Pam Ott is a librarian at McConnellsburg Elementary in McConnellsburg, Pennsylvania who gets her students to read by holding a reading auction using celebrity memorabilia. We spoke to Pam about how you can do the same.
Tell me about you and what you do at the school.
I am the librarian at McConellsburg Elementary in McConnellsburg, Pennsylvania. It’s a small school district. We’re located in south-central Pennsylvania with a little over 500 students in our elementary school. It starts with 4-year-old kindergarten students and we go through the fifth grade.
You came up with the idea to have an auction – tell me about that.
Last year I had what we call a reading auction. The students are very involved in a program called Accelerated Reader through the school and I run it through the library. They read books and using the computer they take comprehension questions based on the book that they have read. They earn points based on the level of the book, the number of pages in the book, and how difficult it is for the students depending on their age level.
I started it last September, and they read books through April. Then I had an auction of all these prizes that I received from the celebrities using the addresses in the Celebrity Black Book. They had to earn at least 25 points, which means some of the students had to read 50 or 60 small literature books to come to the auction.
At the auction, they had a paddle with their points on it that allowed them to spend their points just like at a regular auction. They could buy something of their choosing from everything I had listed. They got a paper list a few days before of everything I would be auctioning off, and then they spent their points based on how much they had read throughout the year and how many points they had earned through this Accelerated Reading program.
So the more they read the more they could buy?
The more they read the more points they got so the more things that they could buy. The kids that read all year earned a lot of points to get some pretty cool prizes.
Tell me about some of the items you received from celebrities.
We got lots and lots of tickets. We had tickets to TV shows like Wheel of Fortune. They sent us a lot of things, a little triangle of the wheel, Wheel of Fortune clothing, and tickets to the show. I had tickets to other shows. Ballet slippers that were worn by the New York City Ballet, so that was cool. Lots of clothing signed. I had a hat signed by Phil Knight, who is the chairman of Nike. Race hats signed by Jimmy Johnson and Kyle Busch. Michael Jordan signed a t-shirt.
I had a lot of pictures that were signed. Misty May-Treanor, the Olympic gold medalist, Arnold Palmer, Dan Jansen, and Tom Brady. Baseball bats signed by current and past baseball players. Hockey pucks, lots of hockey pucks. Golf gloves. Duke University had their whole basketball team sign a poster and sent that. Notre Dame and the University of Connecticut sent items, Penn State because of course, we’re in Pennsylvania.
How did you request the items?
I sent a generic letter on letterhead from our school, and actually, some of the kids addressed the envelopes.
Who did you address the letters to?
For the sports teams and colleges just to them in general. For the celebrities, I got their addresses out of the Celebrity Black Book. I was surprised at all the gloves and hockey pucks and bats. I had the kids address the envelopes, so I don’t know if that made a difference.
What did you say in the letters?
Let me see if I can find one here. “Our elementary school is sponsoring an auction for our students to promote reading. This is not a monetary auction. Instead, the amount to be spent at the auction will be obtained by reading books and earning points. Students are encouraged to read books of interest, pass a comprehension test and accumulate earned points throughout the school year.
Any item relative to your success or profession that you could donate for this reading auction would be greatly appreciated. These items will only be used as motivational rewards for our elementary students. The auction for our children in grade kindergarten through fifth grade will be held in the spring. Please join us as we promote the love of reading and encourage our students to be lifelong learners.” Then I signed my name and put it on letterhead.
Did you include a self-addressed stamped envelope or anything like that?
No, because I just couldn’t afford it with the school. It was enough to get the postage the first time. And you know, I was really pleased. It was very successful. I think the kids would like it again. The first time they did it, some of the younger kids didn’t understand. But they’ll understand the next time we do it.
You got such great items.
Oh my yes. I was really pleasantly surprised. Now I did send some letters to local places in our area, and I got a lot of items from them too. I also got a lot of signed books because I sent letters to children’s authors.
That’s a great idea for schools. People overlook that. They focus on big celebrities. One nonprofit who used our site focused on famous cartoonists from shows like The Simpsons and comic book artists and had great results.
Pam: I went through that whole Celebrity Black Book and highlighted everyone who I thought would be good for elementary students or people I thought the kids would relate to.
How long did most of the celebrities take to get back to you?
Pam: A couple of them called me and asked for the exact date of the auction because they wanted to make sure they got there in time. I actually received a few things afterward. Like the other day in the mail, I got something from Adam Sandler. I only received about four or five items too late. Some of them came right away and some took a couple of months.
I first became aware of your auction from a newspaper article about it. That was very smart also.
I called three newspapers in the local area I’m in. The one you found was our local newspaper, but then I called two other ones and they both came and interviewed me. One of them actually came to the auction. I think the other one missed the auction but came after.
One of the newspapers was 30 miles away, so I was impressed with that. We had articles in three newspapers in the area and that made the kids feel good because they saw their picture in the newspaper. I was the one that called the newspapers to tell them we were having this I also sent them emails.
Very smart. That’s how it works with most publicity, it’s often the person who wants the press pitching a story.
Right. This one reporter wants to come back, so it was kind of neat.
Any other tips you want to share?
I had some of the older kids go through the Celebrity Black Book and pick out the names they wanted me to request items from. I had names highlighted so I told them if the name was highlighted that meant I had already requested something. But I was sure I missed some, so they helped me find people in the book I had missed. If I had had a volunteer that would have helped because I did everything myself and it was kind of overwhelming at the beginning to decide who to target.
In our online database, we keep track of the causes celebrities contribute to. So you could choose Children and it will given you a list of celebrities who are known to contribute to children’s causes.
It was very smart of you to have the kids address the envelopes because envelopes that are hand-written don’t often get thrown away. They usually get opened. Plus it let the kids feel involved. Did you explain to the students why certain celebrities didn’t reply?
Yeah, they would ask me sometimes and I just said I guess they have too many people to give items to. Sometimes I would get letters back saying we just target our state or general area, or we only target X. But when they’d ask, I’d say it’s just one of those things. You don’t always get what you ask for or what you want. It’s was a good lesson for them.