” and print out a color version of it to hang in the library – and either a second one for the child to bring home or email the file to the family to save.
These are eight ways that the Hudson Falls library could potentially use to improve the program and encourage more students to participate. Having 36 sign up from kindergarten through sixth grade is definitely a reason to reevaluate the success of what they are doing currently.
And that’s what they should have done. They should have reevaluated the goals of the program and how they, as adults and experts in their field, were going about achieving them with the field. Blaming one nine year old child (and his seven year old brother, for that matter, who has come in second place the last two years) is not the answer. And it is most certainly not acceptable. Ever.
So go ahead, Tyler. Keep reading. Love reading. You didn’t do anything wrong. Just be glad you don’t live anywhere near us because Little Miss and Mister Man just might have beaten you out.