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How Not to Motivate Kids to Read

A Chicago public school principal camped out on the roof of his school last week.  Nate Pietrini had promised his students that if they did a certain amount of reading during “author week,” he would reward them by sleeping on the roof of Hawthorne Elementary Scholastic Academy.  He set up a webcam and read students bedtime stories from the roof.

According to the Huffington Post, Pietrini believes that camping on the roof really motivated kids to read.  “I had several parents look at me and say, ‘I used to have trouble getting my kids to read but now they’ve been doing it … this may have turned a leaf for them.’”

Over the years I’ve seen principals perform other reading-unrelated stunts to encourage kids to read.  One principal I knew promised to kiss a pig, which she did in the school gym during a whole school assembly.  Principal duct taped 2-L Another principal allowed kids to duct tape him to a wall as a reward for their making their reading goals.

Next year, says Pietrini, he’d be happy to sleep on the roof again or “maybe do something even a little more risqué or dangerous.  I may put something out there for our student council to make that decision.”

What is wrong with these people?

At the risk of sounding either cranky or sane, depending on your point of view, I’m hard put to figure out how allowing kids to dictate what the principal has to endure improves reading. Oh, sure, it’s fun and all, but does this kind of silliness actually encourage kids to read over the long haul?  Whatever happened to
great instruction and terrific books? 

I also worry that this kind of “motivation” encourages some kids’ belief that they need to be rewarded in some way for doing what they’re supposed to do.  Reading, after all, is not only a necessary life skill, but it also has intrinsic value.  How does camping on the roof or kissing a pig enhance the idea that reading is a reward in itself?

Lastly, have some self-respect, people.  The principal who kissed a pig?  Years later, that’s how she was remembered.  Not for her good leadership, not for her kindness to kids – but for kissing a pig.  I know, the media love this kind of thing.  Kids love it and parents maybe do too.  And Pietrini put himself out for what he believes is a good cause.  I just think there are better ways to motivate kids over the long haul that humiliating yourself.

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in Practical Leadership are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Scholastic, Inc.