Championing reading for pleasure in schools

Published on: 28 June 2015 Author: Sita Brahmachari

The brilliant award winning author and campaigner Sita Brahmachari, who's work includes the Red Leaves and Artichoke Hearts, became our twelfth Writer in Residence back in 2015. In this blog Sita wrote about how authors can help promote reading in schools

Sita Brahmachari

Approximately four years ago I was approached by Gill Ward, Senior Librarian at Fortismere School, London to become their Patron of Reading. I wasn't exactly sure what I would be called upon to do but was complimented that the school had invited me to be what I saw as a champion of reading for pleasure.

The idea, Gill said, 'was powerful and simple - to spread a love of reading for pleasure in the school. That was the only requirement. How I did that and what I was to do, was up to me and Gill working in partnership to offer reading and creative writing focus events and experiences for the young people at the school.

In an education system that is increasingly dominated by schedules, tests, attainment and literacy targets I loved the idea of taking part in a scheme that was essentially about bringing writers into schools with no other agenda but to share the thing itself - a love of reading.

Now almost four years on from our first planning meeting it's time for me to hand over my Patron of Reading baton to another author - the fantastic S.F. Said acclaimed author of The Outlaw Varjak Paw and Phoenix.

'I've always believed that reading for pleasure has the power to change people's lives. So I'm honoured and thrilled to be Fortismere School's new Patron of Reading. Just seeing the superb school library and hearing librarian Gillian Ward's passion for books, I feel sure that Fortismere children have access to the very best resources. I'm looking forward to inspiring the children to make the most of them, and building on the brilliant work done by Sita Brahmachari.' -S. F. Said

Taking stock of the last four years

When S.F. asked me to tell him what I had done as Patron I began to look back over the last four years and take stock.

I was keen to point out to S.F. what the founders Tim Redgrave (Head teacher of Ysgol Esgob Morgan Primary school in St Asaph, Denbighshire) and Helena Pielichaty (author) had stressed in their opening message at the recent Patron of Reading conference.

'All schools and writers are different, and therefore all schools and patron relationships are different too. There's no right way to be a Patron of Reading!'
Nevertheless it is always great to share practice so I agreed to give S.F. a brief trip down memory lane of my time as patron.

Soon after I began Gill and I went to a conference organised by founders Helena Pielichaty and Tim Redgrave and there I met other writers and teachers from around the country and we shared what we were doing in schools. I was impressed by the huge range of activities taking place in classrooms up and down the country - all with the focus of spreading a love of reading. Since then there has been a second national conference where Patrons and schools have shared stories of their collaborations.

The way I pictured it after the first conference was that each Patron is a kind of portal giving the school and students direct access into their world and own inspirations in reading and writing... that world is different for each individual (some writers are great at sending in videos/Skype conferences and others are better at exploring storytelling quilts or creating story trails in woods!)

Championing reading for pleasure in schools

Championing reading for pleasure in schools
Girls in Sita's workshop
Paper story telling patchwork
presenting in class
SF Said
Sita's Author Visit
Sita's Author Visit
Sita's Author Visit
Sita's Author Visit
Sita's workshop
story on leaf
story telling quilt
story telling trail woods
Championing reading for pleasure in schools

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Girls in Sita's workshop

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Paper story telling patchwork

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presenting in class

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SF Said

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Sita's Author Visit

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Sita's Author Visit

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Sita's Author Visit

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Sita's Author Visit

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Sita's workshop

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story on leaf

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story telling quilt

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story telling trail woods

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Thanks to the School Library Team

I would like to thank Gill and her school library team for their wonderful support in setting up visits, putting up displays and spreading understanding of the scope of Patron of Reading throughout teachers and senior management in the school and beyond through school libraries networks.

'The Patron of Reading scheme has worked brilliantly for us; it's wonderful for the students to have their own, dedicated author and to be able to build up a connection with them. Sita has inspired many of our students to explore the world of books and even some of our reluctant readers are discovering themselves in books. We have had great workshops over the past few years. I've laughed a lot, and occasionally shed tears (our students have created some incredibly moving work, especially during the 'Unknown Soldier' and 'Kite Spirit' sessions). The great thing about the scheme is that it has allowed Fortismere and Sita to build our own special relationship and way of working and I've gained an incredible friend. I'm now super-excited and looking forward to working with SF; it's going to be so interesting to see what the next path our Patron of Reading journey will take us on.' -Gill Ward, Senior Librarian, Fortsimere School
'Sita has inspired and supported many students at Fortismere by giving her time freely to numerous projects and initiatives, we thank her for her unwavering commitment our students.' - Ansley Webster - Assistant Head (Inclusion) Fortismere School

A few of my favourite things

So to answer S.F.'s question - What have you done as Patron of Reading?

