Educators' wacky stunts prove potent incentive for students to read

February 08, 1993|By Anne Haddad | Anne Haddad,Staff Writer

Assistant Principal Dorothy Dutterer had to discipline a boy Friday at Westminster Elementary School.

And she had to do it while dressed as a panda.

Fortunately, the panda get-up didn't interfere, although she did take off the cap with the funny ears. As it turned out, the boy in her office was too upset to pay much attention to her padded black-and-white pile suit and face paint.

She said that if the panda suit had been so distracting as to make the boy laugh in her face, she would have asked Principal Robert Bonner to take over.

After all, it was easier for him to get out of his costume for the day -- shorts, polo shirt, knee and elbow pads, and in-line skates.

Why are principals all over the county -- and the country, for that matter -- humiliating themselves with wacky stunts?

It's all in the name of reading, and the consensus from school officials is that the stunts really work to get students to read.

"Even after it ends, you establish a pattern of reading," said Dorothy Mangle, director of elementary education for Carroll schools. "It's been in the professional literature for quite a while."

She read about a principal in another state who spent the day on the school roof, and even had his desk and phone moved up there so he could conduct business.

It may seem twisted for principals to resort to acts of physical foolishness, instead of getting students to read for the pure joy of it.

But in reality, Mrs. Mangle said, some children need an incentive. In addition to the principals' stunts, other incentives include free pizza certificates from Pizza Hut.

"Our goal is to help them intensify their love for reading to the point where they don't need any other kind of motivation," Mrs. Mangle said.

In exchange for the children in the school reading a collective 320,292 minutes, Mr. Bonner agreed to spend the day on in-line skates, and Mrs. Dutterer agreed to dress as the school mascot.

At first, Mr. Bonner's offer sounded like a death wish. But Friday morning, the 46-year-old looked like he was having quite a bit of fun, darting in and out of classes. His experience with skating and cross-country skiing helped him handle the blades after just one lesson.

Earlier in the week, Northwest Middle School Principal Bronson Jones lived up to the more unpleasant challenge to kiss a pig, after his students read more than 500,000 minutes.

When colleague Harry Lambert, principal at West Middle, heard about it, he asked, "Which end is he going to kiss?"

Mr. Jones got away with a swift peck on the forehead of a miniature pig -- a 150-pound Vietnamese pot-belly named Anna with a perpetually runny snout, says her owner, Northwest seventh-grader Christa Barnett. The students went into a frenzy when their normally staid and businesslike principal stooped closer to Anna.

Before walking onto the stage, he whipped out a bottle of breath spray -- for himself, although he later commented that Anna could have used a dose, too.

The two days leading up to Mr. Jones' encounter with Anna were so exciting for the students that they were nearly exploding at the Thursday assembly, school staff said.

Other principals have accepted wacky challenges in exchange for the children reaching their reading goals.

Last week, Charles Carroll Elementary School Principal Robert Bruce dressed as a chipmunk -- that school's mascot.

A year ago, Principal Jeffrey Kimball at New Windsor Middle School dressed as Elvis Presley.

And not the cool Memphis Elvis who got on the postage stamp, but the less aesthetically pleasing Vegas-style Elvis.

Two years ago, Curtis Schnorr, then principal at Robert Moton Elementary School, shaved his mustache in front of the students after they exceeded their reading goals.

Mr. Bonner is a repeat performer. Last year, he dressed as an ape while he was principal at Mechanicsville Elementary.

The year before that, he spent the day on roller skates. (He says in-line skates are harder on the ankles, but easier when coming to a stop.)

His first idea was to go up in a hot-air balloon. A look at the power lines around Mechanicsville Elementary, and the thought of a few other hazards, persuaded him to try the skates instead.

The challenges are always for reading outside of required class work, and sometimes for reading done outside of school.

"The best activity to improve a child's reading is to have them read independently," Mrs. Mangle said. "It builds vocabulary, comprehension. It becomes almost self-rewarding."

But until then, the principals are rising to the challenge and saying that getting students to read is worth a little goofiness.

"And of course, the more out-of-character for the principal, the more the children love it," Mrs. Mangle said. "It puts them in control of the principal."

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