Building A Reading Community

Had the chance to hear Helen Reynolds, Teacher-Librarian of the Year 2007 in Australia, speak at the Australian school here in Singapore the other day. Though on the The Southport School library webpage her job title is listed as Senior Librarian, she says she was hired ten years ago as Director of Information Services. Instead, Director of Literacy might be appropriate.

Her talk was titled: Maintaining Momentum: Keeping boys reading in the middle school years, and she gave us an overview of her philosophy and practices behind the creation of an active reading community in a day/boarding boys' school with an enrolment of approximately 1400 preschool to year 12.

She swears by Stephen Krashen's The Power of Reading, Aidan Chambers's The Reading Environment, Young Australians Reading, and Knowing Readers by Susan LaMarca and Pam MacIntyre.

The key is getting the whole community involved -- a giant partnership -- which means not just the library and the English department, but all staff (even the cleaners) and the parents. The goal is an environment which legitimizes wide and comprehensive reading.

Some elements of her successful program:
  • * All students keep Reading Records -- lists of the books they've read in and out of school -- that follow them throughout their time at the school (so any teacher can see any student's reading history);
  • * Book reports are 40-second oral events, done at the end of term -- no long boring writing about what you've read;
  • * Book chat time -- lots of it -- in classrooms, in the library, in the hallways;
  • * Author visits -- as many as possible;
  • * Regular silent reading times throughout the school, e.g., every English class starts with 10 minutes of silent reading, and Grades 8-10 English classes come to the library every fortnight for a session of book talk and reading;
  • * Monthly book club (and newsletter), where students get the pick of new library books to read and review; she also takes club members out to literary festivals and any events related to books;
  • * Ongoing collection of data -- such as surveys to find out what the kids are reading and how they think reading helps them; this data is shared with teachers, admin, and parents;
  • * Tons of book displays, e.g., the first display of the year is of books which the students voted as their favorites the year before;
  • * 7-week parent program at the beginning of each year -- in which she teaches parents the same information literacy skills the kids learn;
  • * Big book collection, catering for all reading levels and a wide variety of interests; she said she buys for everyone (including parents); I like her attitude that she's about choice, not censorship -- she says it's not her job to censor what a child reads -- parents can do that by submitting a form;
  • * Supporting teachers as readers and getting them to advertise their reading to students, e.g., before every holiday break, she takes a stack of books into the staff room and passes them out, and teachers in all subject areas are encouraged to produce bookmarks of their recent reads and have them available in their classrooms for students to take;
  • * Reader's Cup (an annual competition in Australia) -- she always get a team to enter;
  • * Writing competitions -- she encourages students to enter any online writing competition and says some students have won money from them.
Three websites she recommends:
Given my current situation, I was particularly pleased to hear her say, of course, she lets parents borrow. And her response to my query about borrowing limits was, unlimited! (She did admit there are borrowing limits printed in some library policy document, but they are not enforced.) Letters about overdue books are sent to parents after two months and any financial reckoning about lost books is only done at the end of term. So reasonable...

I also noted her comment that circular tables in the library encourage social booktalking. Made me decide I must get to IKEA to replace a few of my dreary institutional rectangles with round colorful ones.