To boost a joy of reading, this East Harlem school installed a book vending machine

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Instead of candy bars and bags of chips, a new vending machine at Manhattan’s Mosaic Preparatory Academy dispenses children’s books. 

Students can earn “coupons” for being good Samaritans, such as helping out a peer or cleaning up without being asked. Once they earn five coupons, they can exchange them for a token that unlocks a book from the machine for them to take home.

The machine is one way that Lisette Caesar, Mosaic’s principal, is trying to boost literacy among her roughly 200 students after one and a half school years without full-time, in-person school. The idea first came to Caesar over the summer. She became concerned that about 20 children last school year had not read a single book on the school’s online book platform, myON, which is typically popular among the children, she said.

“Even though we read in total 45,000 books, there were still kids who weren’t reading at all,” Caesar said ahead of the school’s celebration of last week’s vending machine launch. “I still wanted ways we could encourage literacy this year.”

Educators across the country have been concerned with how well children are reading following two school years disrupted by the COVID pandemic. National data from the summer shows that the average student was three to six percentile points behind in reading when compared to scores before the pandemic. In elementary school, Black, Latino, and Native American students saw much steeper declines than white and Asian students, as well as students in high-poverty schools compared to more affluent ones.

At Mosaic, an East Harlem elementary school where 97% of students are from low-income families, many challenges in terms of literacy lie ahead after children spent so long out of a physical classroom, Caesar acknowledged. Her staff has noticed that their students are less enthusiastic about reading this school year. Just like schools across the city, Mosaic has tested students for their reading levels, but Caesar said she was not authorized by the education department to share that information. The department did not respond to requests for that data.

Caesar hopes her students, will get excited about having the chance to own physical books and has set an ambitious goal to get 100 titles into each child’s home this year. She’s also been working with a nonprofit organization to help build bookshelves for her students’ homes. 

“For some children, just holding a book — maybe they don’t want to read it yet, but they’ll get there,” said Kristy De La Cruz, superintendent of District 4, which covers East Harlem. 

Sparking a love for reading

Flooding children with books isn’t likely enough to get children to read, said Susan Neuman, professor of teaching and learning at New York University, who specializes in early literacy development. Schools must think of ways to motivate children to go home and pick up their books. That could mean encouraging students to talk about the book they read last night or finding another way of “bringing it into the classroom,” she said. 

At Mosaic, teachers survey children to figure out which books they’re interested in. Students and classes get shoutouts or certificates if they’ve read a lot of books that week. They’re also encouraged to do “book talks” in class, where they talk to a classmate about their favorite books. 

So far, the vending machine boasts books about yoga, Star Wars, and the popular online game Roblox — which appears to be a favorite among Mosaic students. During Wednesday’s event, some students excitedly used a token to grab a book of their choice to show the machine in action.

Courtesy of Lisette Caesar
The principal of Mosaic Preparatory Academy in East Harlem purchased a book vending machine this school year, thanks to an anonymous donor. Children will be able to retrieve books after earning coupons for displaying good behavior.

First grader Chayla Means proudly clutched her newly obtained copy of “Captain Underpants and the Preposterous Plight of the Purple Potty People.”

Reading can be scary, the 6-year-old said. 

“Because some words I don’t know how to read,” Chayla said, “like this word,” pointing to the name George, one of the main characters in the Captain Underpants series. 

But her mother, Monique Kerstadt, has noticed Chayla’s reading skills improving in just the two months she’s been back at school full-time. 

“I see a big difference,” Kerstadt said. “I feel like she’s more into reading now this school year.”

To encourage more reading among her students, Caesar also purchased new furniture for the school library and created a forest-themed section so that children will be enticed to read in that space. The school is also providing a “Saturday academy” for children who need extra help. 

“Reading at home, you’re not focusing so much on comprehension,” Caesar said. “Now our work really has to be, yeah our kids can read the work, but they have to focus on what they’re doing.”

Providing for her students

The New York City education department received about $7 billion in federal COVID relief just for schools, but that’s not how Caesar secured the book vending machine. She brought the  idea to a philanthropist who frequently donates to the school, and they agreed to donate the $4,000 needed to purchase and customize the vending machine. (Caesar said the donor prefers to be anonymous.)

The vending machine was originally supposed to be installed in August, before the start of what was expected to be a challenging school year that Caesar had been planning for all summer. 

Initially it couldn’t fit through the doors.

“I literally sat on the stairs and started crying,” Caesar said, who has persevered despite many challenges over the past few years. The principal was diagnosed with with colon cancer in 2019, and was named a ‘Hometown Hero’ this week by the Daily News for her dedication to her school community despite the constant physical fatigue.

With some adjustments to the machine — costing an additional $300 that Caesar said she paid out of pocket — it was brought back last month. Both Caesar and her teachers began posting online to garner book donations, including through Twitter, DonorsChoose and Amazon Wishlist. Donations began flowing in from children’s book authors, friends, and even publishing giant Scholastic, Caesar said. So far, she estimates they’ve received 500 books, exceeding Caesar’s expectations. 

Mark Cannizzaro, president of the city’s principals union, who attended Wednesday’s event at Mosaic, committed $1,000 on behalf of the union toward books for the school. 

Growing up, Caesar said her mother paid a monthly installment for a full Encyclopedia Britannica set just so her children could read at home, on top of taking them to visit the main branch of the Brooklyn Public Library. Those were the seeds that grew Caesar’s own love of reading, she said, and she wants the same for her students. 

“I never want my children to feel like there’s a school upstairs or down the block that has something they don’t have,” Caesar said.  

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.