Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Feed Them & They Will Come - Or Read

According to some of the "experts" educators aren't supposed to "bribe" children to learn by using external rewards, we're supposed to foster & build their "intrinsic" needs instead. This theory may work with upper middle class children who come to school with strong parental support and realization for what school is for. Not so for many low SES children. Some of them are in school because it's the law or because their parents need free childcare. Others have parents who may have some idea that school and education are the key to their children's future but can't pass that on to their kids. Deep down they really might not quite believe it so the message doesn't always take with the kids.

We try just about every motivational technique we can muster. Pep Rallies, signs, posters, fun field trips, parties, stickers, t-shirts or school wide celebrations - you name it we've tried it.

One of my many hats is reading cheerleader. After 16 years in the biz I've come to the conclusion that some kids are born with an inner drive to read and some aren't. Some, no matter what you do just don't like reading. Hey, I don't like number crunching. I don't think there is anything that anyone could do to make my heart go pitter patter at the sight of an excel spreadsheet.

No matter what a child's opinion of reading is or isn't, it's a survival skill in our information driven world. Our job is to teach them and turn out proficient readers (who can of course pass the TAKS test!).

When it comes to reading I've yet to find a program as successful as Accelerated Reading. No librarian is neutral when it comes to AR. The mere mention of it on LM_NET results in a flood of pro and con postings. There is something in the instant gratification nature of AR that appeals to our kids. They love knowing if they "passed" and they count their points with as much fervor as a miser counts their gold.

I tie AR into goal setting (another life skill low SES kids need lots of practice to acquire) and most of the goals involve food. Ruby Payne, in her books about generational povery says food is very, very important and given how it motivates our kids I believe her.

This week's been a major food fest. Monday I took 13 kids out for pizza - the result of each of them earning 200 AR points. We went Ci-Cis, which is an all you can eat pizza buffet (quantity is very important) and they ate and ate and ate. One skinny little flint of a first grader out ate everyone - we have yet to figure out where she put her 6 slices of pizza. In between bites they giggled, talked and had a grand old time.

Wednesday was my annual Dr. Seuss Lunch. 15 kids joined me for green eggs n' ham, one fish, two fish, red fish blue fish, oobleck, pink yink ink drink and pink snow. Plus veggies - couldn't find a Dr. Seuss match so I opted for carrots and celery with ranch dressing. The lucky 15 were the winners of my annual Dr. Seuss essay contest and managed to inhale 70 fish sticks and 2 pounds of baby carrots.

In between those events I also host the 4th grade library club - children who can bring their lunch to the library and eat it there, rather than in our noisy zoo of a cafeteria. Admission is tied to AR points and the kids have to keep reading to keep their membership. It costs us nothing but a little time - and some carpet cleaner!

Lucky for me I've got an easy going principal who doesn't mind that the library smells of fish sticks and that there are chili stains on the carpet. Feed them and they will read! And with a little luck they will be learn to love it!


VWB said...

G--I'm not sure it's all the rewards in the case of your kids...I think a large part of the success of your program is YOU!! Whether you feed them or not, they are going to put out all kinds of reading efforts because of you. It is never just the rewards. As for AR, with you at the helm, even I could be a cheerleader FOR AR!! ( and you know how I generally feel!!)

elementaryhistoryteacher said...

I strongly agree with you. We have many students who lack a desire to read unless they have a carrot. Many of my students have absolutely NO books at home. If you come from a home with no printed material why would they have the desire? That being said my son had oodles and oodles of text and personal books of his own growing up. We did read alouds, acted out scenes, etc. However, he never really got into reading on his own. He reads well, tested off the charts every year but hardly read at all during high school. Go figure.

You keep on with that AR and I'll support you!

Library Mama said...

You are a wonderful literacy advocate. Those kids are ever-so-fortunate to have you in their corner.

Anonymous said...

I was impressed by the number of kids who have over 200 points! I only have two - and nine more with over 100. I'm a librarian at a school in northern Virginia (510 students). I used to detest AR - until I realized what a great job it can do with reluctant readers.

SOLs are on their way - our verion of the TAKS test.

Barry said...

Your external motivations are a critical component of the success of your students reading. If I were a betting person, I would also say that your interest in what they read has helped turn your campus into a campus with a reading culture. I strongly agree that external rewards are necessary. Our goal is intrinsic reward of reading itself, but the road to that end may be long and difficult. I think reading the back of cereal boxes is a legitimate step on that road.

Congratulations on your success and your awareness of how you are achieving it!

Stepping Stone said...

The debate about extrinsic versus intristic rewards is an interesting one. I think you're right to point out that many teachers have a knee-jerk reaction that all extrinstic rewards are bad. And yet you make the excellent point-- and give some good examples-- as to why this may not apply to certain children, or certain populations of children. I agree that the focus on intrinsic rewards has always seemed a little middle-class-centric to me . Interesting post!

Marcia said...

I teach teenagers incarcerated in minimum and maximum security facilities, and we use pizza parties and sodas, among other things, to motivate them to improve in reading and writing. It works. But, I always have mixed feelings about offering these kids nutritionally deficient foods in exchange for effort. If only the pineapples and pumpkin seeds I brought inspired them!