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Celebrating World Teachers’ Day: Reading for Hamburgers With Mrs. Carrol

by Spencer Salas |

Greetings from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte! This month, on October 5, we celebrate World Teachers’ Day to commemorate the anniversary of the adoption of the 1966 ILO/UNESCO “Recommendation concerning the Status of Teachers.”

I was lucky to have many great elementary school teachers who got me excited about books and reading. In related posts, I’ve written about reading barefoot, learning to sing Hawai‘i pono‘īand how my fourth-grade teacher at Olde Creek Elementary School cried when we reached the end of Where the Red Fern Grows.

For this post, I’d like to return to Kainalu Elementary School in Kailua, Hawaii, and my second-grade teacher, Mrs. Carrol, and hamburgers.

These days, second grade in the United States is all about reading because third grade is all about testing reading. In North Carolina, for example, beginning with the third grade (and through the eighth grade), students sit for a standardized end of grade (EOG) assessment in reading (and math) every year. Test scores fall into four achievement levels: Not Proficient, Level 3, Level 4, and Level 5. If students score Level 3 or higher, they meet the grade level proficiency standard. If students score Level 4 or 5, they meet the “College and Career Ready” standard.

EOGs are a big deal for families and for schools. The scores decide which children will move forward into the next grade and, consequently, the state’s rating of a school’s overall performance. Second-grade teachers feel the pressure of these looming standardized assessments. There's a collective push to get children reading and excited about reading. So different teachers do different things for different students. Or, in teacher parlance, “Whatever works.”

I don’t know if Mrs. Carrol was subject to the same sort of EOG anxieties or another version of them. Thinking back, she sure wanted to get us reading. Here’s one strategy she tried:

We traced and cut out footprints on colored construction paper (the size of our actual feet) and printed our names across them in large letters with crayons. For every book we read at home or in school, she’d tape a bright red, green, yellow, or blue footprint on the wall. The idea was that everyone who made it around the room would win a prize. It was a race! I read and I read. Short books, long books, comic books, picture books, children's magazines, and pamphlets — anything to get a foot on the wall.

By June, my construction paper feet had circled the four yellow cinder-block walls of Mrs. Carrol's classroom. The prize was a gift certificate for a standard McDonald’s meal of the time (a hamburger, small fries, and a small drink). I gave my mom the certificate. For my birthday a few weeks later, she took me and my little sister to the McDonald’s in Kailua. We had lunch. Then, she lit eight candles on the homemade chocolate cake that she had brought with her, and we sang.

Nowadays, it takes a lot more than the promise of a Happy Meal to motivate a seven-year-old to read four dozen books. But back in the early 1970s, McDonald's was a childhood luxury reserved for special occasions. It’s also true that an important body of literacy research has since discouraged teachers from emphasizing extrinsic rewards as a way of growing children’s belief in themselves as readers, writers, and learners. I think we can all agree that, eventually, the motivation to read has to come from within us. 

But that’s where great teachers step in. Mrs. Carrol understood what a McDonald’s hamburger and fries meant to some of us. She was willing to try different things for different students, including contests and bribery. I suppose that was the evidenced-based approach that her many years of teaching had taught her. Nothing works for every reader — but some things do work for some children. She was willing to do whatever it took — for each of us.

Many years later, I learned that Mrs. Carrol’s second-grade class was where the school grouped all the lowest readers — the ones who would have been most at risk of scoring below Level 3 on today’s EOGs. Mrs. Carrol’s assignment was to get us to grade level. But even more, I think she wanted to get us to love reading. All I know is that she had me at “hamburger.”

When my son began second grade, I remembered racing for Mrs. Carrol. My wife and I substituted his bedroom for a classroom and “LEGO® Star Wars™” for “McDonalds.” That school year, he made multiple laps around the room — one paper foot per book. He gradually amassed an impressive collection of spaceships and his EOGs went just fine. He’ll turn 22 this November and is interviewing for medical school. Mrs. Carrol, a generation later, we still appreciate you!

So, here's to World Teachers’ Day and some parting questions:

    • Who were the teachers that got you excited about reading? 
    • How did they do it?
    • What motivates you to read today?


About the author

Spencer Salas

Spencer Salas, PhD, is a professor in the Department of Middle, Secondary, and K–12 Education at The University of North Carolina at Charlotte where he leads the PhD in Curriculum and Instruction Urban Literacies/TESL subconcentration. An award-winning District of Columbia Public School ESL teacher (1994–2001), he has been a Fulbright Fellow to Romania (1998), Guatemala (2007), and South Africa (2013); and, a frequent U.S. Department of State English Language Specialist (2003–present). His scholarship focuses on Black and Brown teachers’ lives and the potential of humanizing dignity and care as K–16 best practice.

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