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Principals' Feats Fuel Fabulous Reading

What would students do to see their principal throw cow chips, spend a night on the roof, or get slimed? It turns out that they will do a great deal -- of reading! Principals everywhere are capitalizing on their students' desire to see them perform wacky stunts, and the kids are falling for these incentive programs and for reading at the same time. Included: From becoming sundaes to songs and pig-kissing, see what principals have done to encourage their students to read.

In November, the Harrington Park School librarians who were tracking progress of their students' reading challenge approached Principal Scott Davies. They had good news -- and bad news.

"The good news was that the children were maintaining an incredible pace," he explained. "The bad news was that I would be going up to the roof in early December. I had to keep my word."

So on December 7, to the cheers of the student body, Davies mounted the school roof. The overnight camping trip" in the New Jersey cold occurred because his principal-led reading incentive program generated overwhelming excitement, especially among the K-8 school's youngest students. With 700 children, the year-long goal of 10,000 books seemed feasible. No one could have predicted how the program would catch on.

There were other incentives along the way, but the students themselves had two popular suggestions for a culminating event -- having Davies paint the school's HP logo on his head and sending him to the roof for a night. The students were so committed to the project that the principal decided to do both.

"We built in benchmarks to keep up the momentum," said Davies. "We had a No Homework Night when they hit 5,000 and a Movie Day when they hit 7,500. Even after reaching 10,000, the momentum is just as strong as ever among our younger readers. For them, we achieved our goal: to get them excited about reading and to read for the simple pleasure of it."

The novelty of the event and its unlikely timing drew media attention, but when interviewed, the Harrington Park students turned the focus back to reading. Thoughts of moments like that kept Davies going when the wind kicked up and nearly toppled his roof-top abode.

"It was the coldest night of the season on that day, with very cold temperatures and strong winds," he recalled. "Since I couldn't exactly drive tent stakes into the roof, I anchored the tent with a couple of heavy bricks in each corner. Even so, there were a couple of moments when I was a little worried that I'd go flying away!"

Temperatures in the twenties are a small price to pay for increased interest in reading, Davies believes, because although educators hope that children will love to read without such incentives, the fact remains that many will not. In order to encourage participation from the middle-school students, each time they complete a book the school rewards them with a chance to win a prize during periodic spirit assemblies.

"I'm sure that by doing this incentive program, we've turned many kids on to reading for pleasure. Therefore, it was absolutely worth it," Davies observed. "We're just going to time things a bit better in the future so that anything that involves faculty or staff will not occur when the wind chill is hovering around zero!"


Scott Davies isn't the only principal who has "gone out on a limb" to get kids to read, especially at home. When Edy McGhee became the principal of Butler Elementary School in Cottonwood Heights, Utah, last May, her predecessor gave her a gift bag with a swimming cap inside. A roomful of teachers burst out laughing and told her, "You're going to need that!"

First graders Lizzie, Kate, Groven, Malak, and Nathan decorate principal and "human sundae" Edy McGhee.
It wasn't until the first-grade teachers asked if their students could turn her into a sundae that McGhee fully understood the joke. The principal's reading challenge has been held for four years, with this year's first graders reading 7,281 books (more than 100 each) from October to January.

"As educators, we have known for years that children need to practice reading in order to become better readers," McGhee told Education World. "This challenge provided an opportunity for the children to gain the practice that they require, and their reading skills improved as a consequence."

On the day of the event, students brought sundae toppings from home -- strawberry, chocolate, and caramel syrup; a variety of sprinkles; gummy worms; chocolate chips; marshmallows; cherries; gumdrops; and whipped cream! McGhee wore old clothes, her swimming cap, ski goggles, a towel around her neck, and a plastic garbage bag over her clothing. The custodian spread a large piece of plastic on the cafeteria floor and placed a wading pool in the center of the plastic, and McGhee sat on a chair in the middle of the pool.

"I spent 20 minutes being transformed," recalls McGhee. "It wasn't the most pleasant experience I've had in my life, but it was so worth it. What these children did was amazing. I am so happy that in some small way I was able to play a small role in their accomplishment."


