John Mitchell on a reading initiative that goes beyond everyday lessons
Individual reading programmes are nothing new. John Lawson, subject co-ordinator for English at Jordanhill, knows that. But Reading For Success is something different. It's the result of collaboration between the English department at Strathclyde University's Faculty of Education, and Eyemouth High School, on the east coast.
Although nearly 100 miles continue to separate the two institutions, for the past six months the Royal Mail has been cementing a bond that started as a gleam in the eye of Fiona Norris, principal teacher of English at Eyemouth High, when scouring the brain cells in an attempt to answer that age-old dilemma faced by English teachers: how do I get our pupils to read? And keep reading?
A scheme had been devised to encourage pupils to read one book (or more) a month, involving parents, teachers and pupils in monitoring progress. The "missing link", Fiona Norris explains, was feedback of a genuine nature - feedback from outside, feedback to encourage, and feedback to exhort.
Enter 83 postgraduate education students at Jordanhill. A word to John Lawson suggesting a school-college partnership, and an innovative scheme was set in motion, of benefit to a matching 83 first-year pupils at Eyemouth.
"It's been terrific for the PGCE students," enthuses Lawson. "Each one has been paired with a 'pen-pal' at Eyemouth, and those pupils have written to their 'mentors' with news of what they've been reading, details of why they liked it and so on. In turn, the students have written back with encouragement, advice and enthusiasm for what the pupils have been telling them.
"For these students, it's been an eye-opening experience, because they've realised that what they say and do actually matters to the kids. And if they don't write, they know they'll let someone down. In terms of letting them realise what the pupilteacher relationship can be about, it's genuinely made them realise that 'every child really is special'. And that they've got as much of a duty to their pupils as their pupils have to them."
The scheme's success received tangible demonstration at a Jordanhill gathering last month, when all 83 pupils and 83 English students got together for the first time. "It was lovely," enthuses Fiona Norris. "Some students had brought presents, and some of the pupils had brought presents as well. I'll never forget the look on one pupil's face when his mentor - slightly delayed from another lecture - eventually arrived. It was a mixture of relief and excitement - the kind of animated joy we could spend hours trying to achieve in a lesson. The atmosphere was terrific, and we all realised that we were really on to something here."
As part of the day, Professor Douglas Weir, dean of the education faculty, presented awards to 13 Eyemouth readers, ranging from bronze (nine books read) through silver (18 books) and one gold (30 books); workshops on novels and characters ensued, with an end-product of dramatic presentations by various student-pupil groups, all recipients of rapturous applause from their peers - and from a few bystanders too.
"It was amazing," confirms Wilma Burgon, depute head at Eyemouth, and honorary English teacher for the day. "Nobody wanted to leave Jordanhill (pupils or staff) and as we made our way back to the buses I was asked: 'Why can't school be more like this?' It was fairly difficult to find an answer."
Excursions such as this don't come cheaply, of course: as eight teachers headed west, cover teachers were required as well as transport costs. In addition to some generous advisorate and Jordanhill donations, finance for the cross-country venture had been raised by the pupils themselves (some pound;880), who took part in a sponsored "Become a Character Day" last December. With characters as diverse as Dennis the Menace, X-Files team members and a cast ensemble from Peter Pan (with Eyemouth's principal teacher of English as Captain Hook), the day acted as a fitting prelude to the Jordanhill trip. "Even the maths department liked it," smiles Norris.
Tall oaks from little acorns grow, of course, and Norris hopes to extend and expand the scheme. PGCE mentors are limited to a one-year stint, for obvious reasons, but the experience looks likely to be repeated with next year's intake, and Eyemouth's current first-years, their flames of learning fully ablaze, will transfer to another stage of Reading For Success. But before that, Eyemouth plans its Great Big Book Week this June. Five different writers will descend upon the school on five different days, plus a selection of the Jordanhill mentors, for what Norris describes as "an absolutely huge celebration of books and reading".
For an end-of-term activity - and certainly in pedagogical terms - it looks likely to beat a day-trip to Alton Towers.
Has your school introduced an innovative curriculum? Please write to the Features Editor TES Scotland, 37 George Street, Edinburgh, EH2 2HN