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Challengers not chicken Stunts: Educators gladly place themselves at the mercy of their pupils to encourage them to read.


Noreen Lidston challenged her McDonogh School pupils to read 1,000 books during their summer vacation. If they did, she would jump in a lake, she promised.

They did. She did.

That was five years ago. Every summer since, Lidston has upped the ante -- and her pupils have reciprocated. "The pressure is building. Perhaps my longevity in this job depends on how long I can keep coming up with things," she said.

Since the first challenge, she's been flushed into a dunking booth, eaten her hat, and on separate occasions kissed a frog and a pig. The youngsters have topped 2,500 books a summer.

Lidston, head of the Lower School at McDonogh, is among dozens of game educators who offer themselves as fodder in reading challenges. Principals and teachers have happily -- or so they say -- eaten pizza on the roof; dressed as dinosaurs, pandas, chickens and Elvis; shaved their heads; skated through school halls; and bussed a menagerie of small animals to reward pupils for reading.

"Whatever we can do to encourage our kids to read, we're willing to give it a shot," said Timothy Merritt, assistant principal at Anne Arundel County's Marley Elementary School in Glen Burnie.

Late last year, Merritt and Marley's principal, Nina Griffith, got doused with buckets of water by pupils who exceeded the administrators' leisure-time reading challenge: 45,000 minutes to soak Merritt, or 60,000 minutes to bathe both.

"We were really zeroing in on reading for enjoyment, trying to get away from some of the TV and video games," said Matt Plevyac, a veteran of three challenges at Bel Air Middle School in Harford County, where he was principal until June.

Plevyac reminisces about dressing up as a chicken for a day, and parading as poultry down Bel Air's Main Street; being locked up in a makeshift jail in the middle of Harford Mall; and putting on a monkey suit in "The Great Ape Challenge."

"It's that extra little [reading] nudge," Lidston says of the stunts. "It gives the kids a little focus. They are all working together toward a number that's going to force me into this behavior.

"It's an enjoyable, very happy kind of event," Lidston added, noting that McDonogh celebrated this year's pig-kissing with a farm day at the school near Owings Mills in Baltimore County.

At City Springs Elementary in Baltimore, 340 pupils read 1,900 books, forcing Principal Bernice Whelchel to dance the Macarena on the roof.

This year, the number's higher and the payoff sillier.

"I've challenged them to read 2,500 books. If they do, I will be wearing PJs and riding through the halls on a tricycle," she said.

Just like her antics, Whelchel said, "Reading should be fun."

Her deal-making has a deeper message, Whelchel says: "It shows the kids that if they produce then I'm going to do something. It shows again that reading is important."

The hope is that eventually reading will be its own reward -- that even without the incentive of principals kissing frogs, pupils will turn to reading for fun.

At City Springs, Whelchel has created the Family Reading Club to promote reading as a family activity. In addition to a library, the school has a parents' room from which adults can borrow books for themselves and their children. "Parents can be reading to kids and vice versa," she says.

At Marley, the water challenge "just created a lot of positive attitudes about reading," said Merritt. "I believe that the boys and girls believe that reading is our No. 1 priority."

Pub Date: 11/29/98

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