"I told the kids at the beginning of the challenge that perfect practice makes perfect in everything except reading," T. Neal Trafford shared. "There really is no bad reading. Anytime you read, it helps you become a better reader."

Florida State University School students wave signs and wear snouts to encourage Trafford to pucker up.
Trafford challenged his 500 elementary students at Florida State University School in Tallahassee to read 10,000 books over the course of the school year. The students kept track of books they read out of school, either independently or with family members. When they completed the task, he puckered up and smooched a swine!

"I was hoping to find a really cute little pig, but unfortunately that did not happen," said Trafford. "So, instead of being able to kiss it close to the snout, I had to settle for the top of her head, as she really didn't like me -- or all the noise from the kids."

That reading challenge from the principal was such a success that the school is organizing another this year, but the prize will involve watching the principal be submerged in a dunk tank. Trafford's students devise the yearly "challenge," which he feels is key to motivating the kids.

Principal T. Neal Trafford kisses the head of a less-than-enthusiastic pig.
"When you choose a challenge, don't make it too easy, but don't make it too hard either," he advised. "Make sure you have a point person [a teacher] who can help maintain enthusiasm over the course of the full year."


Prairie Vale Elementary School in Edmond, Oklahoma, has a ten-year tradition of holding a "Prairie Vale Principal's Reading Challenge Payoff" for its students. This year, their feat of reading 12,176 books in 14 days won them a celebration of Oklahoma's birthday as it could have been celebrated 100 years ago.

Principal Michelle Anderson, in keeping with the centennial theme, played the party games as they would have been played many years ago. While the students walked through a maze, Anderson did the same, but in her bare feet. When the students threw a flying disc through a hula hoop, she threw "cow-chips," and while they played pin the tail on the donkey, Anderson wore a blindfold and tied a bow on a real donkey. Then she kissed it!

"The donkey was really sweet, although he did make my allergies go haywire later," Anderson shared. "The kids love to razz me about the kiss -- yuck! I think we'll try something different next year -- no kissing of farm animals. The kids look forward to this every single year. They would be so disappointed if we didn't do it."

The event was planned by the schools reading committee, which elected to take advantage of kids' love of birthdays and party games. They chose to remove modern conveniences from Anderson's games and added a few twists to make them more interesting.

"The whole goal of this is to encourage reading," said Anderson. "We hope to continue the tradition for many years. Our biggest challenge will be to continue coming up with creative ideas for the payoff. 1, 2, 3...Read, read, read! That's our chant!"


Dressing up and performing musical numbers and comical stunts is a claim to fame for Justin Blasko, principal of Sultan (Washington) Elementary School. His reading challenge is based on the number of minutes students read at home, with the goal of 30 minutes per night.

The Things
Principals Will Do...

"Students love when the principal of the school agrees to do something outrageous or silly if they work hard to meet a big challenge," says Kalli Dakos. "There is an element of play in this, and children respond wholeheartedly."

Dakos's book, , shares the tale of Hamlet, the reluctant recipient of a principal's kiss. The concept came to the author during a visit to a school in which the students had read 10,000 books and the principal had kissed a pig as a reward for their hard work. Her daughter and co-author, Alicia Desmarteau, loved the story and suggested that it would be fun if Hamlet spoke in Shakespearean verse -- 'twas so!

"I have actually been with principals who kissed pigs in front of an entire school with the media present," reports Dakos. "All kinds of strange things happen. Some pigs are terrified and try to run away. One principal had to chase after the pig she was supposed to kiss. Others are docile and love all the attention. One school had a shirt for the pig that said, I kissed the principal."

Principals do all kinds of crazy things to get students to read, she adds. Dakos has encountered principals who have
-- eaten worms and other gross items.
-- dressed up in costume and skated through the school on roller blades.
-- sat on the roof of the school for a day or a long night.
-- been taped to a wall.
-- shaved the hair off their heads.
-- kissed a goat or a donkey.

Dakos notes that kids love anything to do with kissing!

"As educators, we all hope that students find the books that will pull them into reading and keep them interested in literacy," she observed. "The more they read, the greater the chance they will fall in love with reading. The challenge itself encourages children to turn off the television and play the reading challenge game."

