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Inspiring More Teachers To Share Aotearoa's Stories

12 Dec 2023

Tackling 'the Summer Slide' for students is nothing new - but Read NZ CEO Juliet Blyth explains a 'whole-playground' approach to reading is having unexpected results for Aotearoa authors.

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The ‘summer slide’ - the occurrence where the reading abilities of tamariki decline over the summer school holidays -has been well documented by research both in Aotearoa New Zealand and internationally. 

Yes, it’s a thing, not just a catchphrase: and it makes sense. We often lose some proficiency in skills we don’t consistently maintain; why would reading be any different?

Traditionally, the summer slide has been addressed by a plethora of schools, independent agencies, charities and public libraries stepping in the gap to provide incentives for summer reading, usually in the form of some kind of challenge or gamification. 

These are wonderful schemes to help children keep reading over the summer, and they seem to work: participation is typically high, and the digital spread helps make them accessible on a regional or even national scale.

It’s the proliferation of these offerings, though, that caused me and the team at Read NZ Te Pou Muramura to stop and think this year. There are so many reading challenges already available to children and teens, and a lot of them offer far better engagement and incentives than we’re able to. Some have neat digital apps for tracking; tangible valuable prizes to offer; or the kind of in-person encouragement and recommendations that a local library can provide. What, then, did we have to offer?

The Teachers Reading Challenge - developed with the support of the Mātātuhi Foundation - is a riff on our past summer reading challenges for children that interrogates not only the intersection between teachers reading and their students reading, but also aims to give English teachers a network and tools to programme their class study texts for the coming year. 

It takes a broad view to encourage a reading culture throughout the entire school, rather than placing the onus on students only as readers.

Teachers role modelling reading for pleasure can have significant positive impacts for the tamariki and rangatahi they teach. Although classes are out during the challenge itself, the opportunities to talk with students about summer reading, the books they’ve enjoyed, or to normalise reading as one of their summer activities remain (here’s a great post from the National Library about teachers as reading role models).

The second strand of the challenge is about creating opportunities for English teachers to plan their teaching for 2024. 

The challenge is built around incentivising the reading and teaching of Aotearoa New Zealand’s stories, with double points awarded for Aotearoa New Zealand pages logged. Our Reading Stories from Aotearoa NZ resource underpins the challenge: teachers can select any book from the peer-collated collection of NZ stories to read and review on the challenge site, adding their comments or recommendations for the book’s class use. They can also teach the book next year using the free teaching resource that accompanies each featured text.

It’s exciting to see that it’s working. Nestled amongst the summer’s hot reviews—Lessons in Chemistry, Yellowface, Iron Flame—are a huge number of pages logged from Aotearoa New Zealand authors like Tina Makereti, Coco Solid and Witi Ihimaera. Further, the number of gems that pop out from Aotearoa children’s or YA authors, and particularly those featured in the RSFANZ resource, is hugely gratifying.

Review comments such as “am going to try this with my Year 9s next year! (Tania Roxborogh’s Charlie Tangaroa and the Creature From The Sea)” and “great text to do some narrative structure teaching...discussion of racism, greed and other themes (James Russell’s Children of the Rush)” are peppered throughout the site. We can never exclusively matchmake books with classes, but we do know that something is resonating in the peer-to-peer recommendations the resource and challenge website provide.

Finally - and it seems a nebulous term - but the challenge is about growing a ‘reading culture’ in schools. Although named the Teachers Reading Challenge for ease of communication, it’s really a hybrid creature: school librarians, and any school staff who are at all interested, are welcome to sign up. 

The most powerful outcome imaginable is a school where everyone reads for pleasure: not just students, not just teaching staff, not just professional staff, but everyone in the school community.

Caitlin Funk, teacher and literacy lead for Tāmaki Makaurau's Selwyn College, points out the range of staff within her school community who’ve embraced the opportunity: 

“We've encouraged all our staff to sign up, from reception to counselling to deans to SLT to classroom teachers. Some of us are competitive, but most of us are just in it for the good book recommendations. Our star readers include a Maths teacher, a PE and Health teacher, an English teacher, and an Accounting teacher.”

The challenge’s relative success so far is largely due to the hard work and enthusiasm of teachers in getting behind it. We were prepared for perhaps a few hundred teachers to sign up: in the third week of the two-month challenge, the number of participants is now 952, and it’s still growing daily. The pages read so far are beyond any of our expectations, with the school teams currently vying for top ten positions logging between 15,000 and 32,000 pages read in the past three weeks.

Caitlin - and other teachers we’ve corresponded with - have also given amazing examples of how the challenge is merely the catalyst for broader conversations about books within the school. Some are putting book recommendations in emails, or making space in meetings for people to share about a book they’ve enjoyed. At Selwyn College, they put NZ books out before all-staff meetings for teachers to select from, issue and read.

The mechanics and competitive element of the challenge are proving a little contentious. Some schools, of course, have a much smaller staff pool than others. But thanks to the generosity of Aotearoa publishers in promoting these texts, there are a variety of prizes on offer: spot prizes from Auckland University Press, Dragon Brothers, Penguin Random House, and Scholastic; full class sets from Huia, One Tree House, and Te Herenga Waka University Press; and our own Writers in Schools author visits and professional development opportunities; all of which will be spread across schools with the highest points achieved and other metrics such as quality of reviews or engagement with NZ texts.

And at the end of the day, what’s the win really? 

The win is not in the challenge leaderboard, although it certainly serves as a motivator. The real success is in 120 schools with staff groups who proudly identify as readers: who think about, talk about, and share a love of books and reading with their staff community and students, and who are empowered to teach Aotearoa’s stories in classrooms. 

This is about more than the ‘summer slide’: it’s about the whole playground.