Schooling by stunt

Administrators sacrifice dignity for the sake of education

September 26, 2005|By LIZ F. KAY | LIZ F. KAY,SUN REPORTER

An Anne Arundel County elementary school principal plants a kiss on the snout of a potbellied pig. An educator in Virginia jumps out of a plane.

A principal in Idaho plunges into a vat of macaroni and cheese, and a Baltimore County middle school teacher shaves his head. An assistant principal in Texas eats raw worms.

At the McDonogh School, administrator Noreen Lidston has been taped to a wall and has worn a cow costume to "jump" over a 13-foot Styrofoam moon. So when the youngsters at the private Owings Mills school achieved their summer reading goal this year, she made good on her end of the deal.

She rode a firetruck. Dressed as a Dalmatian.

School principals and teachers have long looked for fresh ways to encourage kids to read, or to meet standards on state tests. And some educators, it seems, don't hesitate to put their dignity on the line.

"You just do what you have to do for kids to get them excited about reading or reaching their goals," Kim J. Austin, the skydiving principal of Kate Waller Barrett Elementary in Stafford, Va., says. "Hopefully, we get a few that are hooked."

The stunts may sometimes seem like outtakes from Fear Factor, or the game show-cum-costume party Let's Make a Deal.

But as motivational tools for children go, they are less fattening than cupcakes. Though it's hard to find scientific research on the topic, veterans of these extreme sports say they enjoy benefits beyond promoting academics. A principal in a dunking booth, for instance, makes an attractive, feel-good feature for local newspapers or television.

"It really is an understanding of the adults of the sense of the bizarre that is humorous to youngsters," says Joyce L. Epstein, a sociologist and director of the Johns Hopkins University's Center on School, Family, and Community Partnerships. "It calls attention to the goal in a way that will be appealing and funny but not harmful."

The fun helps kids relate to authority figures as real people, too.

"It's kind of like a way to let off tension," says Larry Mintz, executive director of the Art Gilner Center for Humor Studies at the University of Maryland. "It humanizes leaders."

McDonogh's Lidston puts it this way: "It's knocking the top hat off the gentleman."

For the past 12 years, Lidston, the head of McDonogh's lower school, has sent a letter to children's homes describing what to expect if they met their summer reading goal. The first year, she jumped into the school pond. Another year, it took an hour and a half for the kids to apply enough strips of duct tape to stick her to a wall.

Later, a theater company helped her re-enact the nursery rhyme "Hey Diddle Diddle," in which a cow jumped over the moon.

"It connects me to the children, and they remember it," Lidston says. Parents and teachers also rally around the happy event.

Lidston has sought in recent years to develop activities that go beyond food treats, skating parties or T-shirts, and involve the pupils. "They have plenty to eat; they have plenty to wear," she says.

This month, she arrived at the school's playing fields on top of a firetruck to reward pupils for reading more than 4,500 books during the summer.

Costumed as a firehouse dog, Lidston waved as the kids in their bathing suits screamed and ran through the fire hose spray, slipping in the mud that quickly formed. The administrator could not join in - she didn't want to get the rented Dalmatian suit wet.

Third-grader Lena Aaron, 8, of Owings Mills says she read 13 books for the challenge. She says she looks forward every summer to seeing what the school head has in mind.

"Every year it's a good surprise," Lena says.

Some question whether performing stunts is the best way to persuade children to make reading a habit.

"The more appealing the reward is for reading books, the less kids want to read books if those inducements are no longer around," says Alfie Kohn, author of Punished by Rewards: The Trouble With Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A's, Praise, and Other Bribes. He describes rewards for reading as "a worthy goal and a terrible method."

"If principals want to do something silly, that's terrific," he says. "If kids have to read books to make that happen, reading books comes to be less desirable on its own right to kids."

He instead recommends allowing kids as much say as possible about what they're reading, teaching them to read by reading, and creating opportunities for kids to discuss what they've read with one another.

But Marilyn W. Smith, vice president for programs at the literacy organization Reading Is Fundamental, says principals' antics may inspire children. Her group gives away books on the condition that the community promote reading - for example, by having a Green Eggs and Ham breakfast.

"Literacy is linked to positive, fun experiences," she says.

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