Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Corporate education

I've been following the discussion and debate about the reach of corporations into schools, ranging from Coke machines in the hallways to Channel One's commercials in the classrooms. There is certainly the position of the cash-strapped school districts, which can receive a portion of proceeds from vending machine sales, or which need "someone else" (read: fast food companies) to manage their cafeterias so they don't have to pay for workers, and sometimes need some inexpensive (free) way to engage students in learning. There are also the people who wonder about the health of the kids when they're drinking and eating food with high fat and high sugar content - food that kids would eat if they were able to leave campus at lunch, and who worry about a captive TV audience. I had heard that companies were providing classroom materials, but that they were mostly science or environment programs with questionable objectivity.

Full disclosure: I went to high school years before Channel One, and anyway we only had four TV sets in the whole place. Hostess stuff was available for purchase and I usually got an apple pie three times a week. Few people ever left campus for lunch, because it was only 36 minutes long and the nearest McDonald's was 15 minutes away. When people left campus at lunch time it was to sit in someone's car and make out, smoke dope, or drink wine. I didn't do any of those things so I never left campus.

Yesterday at the library I was helping a third grader with his reading comprehension homework (the first part of which was me saying, "Settle down and read this so you don't have to do this later"). The article he was reading was about the Wham-O toy company. The first paragraph was a short overview of the company, and each following paragraph described one toy for which Wham-O is famous, without actually naming the toy. On the back side of the page, there was a message to the parent about how the purpose of the exercise was to determine if the student could figure out the main message of the article. There were also some questions the student had to answer:

What are the three toys described in the article?

What is the main thing you remember about Wham-O from the article?

What is your favorite Wham-O toy? Hint: Which Wham-O toy do you have at home?

My student had never heard of a Slip-n-Slide so I just told him the answer. I don't usually do that but it's not a very common product around here, and he knew the other two were the Hula Hoop and the Frisbee. Without any prompting from me he wrote that the main thing he remembers from the article is that "Wham-O makes great toys" and that his favorite Wham-O toy is the Frisbee, "because," he said, "that's the only one we have."

It was so obvious to me that this article, probably provided free of charge to the school, was really about creating brand recognition in the 7-to-9 year old set. So now I've seen it with my own eyes.

*For the record, this student does not attend a public school.

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