Gimmicks spark more student reading

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Last spring, James Marconi, principal of Monroe Elementary in Logan Square wore his pajamas to work and kissed a monkey brought to the school just for that smooch. The next day, Joy Donovan, principal of Ravenswood Elementary, roller-skated on the roof while teachers brought their students to cheer her on.

Why were these principals acting so silly? For reading’s sake. As part of the Links-to-Literacy program, principals agree to meet challenges set by their students if the students meet their goal of reading a certain number of books. Last year, children at Monroe read 10,137 books, or 9 per child; at Ravenswood, children read 13,700 books, or 23 per child.

There’s another gimmick, too. Schools create paper chains, adding a link for every book read. Now in place at 150 city schools, Links-to-Literacy last year exceeded its own goal of 1 million books, hitting 1.1 million. Last spring, 86 of the schools brought their chains to the Harold Washington Library for a celebration.

Beneath the hoopla, however, is serious business: getting schools to include independent reading sessions in their school improvement plans and establish links with nearby libraries, getting teachers to set up “reading corners” in their classrooms and getting parents and community members involved in children’s reading activities. Parents sign forms confirming that their children have read books outside class, and community members—sometimes celebrities—serve as guest readers.

“Reading’s become the thing to do at Bateman,” says Rudy Lubov, who as principal of Bateman Elementary in Irving Park founded the program four years ago. “The children pull on my sleeve and tell me the books they’ve read.” (Lubov recently was selected to head up literacy programs for the entire school system.)

Last year, Bateman’s 957 students read more than 28,000 books, or 29 per child. Bateman’s schedule includes 20 minutes every day for DEAR (Drop Everything and Read), when children select their own books and read silently. Lubov also worked to get every child registered for a library card, passing out buttons as rewards. Writing or reciting poems merits yet another button.

At Ravenswood, students visit nearby Sulzer Library and produce a school newspaper with book reviews. Vanessa Rodriguez, a Ravenswood 6th-grader, reports that she read 20 books but would have read “not as many” if her principal hadn’t agreed to skate on the roof. Classmate Paddy Signorino, who read 50 books, says having the principal skate on the roof was “a great idea” but that, given a choice, she would have put her in a dunking booth.

Links-to-Literacy is managed by Designs for Change. For a $50 fee, says Jeanine O’Nan, schools get a resource guide, a newsletter, informational talks and multischool events like parades and picnics. For more information, call O’Nan at (312) 857-9292.