How one school is using books - and cake - to build a community
Reading is often seen as an activity to be undertaken alone, but at my school we have turned it into something that is very much the opposite: a foundation upon which community and family relationships are built.
We do this through the reading cafe. Here, we invite students who don't do much reading at home to come in for an hour after school with their parents or guardians. We also invite retired members of the local community. And we put on a spread of home-made cakes and excellent books to reward their attendance.
It works like this. On their first visit, the children and parents complete "promise cheques" together. In return for the child reading a set number of books, the parent promises to do something with them. In the past, we have had pledges such as "making a catapult with dad" and "painting mum's nails". There are also school rewards on offer such as non-uniform days.
Unlike many clubs children attend these days, the reading cafe is very relaxed and has few rules. The invitation asks students and parents to attend, eat cake, have a drink and read with each other or complete one of the readingrelated activities.
Those activities include adults or older children typing up stories dictated by the students. These are then printed and taken home to be read to another adult and have illustrations added. This has been really popular.
Sometimes the retired community members form a group of students and parents and lead a reading task. We had one group of boys reading a science fiction book in this way. Most recently, the children have enjoyed reading in a "den" - below a drape thrown over a table. Adults read to children and older children frequently read to preschoolers. Groups sprawl across the floor with their heads buried in their books.
Although reading is central to the cafe, the friendly atmosphere also encourages parents to share issues. There have been additional benefits, too: some families simply need time in the warmth with some food, and the cafe provides divorced fathers with a base for having access to their children.
The relationships between the school and parents have improved - teachers pop in for some cake and a chat. And we have picked up on some really basic family needs - we now stock emergency food bank vouchers. It is also a good social network for many of the parents, who support each other.
This simple recipe has great benefits, but its success depends on a good mix of ages and socio-economic groups (and home baking). The promise cheques really motivate students to encourage their parents to listen to them read at home.
The initiative is now spreading and proving just as popular in other schools. The rewards are not only the nurture and improvement of reading skills but also the building of family relations and the added community support that the club facilitates.
Fiona Mullett is deputy headteacher at Harting Primary School in West Sussex, England
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