A Reading Revival

Spring 2010

By Claire Hazzard and Jaime Malic

At St. Clement’s School, a grade 1-12 university preparatory school for girls in Toronto, a culture of reading is clearly evident in our junior school, but the challenge we face is how to sustain students’ interest in reading as they mature. As the school teacher-librarian and an English teacher in the senior school, we know that reading is the foundation of the academic program and the key to academic success, but we struggle to convince students that reading is a valuable activity when there are so many other demands on their time. How do we persuade students to choose a novel instead of Facebook? How do we help them become critical, skilled readers? How can we use co-curricular activities to support a “reading revival”?

In our ongoing search to find the answers to these questions, we have found that students develop both their interest in and skills of reading when they are engaged in a variety of activities in and beyond the classroom that focus on reading. Using the tools of creativity and differentiation, we have tried to meet our students’ needs in a variety of ways. We are two teachers who work with students in particular grades at St. Clement’s School, so our opinions and practices may not necessarily reflect those of the entire faculty, but we hope that by sharing selected examples of strategies that have worked well for our students, we may encourage fellow educators in their quests to make reading a priority for their students. 

Reading in the Junior School Classroom - by Claire Hazzard 

Each class in the junior school visits the library for at least one scheduled period every nine days. During this time, I will share a story with the class, often related to other curricular material that is being studied. This is also a good time to chat as a group about the books that have been recently enjoyed by the students, and serves as time to highlight both new titles and old favorites. Then, we have book sign-out and exchange, and I circulate in the library offering advice on titles and picks. Although students can visit the library at any time, we find these regular periods offer us a chance to meet regularly with each student to ensure she is reading at the appropriate level, and that she is enjoying her reading. In addition, teachers regularly schedule visits to the library for research; we always try to schedule a few minutes at the end of these frequent research periods for book sign-out. We also host many author visits, and enjoy visits from local booksellers and public libraries.

Twice during each nine-day school cycle, we invite Reading Buddies into our library. The Reading Buddy Program initially developed as a mentoring program for our sixth grade students with first grade students, and has expanded to include all grades in the junior school. Our second graders and fifth graders are paired, as are our third graders and fourth graders. Reading buddies come together to read picture books, as well as nonfiction books. We change reading buddies once each term, so each younger student gets to meet as many older girls as possible. Reading buddy partnerships go beyond the library and the classroom; we often see our reading buddy pairs around the school and in the yard.

Students in all grades participate in the Ontario Library Association’s Forest of Reading. Students read 10 age-appropriate books by Canadian authors (this shortlist is chosen by a committee of teachers and librarians), and then vote for their favorite. Votes from schools across Ontario are tallied, and then the winner is announced at a ceremony in Toronto in the spring. We have students participating at all levels; grade one through three students take part in Blue Spruce, grade four through six read books from the Silver Birch Program (there is also a nonfiction component to this program), grade seven and eight students read from the Red Maple shortlist, and then students in grades nine and above read titles from the teen fiction program, White Pine. The books chosen are of a consistently high standard, and often support other curricular objectives (for example, books chosen often cover world issues, health issues, and issues that are important to teens).

This year, we have decided to adapt the format of the Forest of Reading programs to run a program that is more focused on classic Canadian Children’s Literature. Entitled “Read Across Canada,” this program introduces students in grades four through six to Canadian authors, including Deborah Ellis, Jean Little, and Kit Pearson. Over the course of three months, each student reads six novels: one from each of five proscribed Canadian authors, and then one novel from a Canadian author of her choice. Each student completes six assignments -- one for each book. Each student will also read Anne of Green Gables, which will be the focus of our Mother-Daughter Book Club. After this meeting and discussion, each student will write a reflection piece on the novel.

Reading in the Senior School English Classroom - by Jaime Malic 

In the English department of the senior school, one of our primary goals is to encourage our students to develop a life-long reading habit; we try to accomplish this goal in several different ways in the English classroom. Every year, from grades 7-12, English teachers assign summer reading that creates a bridge between the texts students have just finished studying and those that await them in the coming school year. For example, during the summer between grade 10 and grade 11, I ask students to read Daisy Miller and then Reading Lolita in Tehran, in preparation for my grade 11 AP English course, in which we study the art of the memoir. Having read both Pride and Prejudice and The Great Gatsby in grade 10, as well as Daisy Miller that very summer, students gain a deeper understanding of the memoir Reading Lolita in Tehran, as three of its four divisions concern the writings of Austen, Fitzgerald, and James. They also see connections between texts they have studied and are often inspired to read more by a particular author or in a particular genre. 

