Making learning fun & rewarding


Unrepentant cynics would call it a bribe.

But for progressive educators like Patrick Martin, much better to say it’s an incentive to encourage kids to practice literacy ... and sometimes math.

Students at East Newark Borough Elementary School have been introduced to it as the school “Rewards” program.

Here’s how it works:

Each day, kids in kindergarten are asked to write down the “letter” or “number” of the day, as assigned by Martin, superintendent/principal of the borough school, along with a particular sentence and color in a picture.

If they do the three-pronged task correctly, they get an “East Newark dollar,” which, while it has no monetary value, can be applied toward the “purchase” of a desired age-appropriate prize offered by the school.

For students in grades 1 through 4, each day they get a chance to earn their “dollars” by printing the answer to a question posed by Martin. Third- and fourth-graders must also provide a cursive writing sample. Frequently, youngsters are exercising critical thinking by solving verbal math problems.

And youngsters in grades 5 through 8 can qualify for their rewards by reading at home, after school, for at least 20 minutes, and by bringing in a letter from a parent or caregiver verifying that they did so.

The rewards vouchers can be traded in for an assortment of prizes, including a football, soccer ball, craft kit, glow sticks, Barbie doll and other items ranging in “price,” from 15 to 20 East Newark sawbucks.

If a student hands in work containing errors, Martin hands it back with the mistakes circled and corrections provided and asks for a new version. 

Once the student does so successfully, “I staple the ‘dollar’ to the student’s work, then give it back to the student to present it for their ‘reward,’’’ Martin said.

Students are averaging about 60% compliance, he said. “But, before we offered the prizes, it was more like 30%. Parents will find that the little extras over time add up – it takes an average student and pushes them up.” 

Beyond that, though, the intent, he said, is “to make learning fun – we’re human, we like to get rewards.”

Martin said he lays out the money for the prizes so there is no expense to the school district. 

“Look at this way: The cost for a substitute teacher is $100 per day. I can buy 20 [children’s] soccer balls for $100. So for the cost of a sub, I can get kids reading and writing and the cost benefit is even greater doing it this way.”

Fourth-graders Chris Pereira, 9, and Alexander Chamba, 10, each traded in 25 of their East Newark dollars for a football and a soccer ball, respectively. Both have more bills in reserve to use for other rewards.

“When I got back my worksheets with mistakes, I fixed them,” Chris said. And, exercising fairmindedness, he gave eight bills to his younger brother.

Alexander enjoys the exercises because they give him an opportunity “to think of another way to do [a problem].”

Another option newly available is for kids to apply 20 East Newark dollars to a field trip to the Harrison Public Library which – with an additional seven – can be supplemented with a lunch at Burger King.

The first visit is set for Dec. 2 and, as of last week, there were still spots to fill.

Second-grader Analy Carbajal, 7, who has amassed 20 bills, is opting for the trip to the library. “I wanted to see if it has amazing books and books about science,” she said. Analy painstakingly pursued a lesson on subtraction on her worksheet so that by the time she finished – and figured out the right answer, “my right hand was really hurting but I didn’t want to give up.” 

The tiny borough of East Newark has no municipal library so, given that its municipal neighbor’s library is only a few blocks away, for Martin, it seems like a logical choice for kids to expand their reading horizons.

And Harrison Library Director Nelba Mejias is more than happy to welcome them as part of the extended library family which, she said, currently includes 37 card-holding members from East Newark.

Mejias and Martin, who is beginning his third year as the borough school’s chief administrator, met for the first time last month to strategize about future visits by borough school kids to the library.

Mejias said the expectation is that borough teachers will escort groups of 15 to 25 students at a time to Harrison to check out the children’s room where, she added, kids will find a collection of more than 5,000 books and tapes, not only in English, but also Polish, Spanish and Chinese – some of the ethnic groups represented by the borough school’s diverse student mix.

The library conducts regular summer reading programs for Harrison school children, she said.

Among the students’ more popular picks, according to Mejias, are “Magic Tree House” for grades 2 and 3, “My Weird School” for grades 3 and 4 and “Diary of Wimpy” for grades 4 and 5, not to mention the “Judy Moody” series and “Cupcake Diaries” for primary graders. The latter two, she said, “are hard to keep on the shelf.”  

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