The other day on Facebook, I saw a friend pictured with his kids and a frosted cake with the number 100 on it. Everyone was using their fingers to make the number 100 as well. When I asked my friend Tevi Troy to explain what was going on in the photo, he said the family was celebrating joining the Century Club.
I shouldn't have felt bad about not knowing what it was since Troy made it up. Years ago he had been influenced by his kids' school to create an at-home memorization challenge. Troy explained:
The kids have a program at [their Jewish day] school where they get points for memorizing certain prayers, lineages (12 Tribes, 3 fathers, 4 mothers . . .) titles of the Tanakh and Talmud, etc. If you get above a certain number of points, you get to go on a special trip. I created an English program for the Troy family where the kids have to memorize poems, recognize passages from literature, and learn the presidents, British and Israeli Prime Ministers, Roman emperors, and the like. Same deal: if you get above a certain number of points, you get to go on a special trip of my choosing.
As a parent I have found that rote memorization is largely ignored as a means of conveying information or learning. My daughter's third grade teacher admitted sheepishly at the beginning of the year that the kids would be memorizing their times tables. I cheered; everyone else in the room looked at me as if I'd lost my good sense.
"After doing [the memorization contest] for a number of years, I then added the books program as an additional incentive-based activity," Troy explains. It was a huge hit. The children, ages 8, 10, 12, and 14 all took it on and completed 100 books (at their own level), in 12 months. Troy says the subject didn't matter. "It's all about establishing behavioral patterns," he said. In reality, for Troy it was more about encouraging his children to behave more like himself, since he is such a big reader. "I think it made an impression that I was doing it with them," Troy admits, "but also that they've always seen me read."
When I asked Troy about the origins of the contest's name, he admitted his inspiration came from his former boss, the 43rd president of the United States, George W. Bush:
I met with President Bush in Dallas last year and told him that I was inspired by his reading contest with Karl Rove, and that I had read 100 books in the previous year in part as a result. He smiled, and said, 'Century Club,' which became the inspiration for the name of the activity with the kids.
Karl Rove described the contest in a beautiful 2008 column for the Wall Street Journal. In his column, Rove said the reading competition "reveals Mr. Bush's focus on goals" and noted:
It's not about winning. A good-natured competition helps keep him centered and makes possible a clear mind and a high level of energy. He reads instead of watching TV. He reads on Air Force One and to relax and because he's curious. He reads about the tasks at hand, often picking volumes because of the relevance to his challenges.
Easy for Rove to say it wasn't about winning; he beat the President every year. But as the mother of four kids fairly close in age, I'm sometimes concerned about competition between my children.
I asked Troy about one aspect of Rove's description of the contest—the nature of competition. "I really didn't make it a competition because it wasn't about who did it the most," Troy says. "They understand this from school, and they all benefit from the trip. The kids would help each other because they wanted the trip to include everyone."
I spoke with Troy's 12-year-old daughter Ruthie for confirmation. She says it was a good idea, though she admits, "I was annoyed at first." She didn't seem to think it was too difficult a task because, as she explained, "I read a lot, but I wouldn't have read this number without it." When I asked if she thought any family could do as hers had done, reading 100 books in a year, she suggested starting with a lower target number "for a family that doesn't like to read as much."
I've always thought that parents modeling behavior to children is the best way to influence their behavior. This is the first time that I can say that another family has taught me how I want my family to behave. After all, what's not to like about great books—and a cake and trip to celebrate having read them?