Students tune in by turning TV off Youths are finding more time to read

November 12, 1993|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,Staff Writer

It used to take Jason Gill nearly eight hours a day to finish his homework.

"I did it during commercials," the seventh-grader explains.

That's during commercial breaks starting at 3 p.m., from the time he arrived home from school and clicked on the television, through snacks and dinner in front of the tube and through whatever prime time offered.

That ended last week when Jason joined a growing group of MacArthur Middle School students who have vowed to watch no television on school nights.

He has been concentrating on his homework, reading the newspaper and Hardy Boys novels, playing cards and board games with his mother and helping out at home. He also has been complaining that he is bored -- so bored he goes to sleep earlier and isn't tired during the day.

He eats dinner at the table. "It's nice having him there," says his mother, Deborah Gill. "We talk."

As with most addictions, the first night away from the offending substance was awful. Jason hid the remote units so that he would not be tempted to sneak a peek at the screen, Mrs. Gill said.

"You are going to give me mind time," Christine Davenport, the science teacher who created the voluntary program, told the group Wednesday.

She started the project Nov. 1, exasperated by two months of students' whining that even small homework assignments interfered with their television time.

Her vision of how children should enhance school learning did not include endless hours of stationary youngsters mesmerized by images moving on a screen.

L "I thought, 'how dare you do that to your mind,' " she said.

So here's the challenge: No television Monday through Thursday. Weekends and school breaks are your own. One hour a week of video games maximum. Bring two notes a week from your parents vouching for you. Try to attend weekly support group meetings to talk about the new, non-TV-addicted you.

For doing this, a student gets: Nothing. No reward. No extra credit. No goodies. Not even the promise of something, though Mrs. Davenport may ask the PTA to buy paperbacks for those who stick it out for a semester.

This is because, the teacher says, the rewards will be such intangibles as self-improvement, family interaction, having one's mind expanded by reading instead of turned to mush by television. Grades may rise. There may be meaningful conversations. Students will live life instead of observing and then imitating behavior from television.

Despite the no-frills sales pitch, 12 students signed on the first week. Three suffered such withdrawal they dropped out. But word spread. Another 16 joined Monday. Two more asked to participate on Wednesday, one because she wasn't about to let her twin sister one-up her. That brought the total to 27.

"By March or April, I would like to have between 150 and 200 kids on the program," Mrs. Davenport said.

Having at least 300 participating by the end of the school year is her dream. There are about 1,130 students at MacArthur Middle.

Already there are signs the program is having an effect. Students are trading novels, bragging about successfully completing word puzzles and talking about discussions they've had with their parents, siblings and friends.

Jennifer Boan, a seventh-grader, says she probably would have read the book about dolphins anyway. But by not reading in front of the TV, she finds the information sinks in.

Seventh-grader Justin Harris, whose mother wrote that she was "truly amazed" that Justin volunteered, says he doesn't know if he is learning more without television, but he is finding more time to read. And he is doing something he hasn't done in years: every night, he has his mother read to him.

"Now I'm doing all my chores and going outside to play," says Laurence Derasmo, a seventh-grader. This is going over well at home, he says.

Similar results were reported from a 1974 experiment in Denver, Colo., where the only serious objection parents had to a month of no television was that it took away their most effective threat of punishment.

Youngsters at Wednesday's meeting echoed what sociologists, psychologists and advocates of turning off the tube have been saying for a generation. Children learn from the shows they watch and what they absorb isn't always desirable.

"My mother says I am turning bad because of the shows with so many bad children, 'The Simpsons,' 'Roseanne.' I get these attitudes off the shows," says seventh-grader Chantal Parker. "My mom says I don't spend time with her anymore. I just watch TV up in my room."

These days, though she misses some of the shows, she's enjoying reading, drawing and playing with her baby sister.

"I'm going to love reading more now. I'm not going to be acting like these little kids in the shows. I'm not going to brainwash my brain by watching TV," she says.

MacArthur Middle Principal John Kozora -- whose own children were not permitted to watch TV on school nights or view anything deemed unsuitable -- praises Mrs. Davenport's initiative.

"I think parents ultimately have the responsibility," he said.

"But it helps to have schools plant reasonable suggestions."

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