Saturday, February 09, 2013

Raymond Carver and SRA

Oh, Blob.  Oh, bloggy blog.  I simply must do better.  Maybe when life settles down a bit more.

I wasn't planning to post at all, but I've been reading a biography of Raymond Carver.  With sheer force of stubbornness and will, Carver and his wife, Maryann, painstakingly (emphasis on the pain part) pulled themselves up from their teenaged shotgun marriage-blue collar origins into the middle class.  Of course middle-class life was just a pit-stop because they both knew in their bones that Ray was going to be a Great Writer.

Anyway, on the way to middle-classness and Great Writerhood, Raymond Carver landed his first white-collar job at a division of IBM called SRA.  His job was to find short stories and edit them down to various levels suitable for elementary school students.  According to the biography, Carver was a success at his work since short stories were his stock and trade.  He had read so many that he could pull out a Chekov or a de Maupassant that no one had ever heard of on short notice and with a speed that made the other editors gasp.  Apparently he was no slouch at adaptation, either.  One of his coworkers wondered if his time at SRA was what made him a minimalist. (Good question, but probably not.)

SRA!  That's a blast from the past!  Practically every elementary and middle school I went to had an SRA kit in reading class. One teacher I had in 8th grade mentally clocked out a few months before the year ended and set us all to doing SRA while she looked out the window with glazed eyes.

SRA.  Day after day.  I loathed it.  That's the only time I can remember loathing reading.  There was something so clinical about it.  All the stories were approximately the same length.  They had to fit on that piece of color-coded cardboard.  They all had the same flattish style.  SRA seemed to suck all the joy out of reading.

 But I think the real reason I didn't like SRA was because it called me on my shit, making me work at my exact level.  I wanted to page through and read all the stories in the whole kit, and toss aside the ones that didn't appeal to me, but if I didn't answer the multiple questions about a particular reading correctly, I couldn't advance to the next color.  There were a lot of days that I didn't advance. 

Comprehension was my bugaboo.  Up until then, I read fast and was satisfied if I kinda-sorta got the gist of of what I'd just read.  If the reading on the card interested me greatly, (as in the example pictured above) I racked up a good score.  If the topic on the card gave me the ho-hums, I didn't retain enough to answer the questions.

I don't remember all the color levels, but I do remember being stuck on light blue for a while.  I remember the frustration of not being able to advance, then the humiliation of the class geek (who I loved) coming by my desk and exclaiming for the whole class to overhear, "You're only on light blue?  You're just not trying, because you're a much better reader than that!"  I think that ultimately, we were supposed to end on royal purple, but my memory could be playing tricks on me.  Or maybe it's not.  Reading classes and techniques used during the years I was learning to read weren't known for subtlety.

This rediscovery brings up all kinds of mixed feelings.  My remembered revulsion for SRA is churning around with things like, Cool!  Maybe I read something Raymond Carver adapted! and If I liked it, and made a good score, it's probably because Carver wrote it and was the only writer on staff worth a damn!  and I wish I had been an adult back then!  I'd have been all over this job! and SRA! What a crap acronym.  Couldn't anyone come up with something better than that? and If I had to do the whole kit right now, how long would it take me to get to royal purple?

[Edited to add: My bookworm friend Teri, (who *loved* SRA!) says that the top two levels were silver and gold.  When she said that, I could see them in my mind (although I never got there).  I was wrong about the color, but right about the lack of subtlety.]


Meribor said...

I too remember SRA day in school, although I LOVED it. For me, it was a treat, a respite from math (which I loathed with an unbridled passion). I whipped through the levels like Sherman through Georgia, and was crestfallen in Fourth grade when I had finished and the teacher wouldn't let me go back again. I agree that many of the stories lacked a certain panache, though.

raidergirl3 said...

I was that snotty kid, racing through them. I dont' remember the stories, just the levels, and my need to be the furthest along. I have GREAT memories of SRA. We only did them in grade 4, when our reading group had finished our reader, and we werent' allowed to go on to the next one. (snerk- that makes a lot of sense!)

Very cool that Raymond Carver worked on them.

bibliophiliac said...

I'm not sure if I was ever subjected to this...if so, I don't remember. But it just goes to show that corporate involvement in public education is nothing new. It takes a corporation to take something like reading and turn it into something competitive and shame-inducing!

Kathleen said...

I hated SRA! I think the system probably measured reading comprehension quite well but I wonder how many children were completely turned off to reading as a result of it. It took the pleasure right out of reading!

picky said...

I never knew this about SRAs!! I used them in my ESL classes the last two years. The passages were ancient, but the skills don't change. Had I know Carver did this, I would have been even more attentive. I did find myself truly interested in several of them.

Great post!