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Sault Mich. school plans to skip the chips and feed young minds

Washington Elementary raising funds for innovative book-vending machine
Sheri McFarlane and Jesselyn Bourque with a sharing library outside Washington School

The notion almost seems counterintuitive. Vending machines take loose change in exchange for all the goodies that crunch and fizz, along with the empty calories. Why not take that reward center and feed the mind?

If educators at Washington Elementary in Sault Ste. Marie Mich. have their way, that’s exactly what will happen. But first they need your help.

“I’m always researching how we can reinforce good behavior in kids, when I came upon a vending machine that dispenses books for tokens that students collect in school,” said Jesselyn Bourque, Washington School’s intervention specialist.

Educators have learned that rather than constantly disciplining for bad behavior, teachers and staff should praise – and therefore reinforce –kids as they apply it by design or happenstance. The magic rule is that for every disciplinary correction, there should be 10 praises.

“For years we’ve been handing out praise coupons on the spot for expected behaviors,” said Bourque. “The coupons can be for helping a teacher or fellow student, or for not running in the hall. Everyone, from teachers to lunchroom workers, hands them out when they see good stuff. We’ve also been rewarding exceptional behavior with certificates. The kids love collecting them, and parents are so proud when a child brings home something so tangible.”

Here's where a book vending machine comes into the picture. Put some tokens into the coupon mix, tokens that feed into a machine that serves books rather than junk food.

A vending machine manufacturer ingeniously markets such a machine nationwide. Schools buy the machine and stock it with books of their choosing. A clear front panel displays subjects in four-by-four rows. The machine can be stocked with up to 250 books. Press C4 for history, or B3 for fiction. No chips here.

“It’s such a brilliant idea,” said Bourque. “Kids collect tokens for good citizenship and ‘buy’ books they get to keep. There’s an incentive to read because they earn it. There’s a good chance a parent might read to their child. It builds community on all levels.”

There’s no shortage of book publishers to draw upon, including custom-made books that tie into specific interests. Teachers can request any topic that reinforces lessons. A favorite teacher might even have picks of the month that students will flock to and collect.

“There are grants sources - even microgrants of $500 – we can use to keep the book machine stocked,” said Principal Sheri McFarlane. “But first, there is buying the machine.”

As one would expect, such a specialized machine - hand-built with specialized components - doesn’t come cheap, and this book-vending machine costs just over $6,000.

“Jesselyn and our staff social worker, Jennifer Randzarro, sent out fundraising letters in June to area businesses,” McFarlane said. “So far we’ve raised $500, so we have a bit of ways to go.”

If you would like to make a business or individual tax-deductible contribution to the effort, drop organizers Jesselyn or Jennifer an email at jbourque or Call Washington School at 906-635-6629 for information or fundraising suggestions.

Run a Web search on Bookworm Vending Machine to read more about how the system works for schools.

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John Shibley

About the Author: John Shibley

John Shibley is a veteran writer, editor and photographer whose work has appeared locally and, via the Associated Press, in publications such as the New York Times
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