I arrived to the school as a new member of staff in September under the banner of Assistant Head teacher for English and (that somewhat abstract concept) literacy. So much drew me to the school but one big driving force was that the school had established itself as a ‘reading school.’ Hours before my interview I trawled through their most recent Ofsted report and blogs on their website that explored the reading culture cultivated at the school. The diamond in the blog piece was the idea of whole school reading days because what shone out from this was that reading and more importantly, reading for pleasure was the heartbeat of the school. A quick flick through the school’s Twitter feed and there was a litany of pictures of staff and students reading, student reviews of books, prizes awarded to avid readers, even a reading dog…as an English specialist I thought I’d found Nirvana and then…the global pandemic hit and all educators were forced to think on their feet, often at the last minute and crucially for a reading school try and navigate a world in which in order to keep everyone safe we could not freely hand out books, we could not read in person together, the library saw a closed sign affixed on its door and any resources including books had to endure sterilisation and quarantine before we could arrange any delivery with minimal human contact.
People often say in a crisis you see the true character of someone and as ever (in a situation mirrored in the thousands up and down primary and secondary schools across the country) we as a staff body set about the challenge, driven by the idea that we would not allow a pandemic to further widen the progress gap, reading gap, vocabulary gap and opportunity gap many of our students face purely because of their post code. The school had spent years carving out an atmosphere in school and in the community that celebrated books as a vehicle to escape, reimagine and empower. Whole school reading days participated in by all staff and students led this charge but so too did the library. A nurturing hot spot in the school that centred books, a hot drink and a snack, and a sense of community as the three main drivers that would illicit a love of books in our students. Initiatives such as our school book stamp card were introduced successfully to get students racing to get their card fully stamped every time they read a book. As is the case with creating an ethos in school, momentum is key and we were acutely aware that we were in a race against time to not let COVID ravage the hard work and success of our reading school.
Supporting reading – remotely
If we were trying to look at the last year positively, we have been reminded of something we already knew as teachers and something senior leadership teams across the country already knew about their staff: teachers can and do think on their feet. They adapt, tweak and redesign at the drop of the metaphorical hat (or virus in this case).
- Our whole school reading days continued but instead reading was done together on Teams, students were asked to fire in pictures of their ‘reading dens’ and our year group Teams chats were flooded with pictures and reviews of what both staff and students were currently reading. We did this twice, initially focusing on fiction and then the second day focusing on an area of reading often over looked especially when it comes to reading for pleasure, non-fiction. Sanitised books were purchased and delivered to students by staff with masked, socially-distant drops on doorsteps.
- Virtual book clubs were started for staff and students
- Our reading awards became even more original. Badges were sent home as were ‘a party in a bag:’ books, chocolate, bookmarks and a letter to parents.
COVID, the subsequent lockdowns, and the interruptions to learning either side of both lockdowns, reminded us of the battle we often face in the summer. This was an extended and more troubling version as we had no end date, but that battle was a removal of a consistent reading diet and a lessening of the ability to readily access books.
Maintaining momentum through the summer
We have thought very tactically about what this summer will bring in terms of barriers to reading for our students as the discussion around ‘lost learning time’ and ‘lost opportunities’ and ‘catch up’ in the wider media remains an unhealthy and counterproductive narrative that stalks teachers and schools. Our school community is one that serves an area restricted by deprivation. That in itself is such a pervasive issue that manifests itself in a plethora of ways in terms of education and that has only been exacerbated by the lockdowns and by the ensuing economic instability. We know that the vocabulary and reading gap that disproportionately impacts deprived communities will widen in the summer holidays. We know that other social issues will take precedence for many of our students: the care of siblings, responsibility in the home, the supporting of parents and carers.
Not only is it our professional job to try and negate the impact of these factors on the progress of our students but it is also our moral responsibility as educators to never let students forget the power of reading. To never let them forget that reading can:
- transport them out of the situation they are in both literally and figuratively
- improve their confidence
- broaden their cultural references and emotional range
- and, crucially, empower them with skills that will accelerate their learning in every single subject.
With that in mind we have created our own reading arsenal ready to take on the summer holidays:
- Throughout the pandemic we have sent food packages and care packages to our students; this will continue through the summer holidays with the addition of books.
- We work in partnership with our local library to showcase, share and direct our students to the free reading activities offered by libraries and local agencies throughout the holidays.
- Our summer school that is being offered to new Year Seven and Year Ten students will use the framework of our reading days to welcome them in to our bespoke intervention in summer school.
- Our New Year Seven students have all been given their summer reading book to read over the holidays and, when we welcome them in September, lessons in all sessions will unpick what they learnt through their reading of Wonder.
- Our whole school reading lead has created a summer reading project which will see students racing to complete their reading map of Wolverhampton with a mix of multimedia challenges centered around fiction and non-fiction reading.
- The two of us who drive whole school reading and literacy from the vantage point of SLT will be out delivering books to students who we know would not be able to access books otherwise.
And before we break for the summer holidays we have orchestrated two events to drill into that emotional connection with books needed to create whole school momentum:
- A list of carefully selected students will be given book vouchers and taken by us to the local Waterstones to buy their book of choice and then enjoy a picnic in the park.
- A cross curricular day run by English and History will see Year Ten explore the connections between the civil rights movement, The Hate You Give, To Kill A Mockingbird and the Black Lives Matter protest we saw throughout the summer of 2020 as we use reading as a tool to examine the fabric of society and humanity.
Put succinctly, there is no cap we can put on the impact of reading and the impact of a reading ethos in our school: the impact is immeasurable. The tangible gains are seen in students’ exposure to rich vocabulary, the closing of the vocabulary and reading gaps, the closing of progress gaps and the increase in conceptual links made across a variety of subjects. Yet it is often the more abstract gains that remain fundamental: that students can see themselves represented in the world they live in, students can see reading as tool to manage stress and enjoy life, they can be exposed to different emotions, they can see their own confidence rocket and they can see that so many in school and in the pages of books are willing them to succeed.
Katy Dagnall is Assistant Head Teacher for English and Literacy at Moreton School.