Once the academic year begins, I continue to model a life-long love of reading by doing regular book talks with all of my classes – at least one per term. For these talks, I bring in the books I have recently finished reading or am currently reading. I share with my students what attracted me to the books, what elements I am enjoying or not enjoying, and any predictions or questions I have about the books. I often read excerpts to the students (yes, high school students still like being read to!) and invite them to comment on the text or connect it to their own reading. At the beginning of new units and before holiday breaks, we also visit our school library, where our librarian shares her own book talks about readings related to our current unit of study. 

Sometimes a life-long love of reading needs a more direct push to get it started or revived. In grade 10 English, students work for eight weeks in the first term on an independent reading log assignment. Outside of class time, students are expected to read at least eight selections of approximately 25 pages each, from several different genres, excluding newspaper articles and children’s magazines. For each selection, students prepare a reading response that must include a brief summary of the content of the reading and a longer reflection on the structure, style, and meaning. Possible sentence-starters for the reflection include “I wondered about…”, “I now understand…,” and “Some questions I have are…”. Although some students struggle to manage their time effectively for this assignment, overall, when we “debrief” the experience as a class, many students say they had forgotten how nice it is to just sit and read, and others share a new-found interest in a genre they had never read before. In grade 12 English, in Term Three, students work on an Independent Study Unit, for which they each a select recently-published work of fiction or narrative nonfiction that they can connect directly to their own experiences, interests, and/or aspirations. The evaluations for this ISU include both a passage analysis and a presentation, in which students must “sell” their selection to a rather picky publishing company, comprised of their fellow class-mates and teacher. Once again, the goal with this unit is to revive a love of reading that some senior students have lost through years of “required reading.” 

Our students need not only to develop a life-long reading habit, but also to become skilled readers, who are able to process information efficiently and convey their understanding effectively. At every grade level in the senior school, English teachers work to achieve this goal. For example, I work with students from grades 10-12 to develop their understanding of the different purposes of reading and their mastery of various reading strategies. Usually at the beginning of the year, in small groups and then as a whole class, we discuss how reading for entertainment, reading for basic comprehension, and reading for detailed analysis all look and feel different. We then generate tips for how one can successfully achieve each purpose. Once students have a clear understanding of the different purposes for reading, they are ready to learn and apply several different reading strategies to a variety of fiction and nonfiction texts. Among the strategies we emphasize in grades 10-12 are annotation, dialectical journal entries, graphic organizers (such as the SAYS-DOES chart), personal responses to reading and the SQ4R method. It is our goal for all students who graduate from St. Clement’s School to be skilled readers who have a few preferred reading strategies on which they will rely during their post-secondary studies. 

Reading Beyond the Classroom

Developing students’ reading skills and encouraging their love for reading in the classroom is one thing, but ensuring this momentum isn’t lost once students leave the classroom is quite another. In our experience, co-curricular activities directly connected to reading are the secret ingredients in a successful reading revival recipe. 

Two years ago, inspired by the national event Canada Reads and looking for a way to make reading a more prominent part of our co-curricular program, we launched Red Reads and Junior Red Reads, two exciting reading contests (named in honor of our school uniform’s famous red blazer) that now have the entire St. Clement’s community turning pages. Red Reads lasts for about three months and is designed for students in grades 7-12 and staff. In late October, students and staff are invited to submit their suggestions for books related to a particular theme. For example, the first year we asked, “What is the one book everyone in the SCS community should read?” and this year we wanted to know, “Who is the greatest fictional female character?” Once the suggestions are in, a panel of judges consisting of three staff members and three students reviews the submissions and narrows the list to six finalists. The six selected finalists promote their books during a special assembly in our school’s performance theater. Each speaker has two minutes to present her book and convince the voting public that it is the best “Red Read” of the bunch. For two or three days after this assembly, voting takes place at a real polling station (complete with voting screens and a ballot box) in the main school lobby. Both staff and student participation rates are very high and the race is usually very close. The results of the voting are revealed after December exams, just before the holiday break. Students, siblings, parents, and staff members are invited to read the winning book over the holidays and in January, a panel discussion is held with the original six finalists, in order to debate the merits of the winning book, discuss related issues, and take questions from the audience. This year, SCS voted for Parvana from The Breadwinner as the Greatest Fictional Female Character. The panel discussion featured information about organizations devoted to the education of girls and women, such as Little Women for Little Women, Women for Women, and Vital Voices. 

