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September 1, 1995
Vol. 53
No. 1

You Don't Get Somethin' For Nothin'

You don't get something for nothing. Period. That's what I was told early in my life, and I now pass it on to the youngsters I work with.
My mom may have stamped that admonition on my consciousness years ago as I stamped the order form for complimentary books from a mail-order book club. After she abruptly ended my obligation to the book club, her words have never been far from my mind.
I was 10. I was going for the free stuff. Funny, that's the exact age of my daughter. And just last week, I found myself repeating those five words when she came to me with her junk mail invitation to join a book club, which promised three free books, a free journal, and free stationery.

Tight Budgets and Vulnerability

Two decades ago, as a beginning teacher, I temporarily forgot that truism. I taught in a huge public school system, short on money and big on dreams. We had 24 classrooms, 30 kids to a class. There were maybe two movie projectors, and copy machine paper was rationed. We were encouraged to be creative and child-centered, which meant preparing materials ourselves. Many of us went through a lot of our own money trying to piece together curriculums.
I used the kits corporate America sent me, adapting them to my needs. I saw nothing wrong with using free potato chips to teach measurement, or giving fast-food coupons as incentives for reading. We sang the praises of nuclear energy using the multimedia kit the electric company supplied. My kids were engaged. But they were also a captive audience, absorbing corporate logos along with thoughts developed by marketers.

Economics Lessons

In time, I entered a master's degree program, where I took a course on corporate involvement in the classroom. My instructor was, like my mother, a cynic. But he was looking out for more than seven bucks a month. He lectured us about our roles as responsible educators, warning us of corporate enticements. Materials arrive slickly packaged with convincing claims and, of course, the magic word: free.
It then dawned on me what I had been doing. The fact was, every corporate calendar, filmstrip, and free admission, came with a price tag: corporate promotion. And I was setting up my students' parents to follow through on the incentives I dangled before their kids' eyes.
Beyond that, there was the high cost of cheating my students—and myself—out of a rich and creative learning and teaching experience. If fast-food joints truly wanted to fight illiteracy, they would offer free books instead, or send in tutors on company time.

Thanks, but No Thanks

Now, as a 1st grade teacher, I decline offers of free materials. I consciously shield my students and create many of my own materials, using ideas drawn from the students themselves. I have spoken to parents about these decisions, and not one has lobbied for the corporate incentives.
During my 18 years as a curriculum implementer, I discarded materials with a corporate name in the return address. I cut logos off otherwise usable posters and calendars. I balanced presentations by the electric company with one by an anti-nuclear speaker. I worked with older children to help make them wise consumers—to help them see the subtle and blatant ways their waters are trolled.
My policy as a parent is no different. When my daughter comes home with corporate incentive programs for reading or math, I inform the teacher that I am not interested in the incentive, but I'd be happy to provide a comparable one of my own. With the Pizza Hut Book-It program, for example, I simply discarded the pizza coupon and treated my daughter to a new book instead.
If you're an administrator, you can send a clear message to your staff. Teachers need to be warned of the potential for corporate manipulation and exploitation. They should at least question the validity of the curriculums they receive. They need to understand that they are the primary filters for their students, and that they may unknowingly be grooming future consumers for company profits and agendas.
Parents, too, need to be educated. They must question teachers who use dubious curriculum offers. Parent groups must put this on their agendas early in the school year. They might consider ordering T-shirts for the students, emblazoning them with the words, “You don't get somethin 'for nothin'.”

Foyne Mahaffey has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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