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Read ‘Em and Reap : Students Who Hit the Books to Bid on Items From Famous People

Times Staff Writer

Friday will be something like Christmas in June for Myrna Noland’s combined third- and fourth-grade class at Fletcher Elementary School in Orange.

“On Friday morning, in the school library, all the students get to bid for items mailed to us by famous people,” said Noland.

As she explained the program to a visitor, her 30 students grinned. Many held up auction items, including:

- A gold watch sent by King Hussein of Jordan.

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- An autographed photo of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher of Great Britain.

- An autographed book by former President Richard Nixon.

- An Olympic swim bag from U.S. diving gold medalist Greg Louganis.

“We wrote to 400 persons, and 250 sent us items to auction,” said Noland. “Of course, no money is involved in the auction. It’s all for credits the students receive for reading books during the year.”

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The students use the credits to bid for the items. They get to keep the items--after they have written thank-you notes to the donors.

Recent state-required tests of student’s reading skills found that the third-graders in Noland’s class are, on average, above the eighth-grade reading level. The lowest-achieving child in the class was a third-grader reading at the sixth-grade level--and that child comes from a family where English is not spoken at home.

Some children in Noland’s class have read more than 100 books this school year. And the subjects have ranged from biography to science, history to fiction.

Noland, who’s been teaching 21 years in the Orange Unified School District, said the auction program has been helpful. “At the beginning of the year, I explained to the children that I’d give them credit in special little bank books for each book they read. I gave more credit for difficult books, such as classics, which are above their normal reading level. No one else could see their pass book.” Each book that has been read and reviewed by the student is logged as a credit.

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“The average credit I gave for completing a book was $1,” said Noland. “It was only 50 cents for some easy books, and for some very difficult ones, I gave up to $8.”

Last fall, Noland sent out personal letters to 400 famous people in various occupations----politics, sports, entertainment, medicine, science and arts. She asked them if they would donate an item for the reading program auction. A flood of donations and letters came back. As the items arrived, they were admired by the students and carefully stored for the end-of-school auction.

Theme-Writing Project

While Noland wrote the original letters requesting auction items, the students themselves wrote follow-up letters to famous donors as part of a theme-writing project.

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For instance, 10-year-old Samuel Isaacs decided to write to former astronaut Frank Borman. “I like to read books about space,” said Samuel. “That’s why I wrote Frank Borman. I asked him how he felt in space when he was on the Apollo 8 mission.”

Borman, who is now president of Eastern Airlines, responded with a personal letter.

“Dear Samuel,” read the letter from the former astronaut. “While we were circling the moon, my thoughts invariably reflected on that beautiful, fragile blue sphere which obviously meant so very much to our crew . . . . The concept of ‘spaceship Earth’ created for me a new awareness of our common destiny and our responsibility to preserve the quality of life on our planet.”

Sadat Sent Student Letter

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Noland, who started the reading-auction program in 1976, said that many other famous people over the years have taken time to write her students. And, yes, she acknowledged, some of the celebrity letters become quite valuable. She recalled that the late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat sent a handwritten letter to a student in which he stressed the importance of reading. A student’s parent later sold that letter for several thousand dollars and banked the money for the child’s education, said Noland.

But the goal, she stressed, is not to get valuable letters or to drop names. The goal is learning. “We even learn some math because I give interest on the bank accounts, and students make high interest--10%--if they’ve read books in all the major categories.”

The auction program also helps students learn about world leaders. For example, Susie Schramm, a third-grader, was asked if she knew who Margaret Thatcher is.

“She is the first woman prime minister of England,” said Susie. “She has two children, and her husband’s name is Denis.”

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Does Susie like to read?

‘Mysteries and Adventures’

“I love to read!” the child responded. “Mainly mysteries and adventures.” When she grows up, she wants to be a teacher or a librarian, she said.

While the reading-auction idea--which Noland said she learned about in the 1970s from an education magazine--is a helpful tool to promote reading, Noland doesn’t use it every year. “It would wear out our donors. I only have this in my class about every three years,” she said.

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