Post-its and Ponderings
A middle school teacher's thoughts on science, technology and learning

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Pizza Hut: Literacy Friend or Corporate Foe?

A recent article criticizes the Pizza Hut Book It! Program. I was unfamiliar with the program, so I did a little research. Promotion on Pizza Hut site declares,
It's about kids. It's about books. It's about the joy of reading. In 1985, Pizza Hut® created a reading motivation program called the BOOK IT!® National Reading Incentive Program for children in grades K-6. More than 22 million students participate in the program every year, and Pizza Hut rewards these young readers for their accomplishments with free pizza, praise and recognition.

However, critics disagree.
"[Book It] epitomizes everything that's wrong with corporate-sponsored programs in school," said Susan Linn, a Harvard psychologist and co-founder of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood.

Apparently, Linn has been upset by this corporate sponsorship for some time, but is using recent rising concern for childhood obesity as fuel for her fight against the pizza chain.

The general idea is simple. Schools sign up. Teachers and students set reading goals. And if a student reaches his or her reading goal, he or she receives a coupon for a free pizza. Apparently, the program earned recognition from President Reagan in 1988, and its advisory board includes representatives of various prominent education groups, including teachers unions and the American Library Association.

Critics argue that the program encourages kids to eat junk food in an era of schools limiting sweets and sodas in their cafeterias. Other critics uphold that corporate America is weaseling its way into American households through such programs.

I hardly think this program contributes to either. I doubt there are many raw food families that feel pressured to consume winning pizzas. Nor do I know of any families with young children that do not get pizza as a treat once in a while. Furthermore, I think it quite possible to integrate an occasional pizza into a healthy lifestyle.

As for the "pressure" to eat Pizza Hut specifically? It's advertising, not unlike the deluge of commercialism kids encounter in all aspects of their lives. Restaurant marquees tout current specials, coupons for two-for-one specials tempt harried parents, and noone can use any sort of media without encountering ads. Pizza Hut just took a different approach. Not only are they advertising for business, but there is an added bonus of helping kids get involved in reading.

Among those campaigning against Book It is Alfie Kohn, author of “Punished By Rewards." Now, I think it worth pondering the ideas of this critic.

Kohn questions the value of incentive programs in general.

“The more kids see books as a way to get pizza or some other prize, the less interest they’ll have in reading itself,” Kohn, a former teacher, said in a telephone interview. “They tend to choose easier books to get through faster.”

I agree. I find extrinsic motivation to be a quick and easy remedy for pervasive apathy. I don't like it in theory, but I'll even admit to using it in my own classroom from time to time. Kohn says,

They do work in the short term, but at a great cost. Rewards, like punishments, are useful for getting exactly one thing: temporary compliance. By bribing or threatening kids, you can get them to do what you want as long as the reward or the punishment keeps coming. You'll never get anything more substantial than that.

I think the only thing the Book It program can be criticized for is blatant extrinsic motivation. I would also have a problem with any school that would make the program mandatory. However, I think I would have to find Book It not guilty on charges of commercialised pressure and causing childhood obesity. I even find it difficult to uphold the charges of extrinsic motivation when I live in a community where parents will often pay kids a particular sum (let's say, $20 each) for each "A" on the report card.

I would much rather find a way to foster authentic love of reading from a young age by modeling a love of reading myself. Or, if I chose to buy into extrinsic rewards, I would like to set something up that was not economic in nature, but rather a reward of time or experience.

We do have problems with how we raise and reward our children today, however, I don't think Pizza Hut is the enemy here. I say to those kids, keep reading and enjoy your pizza!


Sunday, February 04, 2007

Character Does Count

I read an article recently about a Wisconsin Police Chief, Richard Knoebel, who wrote himself a ticket for accidently passing a school bus with its lights flashing. As he believed he should not be treated any differently than any other resident, he wrote himself a $235 ticket last September and paid the fine the next day. No one really knew about it, until a newspaper wrote about it after stumbling across the fine in public court records. Asked about the recent press coverage, Knoebel responds,
If it brings notice to people that they should be stopping for school buses, I don't mind the notoriety

Now this is a story that impresses me.

So often, I feel as though I am fighting a losing moral battle with my middle school students. While I strive to model emotional intelligence and remain a pillar of good character in my classroom, the kids are constantly bombarded with mixed messages outside the classroom. Inside the classroom, there are posters telling them that a measure of character is how they act when no one is watching. However, outside the classroom, it is often expressed (even by parents) that "it's OK as long as you don't get caught."

We've been talking a lot about commitment in my classroom lately. In the beginning of the year, we decided to recycle the aluminum cans at our school. After much research and negotiation with the principal, I stood in front of my kids and took a "heads-down, hands-up" vote of whether we should take on this responsibility. I strongly reinforced that this commitment would require going outside twice a week for about 20 minutes to sort through the garbage and crush the cans, for the entire year. This would include the midwest winter months, which are brutal at best. All but one of my students made a promise that they would commit to our goal.

Now, in February, the whining is at its peak. "Do we have to?" "But it's cold!" "This is stupid." I remind them that they made a commitment. I tell them to bring a hat and gloves. (Which, in middle school, is decidedly 'uncool.') We agreed that this was important, and that this mattered to the environment. And I will not let them back out of their agreement, as they are allowed to do so often in their lives. Some kids are starting to get it. When it is below freezing outside, I do give the kids a choice. (I'm not that crazy.) Lately, some kids have been saying "We made a commitment - I'm in!"

I read about pillars of character, and believe kids should be encouraged to embrace these ideals. But, there's part of me that wonders... how many adults do I know who embrace these characteristics? Sometimes, I get discouraged with society. But, once in a while, I am reminded by people such as Richard Knoebel that good character still exists. Nice work!

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