The K-5 students read by themselves or are read to by parents and family members, and they submit a record of their reading each month. An incentive assembly is held every three months with high-interest presentations, such as speakers who discuss sound, reptiles, or bugs. In order to attend the culminating assembly featuring Blasko, the students must read the goal amount each month for eight out of nine months in the year. His "act" is determined by representatives of the fifth-grade classes.

"This year the incentive is for me to be in an inflatable Sumo suit and perform various activities," reports Blasko. "This might include a choreographed dance routine with the high school cheer squad."

Blasko's first incentive involved an abundance of slime. Members of the parent-teacher organization constructed a "slime machine" out of wooden boards and suspended a 5-gallon bucket of lime green slime. The contraption was set up early in the day so that students would see it during recess.

"The anticipation of the slime dump was palpable in the moments leading to the deluge," Blasko recalls. "Being surrounded by 450 screaming and laughing kids made the whole thing a very memorable experience. After that, I was hooked. I know that I will be doing this crazy stuff as long as I get to work with kids at schools."

A good challenge can't be "done" to the principal; it must be something that is fun and exciting for everyone involved, including the participant, he advised. Children are perceptive, and trepidation or negative feelings can take away from the event as a whole. The role of the principal is to "ham it up" and build drama around the challenge. Activities like this are unique opportunities for kids to see their administrators in a completely different light.

"I can't tell you how many conversations I have with kids after an incentive event when they say, 'Mr. Blasko, I loved it when you dressed up like Elvis and sang Blue Suede Shoes! I can't wait until this year's assembly," Blasko added. "These types of activities create memories that will outlast most lessons. Kids will look back at their elementary experiences and remember the big things."

A quote from Maya Angelou is Blasko's inspiration: "I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel." He is confident that if he can do something outlandish one time per year and cause his students to strive to read, it is worth any brief discomfort.

"Too often we get caught up in the management of the public education administrative world -- No Child Left Behind, state mandated testing, change management, supporting teachers, and so on," says Blasko. "It is important for me to remind myself why I got into this field in the first place: to impact students' lives in a positive way. This type of activity is just a simple way that I can help students form positive life-long habits."


In Baltimore, Maryland, third through fifth grade students at Edgemere Elementary School have voted to "wrap up" their principal, Fred Dvorak, if they read 500,000 minutes by the end of the school year.

"I am reminded at some point daily by a student or two that I will be wrapped like a mummy at the end of the school year," reported Dvorak. "It has motivated reading."

In its fourth year, the school-wide reading challenge at Edgemere is designed to encourage extracurricular reading. According to Angela Specht, a reading specialist and coordinator of the program, students have been asked to read at least 1,500 minutes during the year. They submit their reading logs after each 500-minute goal is met and receive a prize. The theme-related rewards include "gummy mummies," a bookmark with hieroglyphics, a plastic "Get Wrapped Up in Reading" book bag, and a free ticket to Six Flags theme park.

"Whenever a student turns in a reading log, the classroom teacher places his or her name on a large bulletin board pyramid at the entrance of the building," said Specht. "We have been covering up a life-sized portrait of Mr. Dvorak as the students read more. Additionally, we have a display on a computer monitor for teachers, students, and parents to see that shows Mr. Dvorak's head on a mummy with the amount of minutes the students have read. The students get very excited when they see Mr. Dvorak being wrapped up!"

Specht says the most impressive part of the program thus far has been the number of students who have met their individual goal but have continued to read and track their minutes to contribute to the school goal. If the student body accomplishes its task, Dvorak will be wrapped like a mummy during the end-of-the-year assembly. Already halfway to their goal, the principal has faith that his students will meet the mark, and while he isn't exactly sure what the actual "wrapping" will be like, he expects it to be fun.


Pig Out on Reading
Get to know Daisy, the Famous Pot Belly Pig, who travels to schools from her home in Connecticut to inspire children to read and steal kisses from willing principals.

Article by Cara Bafile
Copyright © 2010 Education World®

Originally published 03/26/2007
Last updated 06/01/2010