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08 March 2024

It takes a village: books, schools, and reading culture

The summer raft of reading challenges has now passed us by, and we’re back to the school grind. What is it that helps keep reading at the top of the BAU list for busy schools and kura?

If you’re a follower of our work, you’ve seen that in 2023 we moved away from our classic children’s reading challenge to offer a reading challenge for teachers and school staff (you can read more about why here).

The Teachers Reading Challenge was a hit, with 1,151 school staff participating from 151 schools; 7,240 books logged including 1,666 NZ books; and somewhere over half a million pages read all up. Generous publishers sponsored a range of prizes, and almost half of the participants also engaged with our teaching resource for Aotearoa NZ books.

One of the teachers was Farrah Chavez from Mount Roskill Grammar School. MRGS won the overall prize, and Farrah also took out the ‘reviewer’ prize for both quality and quantity of reviews submitted.

The twist? Farrah’s not an English teacher: she’s a digital technology teacher. These are two fields which we often see as mutually exclusive. But instead of seeing reading and digital technology as incompatible or diametrical, Farrah is working to bring them together in the classroom.

“Digital technologies are rapidly changing. Unless students learn how to read technical documentations and get acquainted with historical literature to know how past innovators and engineers tackled a problem, the knowledge they learn in school might not be enough when they start working,” Farrah points out.

Her experience with the Challenge was largely informed by her passion for her students’ lifelong learning. “Because the reading challenge was for our ākonga, I focused on reading books that will have a positive impact on them. And if I model good reading habits, starting with the Teachers Reading Challenge, my students will continue to learn through reading even after they finish my class.”

It’s heartening that so many teachers—and so many teachers well outside the confines of the English classroom, where we traditionally place reading—are actively working to engage students with reading for pleasure. The classroom is the first and perhaps most obvious community of readers highlighted by the challenge: but it’s not the only one.

A surprising learning from the Challenge was the extent to which teachers, librarians and school staff, too, are seeking communities of readers. We expected perhaps a few hundred teachers to engage with the Challenge in its first year, but instead reached over a thousand. 100% of those who fed back to us indicated that they’ll take part again next year, and a key point of feedback was the desire for a greater ability to engage with each others’ reading and reviews via the website.

We asked Farrah what was behind her drive to review titles in a way that would be useful to other teachers.

“I was inspired by reading the Featured Reviews on the website. When I saw how other teachers are recommending books based on themes and how it could help students, I started reading as if my review can help another teacher with recommending books to their students.”

Teachers are hungry for new titles to teach, to discuss, to lend, to simply have present in the classroom: and one of their greatest resources is each other. 44% of the teachers who participated in the Challenge said that it helped them find texts for the classroom, and we hope to continue to foster these networks of recommendation.

While teachers around the country flocked to log their reading on the Challenge site, a variety of offerings were also available for keen readers from schools or the general public. A good example is the Wellington City Libraries’ Summer Reading Adventure, available to keen participants of all age groups. The school prize for this competition was taken out by Seatoun School, with 45.9% of their school roll (169 students) taking part.

Wendy Bamber, the school’s librarian, notes that reading culture in the school is very much down to a whole-village approach.

“We have a terrific reading culture! Our Board, SLT, staff and parents support the library, teachers bring their classes to visit every week and this time is valued and prioritised. Children are given regular, autonomous access to a strong, up to date collection with a wide variety of books. We devote time to book-talking and other ways for children to recommend books to each other and I love nothing more than being asked by children for guidance and suggestions.”

We hear many tough statistics about the state of reading: but what about the positive ones? The latest iteration of the Growing Up in New Zealand report, released by the Ministry for Culture and Heritage, notes that three of four of the 12-year-olds studied are reading outside of school at least once a week. Reading is still a significant activity, celebrated and beloved, by many young people: but how do we keep it that way?

Callum Gray, the Head of English at Mount Roskill Grammar School, describes the buzz present in a school with a strong reading culture: “I know many teachers display posters in their classrooms or workspaces that describe what they’re reading. Many also have bookshelves in their rooms and supply books to students themselves. From the administration block to SLT to department work rooms, you can hear people talking about what they’re reading.”

Just as a classroom or a group of teachers can form a community of readers, so too can a school. But it’s vital that engagement occurs at all levels, from the student browsing the library right through to the Board and Senior Leadership Team: and eventually also through to parents, as Wendy notes.

“A recent initiative to invite parents into the library for a Reading Cafe to read with their children had very high engagement and shows that our parents support reading too. Our staff embraced the recent Teachers Reading Challenge and we often share books amongst ourselves. I think showing reading for pleasure as a valid use of time is important for both staff and parents to role model.”

What’s the secret component to growing readers, then? Turns out that the answer might lie not with one single person, but everyone: not a sole classroom or library, but many communities. It takes students together, teachers together, school communities together, and parents together. It doesn’t even just take a village: it might take many.