We have also held a junior version of Red Reads. Students were asked to nominate their favorite picture book, and from a long list of 45 nominated books, we short-listed the three that received the most votes as our “Red Reads Picks.” Our three short-listed titles were Scaredy Squirrel by Melanie Watt, Chester by Melanie Watt, and Do Not Open This Book by Michaela Muntean. As in the senior school, Junior Red Reads was advertised by posters, and strong supporters for each book. After voting took place, winners were announced to an excited crowd; Scaredy Squirrel and Do Not Open This Book tied for first place.

The Red Reads event not only promotes discussion and debate about books beyond the classroom, it also helps teachers and parents connect with students in a shared reading experience. Students really enjoy exercising their democratic rights at the Red Reads polling station and the finalists develop both their public speaking skills and their confidence throughout the process. 

Our Senior School Book Club head assists us with the organization and execution of the Red Reads event. Three years ago, responding to demonstrated student interest, we started up the Senior School Book Club to provide interested students with an opportunity to meet on a regular basis to share a common love of books. The Senior School Book Club meets on a bi-weekly basis at lunch on Fridays, in the discussion area of the library. Students choose to read selections from different genres (such as historical fiction, fantasy, or nonfiction for teens) or according to different topics (such as “The Life and Works of J.D. Salinger”). Club meetings feature discussions, debates, and various literary games, including “Guess the Book from this First Line”, “Books Alive” (charades for book titles and characters), and “Pictures from the Pages of” (Pictionary for characters, settings, and events from a particular book). The club has its own secure educational blog, which students use to stay involved in the discussion if they are unable to attend a club meeting, to continue some of the heated debates that develop during regular meetings, and to post links to related issues. In term three, book club members participate in their very own Lending Library, for which they bring in favorite books they are willing to exchange with fellow club members for a few weeks. Occasional author visits round out the Senior School Book Club experience. 

Last spring, a few members of the Senior School Book Club expressed a desire to connect their love of reading to community service. We responded by arranging for interested members to volunteer their time reading to patients at Sick Kids Hospital, a renowned hospital here in Toronto. On a regular basis, groups of three book club members now visit Sick Kids Hospital, where the students read picture books to a small live audience and to other patients, via closed circuit television, from the children’s library in The Reading Room. Since May 2009, eighteen students have participated in this program, with more students awaiting our next visit. The Sick Kids Volunteer Reading Program has shown our students that reading can be an altruistic way of giving back to our local community.

Making reading a central, meaningful part of our students’ lives is perhaps the most important challenge we face as educators. At St. Clement’s School, we have learned to meet this challenge by constantly adapting our instructional methods and curricular support systems in response to students’ interests and needs. Although we certainly don’t have all of the solutions to the current reading dilemma, in both the junior and senior schools, the sight of a student completely engrossed in a novel tells us we must be on the right track. The coming years are sure to bring innovations that will make sustaining our students’ interest in reading even more difficult, but we believe that with adaptability, ingenuity, and determination, we can revive reading so that it remains the heart of education in the 21st century.

Claire Hazzard

Claire Hazzard is head of library and information services at St. Clement's School in Toronto, where she teaches students in grades 1-12. In her spare time, she is a voracious reader. 

Jaime Malic

Jaime Malic currently teaches grade 10, grade 11-AP, and grade 12 English at St. Clement's School in Toronto. She is also a grade 12 academic advisor, the coordinator of Red Reads and of the SCS Writing Workshops, and the faculty advisor for the Senior School Book Club. Just to keep things interesting, she is also pursuing her Ph.D. in educational administration on a part-time basis.