Book Clubs for Teachers: Widening reading repertoires

I had known for some time that my knowledge of children’s books was a weak area and when I came cross the Open University’s self-review document for teachers whilst scrolling through twitter one day, I thought, ‘why not?’

I clicked on the link and started dutifully answering the questions. It was worse than I thought.

I was lured into a false sense of security with the initial questions – reminiscing about my favourite book as a child and my own reading for pleasure habits. As soon as I hit page 2, it became more of a challenge. It was harder than I had anticipated to recall 6 children’s authors, I struggled to name 6 poets and, when it came to picture book creators, well, I could scarcely name three! Oh, the shame! I was genuinely embarrassed by the results, but, as I read on, I soon consoled myself with the fact that I was not alone…

Less than half of teachers can name six children’s authors.

Only ten percent can name six children’s poets. 

These are figures from the Open University’s (OU) Teachers as Readers (TaRs) research project, led by Teresa Cremin, which asked 1200 teachers from schools across the country to reflect on their knowledge of children’s literature. Despite the fact that three quarters of the respondents read for pleasure, the research highlighted the limitations of teachers’ reading repertoires and identified a heavy dependence upon childhood favourites and ‘celebrity’ authors.

Phew, it’s not just me.

Along with hundreds of other teachers, I had named Roald Dahl (top of the list with 744 mentions), Michael Morpurgo (344) and JK Rowling (300) on my list of 6 children’s authors. I’d also listed Michael Rosen and Roger McGough among my poets, alongside Quentin Blake and Anthony Browne under the picture books section – all favourites of many other teachers.

For a large proportion of my adult life, I hadn’t felt the need to read children’s literature (I haven’t always been a teacher, I re-trained at the age of 30 and I don’t have children of my own). I realised that I had effectively missed out on a decade (or more! gulp!) of new books and, like many others, had found myself reverting back to books I had read as a child or famous ‘celebrity’ authors, rather than books I was using in the classroom, when completing the self-review.

In this short video from the OU, Teresa Cremin and Clare Williams discuss Teachers’ knowledge of children’s literature in relation to their research findings:

The TaRs research found that teachers need a rich and constantly updated knowledge of children’s literature and other texts in order to support the development of independent young readers and to promote and foster a Reading for Pleasure (RfP) community in school.

Completing the self-review document was a real turning point in terms of my own awareness. The gaping hole in my knowledge didn’t sit well. I couldn’t believe how narrow my own literary knowledge had become and I instantly set about reviving my love of children’s books. I searched for ideas that would deepen and broaden my knowledge and I began by doing the following:

  • I made a commitment to spend less time online and more time ‘in books’, especially just before bed (this also involved putting my phone on charge in another room and buying an alarm clock instead – simple, but effective!)
  • I started carrying a book on my daily commute to work – it’s only 15 minutes on the DLR but time that quickly adds up…
  • I created a more welcoming reading space at home where I could sit and enjoy reading a book for pleasure
  • I spent a very generous end-of-year gift voucher, given to me by the parents of my class, entirely on children’s literature
  • I started writing book reviews and attended book launches wherever possible
  • I joined the local library and scouted around the charity shops on a regular basis
  • I signed up to newsletters such as The Open University’s Reading for Pleasure newsletter, Books for Topics, the UKLA newsletter and children’s author newsletters, among MANY others
  • I joined conversations on twitter around the #readingforpleasure and #readingrocks hashtags, sharing ideas and suggestions online

Eventually, after much digging around, I came across the OU/UKLA Teachers’ Reading for Pleasure book groups on twitter. It was a lightbulb moment. The Open University and the UKLA were working together to run book groups, for teachers, centred around children’s literature. I thought to myself, ‘What a brilliant idea! Why hadn’t I thought of that?’

I signed up to an information morning held at the Open University in Camden, London (I blogged about this here) and before I knew it I had been invited to lead a group in South East London. And so, the Blackheath Book Club was born.

Officially known as the Blackheath OU/UKLA Teachers’ Reading for Pleasure Book Group (catchy, I know), the key aims for the group are:

  • to foster children’s reading for pleasure through supporting teachers’ own reading for pleasure and developing their research-informed practice – exploring research, case studies and best practice.
  • to build a professional reading for pleasure community locally (and online) where we can share, discuss and recommend books, teaching ideas etc.
  • to share teachers’ own CPD work – with each group member making a positive change (and impact!) in their own classroom/school/library, linked to RfP pedagogy.

These aims are the same for all OU/UKLA RfP groups. Each ‘book club’ is broken down into six sessions across the course of the academic year, culminating with a celebration of CPD work and case studies shared by each teacher in the group. Six sessions per year felt manageable (one per half term) and the breakdown of sessions made it clear how the members of the group would progress throughout the year:

1. Teachers’ Reading for Pleasure Group launch/introductions, book sharing
2. Establishing an RfP focus area – choose one OU research ‘strand’ to focus on developing (teachers’ knowledge of children’s literature and other texts, Teachers’ knowledge of children’s reading practices, Reading for Pleasure Pedagogy, Reading Teachers and Reading Communities)
3. Setting and sharing RfP aims for your own class/school development
4. Sharing development work – How’s it all going?
5. Focusing on impact- What impact has it had on the children?
6. Celebration of the development work and end of the project!

Of course, each session also includes lots of book sharing, recommendations and opportunities to exchange and read new books. For the Blackheath book club, I wanted it to feel less like work, more like pleasure, so it was important to me that it wasn’t held in school (where we have the potential to be distracted by 101 other things on the ‘to do’ list). Thankfully, I found a lovely space in the centre of the village (Blackheath Bookshop) who were happy to host us and to provide refreshments free of charge. This made for the perfect environment in which to host our group.

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I also wanted the group to inspire members with some practical classroom strategies too. So, for the first group, I used the idea of #blinddatewithabook to excite and engage the teachers in book blether about what they might choose. All you have to do is wrap each book and give a short clue about what is underneath. “This is really making me think about what types of books I enjoy,” one teacher commented. This is precisely the point of using it in the classroom too! It encourages children and adults alike to venture out of their usual comfort zones, whilst hopefully staying within the remit of what they enjoy reading. You could even have the children from each class wrap these up for each other or simply use it as an effective library display to encourage wider reading repertoires. The possibilities are endless.

In addition, I also asked each member of the group to bring along two of their favourite children’s books to share and we each came away with a new wish list of amazing books!

Here are some pics from our first session, hosted earlier this month, with members of the group busily deciding what to choose as their next read!

I still have a long way to go with improving my personal knowledge of children’s literature but I have already increased it ten-fold and I am enjoying the group, twitter chats and reading for pleasure time at home. I would definitely recommend joining a book group to any other teachers or TAs or librarians out there! Meeting with other people who are passionate about reading is a sure-fire way to inspire you.

Happy Reading!

Interested in find out more? 

The OU website has a wealth of material to support teachers wishing to develop their reading repertoires and they now have over 80 Teachers’ RfP groups around the country, from Aberdeen to Cornwall, Cardiff to Norwich and many places in between!

Try these three amazing OU Resources:

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