These are a few of my favourite things (as the song goes!) that Gill and I, in collaboration with many staff members, have planned together:

  • Given students access to a whole range of projects that are linked to my writing during the period e.g. 'Letter to an Unknown Soldier' in which student work was broadcast on BBC TV and in a live installation on Paddington Station.
  • Had gatherings at breakfast reading club
  • Given out prizes at a poetry evening
  • Had every child in the school drawing up a World Book Day reading menu to share... including small books for starters, a hearty main course and a delicious book desert!
  • Run workshops in reading and creative writing and linked activities with Textile PHSE and English departments.
  • Hosted Billie (as Patron of Reading Library dog!). He has also accompanied us as we sniffed out story trails through our local woods!
  • Given a particular focus on children who are reluctant readers or dyslexic or have other reading challenges.
  • Written up student's work in anthologies, made a paper patchwork storytelling quilt and beautiful library displays.

Exploring students' interests as readers

On my very last session as Patron of Reading I worked with a group who had been reading my novel Brace Mouth, False Teeth (Barrington Stoke) Although students are always interested to find out what a patron has written, talking about my own books has always only ever been a springboard into exploring students' own interests as readers. The final session is an example of the kind of conversations I have had with many young people at the school over the last four years. 

Group work with Sita

First we talked about the things that students responded to strongly from my own book. Here were a few of the comments:

  • 'I liked the title because it's a tongue twister' - Lucie
  • 'I liked when Zenie didn't want to work in a care home but after a while she liked it' - Chyana
  • 'I liked the storyline and Jo's Granddad' - Jim
  • 'I like the main objective of helping (the old lady with Alzheimer's) remember her past' - Jude
  • 'I liked the way you captured being young and insecure, and generally unsure of who you are. Worrying about how others perceive you' - Miss Jackson

From this discussion of student's reading of one book we went on to talk about the kind of books we all like. How short books are no less valuable than long ones. Each young reader shared with me something of their reading journeys. What I found interesting is that many of these young people say they don't like reading - because they don't connect the kind of things they read at home to what they read at school.

  • Jude loves Manga - it's made him want to travel to Japan.
  • David says he rarely likes books but loves Robert Muchamore!
  • Sammy loves 'The Curious Incident' because he can stand in the shoes of a boy with autism. But he is struggling to find a book he likes as much. Gill Ward (Librarian) suggested 'The Unlikely Hero of Room 136' by Teresa Totem.
  • Rio likes adventure books.
  • Chyana likes to disappear into fairy fantasy land where nothing unpleasant happens.

Our discussions roamed around some complicated ideas that publishers consider every day.

The group discussed whether it matters to them that the protagonist is a girl or a boy. They felt it doesn't matter as long as the character is interesting.

They also commented on how important seemingly peripheral characters can be in stories.

We discussed the cover from Brace Mouth, False Teeth and there was a split in opinion. Lucie said that if she had seen the book on a shelf she would have picked it up. While Jude loved the book but didn't feel the jacket reflected the 'deep' theme of 'memory' in the story. He's planning to draw an alternative cover that he would pick up off the shelf which would picture an abstract memory hole!

This final session reflects how young readers have been encouraged to actively engage with the process of reading for pleasure. The information gleaned through sessions can also assist Librarians in helping children on their reading journeys.

'You're the lady who's only here to talk about books aren't you!'

On my way out of the school I met a year 10 student in the corridor (who I must have first met in year seven) and she stopped to say hello! 'You're the lady who's only here to talk about books aren't you!'

Job done! I thought!

Because I tend to think in symbols my interpretation of the Patron of Reading scheme is that it offers schools the opportunity to plant a reading tree in the middle of a school to oxygenate the air of learning with a love of reading.

Walk in the woods

This moment among the trees in the real and imagined woods I explored in Red Leaves (Macmillan Children's Books) is my most treasured memory as my time as Patron. A love of reading can't be forced but it can be discovered. Sometimes that's in a class room and sometimes it's in a den in the woods reading to a friend or even a little dog that sits patiently by your side. Reading and listening without any other motive than to share a story for pleasure.

I am so looking forward to hearing about the next paths in the Fortismere Patron of Reading journey with S.F. Said. As a parent I could not be happier that my daughter is to go to a school where there is an inspirational Patron of Reading in author Sam Enthoven. His activities as Patron have included writing out personalised reading prescriptions, following individual consultations and now drawing up a student-led reading for pleasure manifesto.

That these 'for the love of reading' activities are taking place in schools up and down this country is so heartening and just goes to show that the saying is true... From small acorns mighty oak trees can grow!

Read more blogs from Sita