One Wacky Principal Stunt Inspires 100,000 Student Reading Minutes

By Jeanne Smith, Principal, Harmony Elementary School 

When it comes to encouraging reading, Harmony Elementary School Principal Jeanne Smith will do just about anything to get kids to pick up a book. She's let students turn her into a human ice cream sundae and even impersonated pop-singer Hannah Montana – complete with singing, dancing and funky attire – all in the name of literacy.

Smith rose to new heights last November to celebrate 100,000 reading minutes tallied by students during the school's weeklong Scholastic Book Fair, climbing into the gondola of a tethered hot-air balloon and waving to throngs of cheering students through the fog.

"I've done some wacky things in my time," Smith says, "but the ice cream-sundae routine was probably the worst. Even though I wore my rain gear, I still needed students to hose off all the glop afterward."

What rouses Smith to such Book Fair zaniness?

"If a little craziness will inspire kids to read, I think you should do it. It makes you genuine and real – a person kids can identify with. You have to make a connection with kids if you’re going to influence them at all and get them excited about reading," she says.

The success of the book fair was due in no small measure to the efforts of volunteer Chairperson Kim Moistner-Bartlett, who organized the event.

Bartlett was the creative wiz behind the Fair's "Explore the World" theme (complete with a traveling mini-hot-air balloon, student "passports" for tracking reading minutes, theme-related posters handcrafted by classes, and even a "Great Wall of Harmony"), which tied in nicely with Scholastic's overall concept: "Destination Book Fair: Read Around the World."

Bartlett also invited international students to visit the school during the fair to chat with students.

"Students from countries as far away as Australia and Sri Lanka gave short presentations to each classroom while wearing traditional attire from their countries," says Moistner-Bartlett. "Our students loved it, but I think our international guests may have enjoyed the experience even more than the kids did."

Moistner-Bartlett also orchestrated, for the third year in a row, a "Grand" event, which gave students an opportunity to bring a special person – grandparents, aunts, uncles and other family members – to a guest breakfast.

"The guest breakfast is a great way to include more family members, many who work in the afternoon or evenings and can't get away to attend the Fair," Moistner-Bartlett says.

Moistner-Bartlett, who works as a full-time assistant dean at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, says she was given access to the school in the evenings and on weekends during the months of planning. 

"I think sometimes schools miss out on talented people who would like to volunteer, but often have to work during the week," she says. "Jeanne was very accommodating, and we figured out ways to work around my schedule."

And how did Principal Smith react to her idea for the airborne stunt-ride?

"She was delighted to climb aboard the hot-air balloon. Believe me, it was a real treat compared to what she went through the last two years," she says.

Harmony Elementary School, located southeast of Madison, Wisconsin, was the winner of the Scholastic Book Fairs Fall 2009 National Elementary School Contest.
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