Student Well-Being

These Schools Filled Vending Machines With Books. Will It Motivate Reading?

By Sarah Schwartz — February 28, 2020 4 min read
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In most schools, if you’re looking for a book to read, you go to the library. Now, students in search of new titles may also be headed to a vending machine.

Some schools have brought in these vending machines, which let students select a book of their choice with a token. Generally, teachers hand out these tokens as a reward for positive behavior, or for taking on academic or personal challenges. Kids can then take the books home to keep.

The goal, educators say, is twofold: to give students an incentive to make good choices and to foster a love of reading.

Deborah Weatherford, the principal at J.B. Watkins Elementary School in Midlothian, Va., made the vending machine part of her school’s system of positive behavioral interventions and supports, or PBIS.

“It’s built a lot of classroom camaraderie,” said Rebecca Ozbalik, a special education teacher at J.B. Watkins. Students get excited for their classmates when one of them earns a token, she said.

The school also has a library that all students have access to. But having the vending machine makes getting a new book feel like “a special treat,” Weatherford said. Kids have told her that they’ve spent time reading at home with their prizes—a big win, Weatherford thinks, when there are so many other types of entertainment vying for students’ attention these days.

There’s research that shows having to work for something can increase its perceived value, said Stephanie Wormington, a researcher at the Center for Creative Leadership who studies developmental and educational psychology.

“If I have to earn this token to be able to get a book, then that indicates to me that this is something that I should want and that I should be going after,” she said.

Still, putting books behind glass and restricting student access could have other consequences, too. Schools should be conscious of how they’re framing any reward system with books at the center, so that they don’t inadvertently discourage students who are already reluctant readers, Wormington said.

One way that teachers could talk about the purpose of the vending machines, she said, goes like this: Teachers are excited about these books and they care about reading—they want students to be able to read these books. They’re going to help students do what they need to do to become better readers and get these books in their hands.

Another way: If you want to read these books, you have to earn it—reading them is a privilege, and not a right.

“Those are two very different messages that you could send to students,” Wormington said.

Ensuring Access?

At Cox Intermediate School in Spring, Texas, administrators were giving out free books to students before they put in a vending machine this year, said Principal Deborah Spoon. Students could earn one by giving a “book talk,” about another story they had read, in front of the school.

But the vending machine offers teachers the opportunity to shine a spotlight on a broader range of achievements, Spoon said. Students can earn a token for the machine for making honor roll or hitting academic goals, but also for showing kindness, character, or good citizenship.

Cox Intermediate is planning to give out 50-75 books a week, stocking the machine through donations and hunting for deals in school book catalogs.

Schools have long given out rewards to students to incentivize good behavior, or in attempts to motivate attendance or higher performance. Research on these incentives is mixed, but in general, rewards are more likely to work when they’re tied to things that students feel like they can control.

And there’s a better chance that this system would foster a love of reading if students feel the tokens are within their reach, Wormington said.

“Are there some messages that are being sent, potentially, about who are the students that are being able to get access to these books? Is it because adults like them more?” Wormington asked. Schools need to be aware of creating a “in-group, out-group” situation, where some students never get to pick out a book from the machine, she said.

At J.B. Watkins, teachers are looking to make distribution more equitable. The goal is for every child to earn at least one book this semester, Weatherford said.

For these vending machines to foster a love of reading, schools need to first examine their culture more broadly, Wormington said. Students need to trust that their teachers want them to access knowledge, and that teachers aren’t going to withhold books as a punishment, she said.

Of course, vending machines aren’t the only places in these schools where students can access books. So how do libraries fit into this equation?

At Cox Intermediate, the librarian has helped pick out the book selection for the new device. And at J.B. Watkins, educators have used the machine to get kids hooked on collections. They’ll put one book out of a series in the machine, and let students know that the rest are in the library.

“A lot of the books in the vending machine are new titles,” said Ozbalik, the special education teacher. “The kids who see their peers get books, they get interested in the titles they’re seeing.”

Sparking kids’ interest in a series is a smart strategy to build engagement, said Wormington. Schools could also try tucking in recommendations from staff members into the backs of the vending machine books, she said—a way to “harness the relationships that students have with their teachers.”

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.


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