Literacy Ambassadors: Building a Student-Centered Culture of Reading

Gauging the culture of reading

Consider the culture around reading in your school. It is not a question of if there is a culture of reading, because there is. However, the question is whether it is healthy, vibrant, and joyous, or tired and forced. In my district, there was a time when we had pockets of positive classroom cultures centered on literacy, but those were the exception not the rule. We worked hard to change our culture for the better this last year, but cultures don’t develop overnight and they certainly are not the work of a few. 

If you want to inculcate a love of reading, you have to provide a context for the goal, one that makes sense and is inspiring and relevant to your students. This context should include access to diverse genres, a large selection of texts for students to choose from, ample time to read, and interesting, well-curated displays. Students need a place to explore and learn how to find what excites them.

This space should be communal and this excitement should be communicable. However, educators also need to facilitate a student-driven positive culture of reading.  We, as adults, can build parameters. However, if this culture is to be authentic, then it must be built and maintained by students.

Student-driven culture 

This is where one’s personal limitations must be factored into building this context for students. As an adult who works in education (like many of you), there are a plethora of statistics that I can spout off about the importance of reading, how we can turn back the summer slide, and so forth. I can share with kids my own struggles with reading and how I overcame them. Yet, there is something that I have learned about my own personal limitations: I am not that cool.

This is a realization about my own effectiveness as the sole driver of change for students. I can share my excitement about a book, but I am not a middle schooler. My excitement might be nice, but at best I am an observer of the culture of reading that exists in my schools and in my classrooms. However, if I empower students to drive discussions, make recommendations, and serve as peer role models, an authentic vibrant culture around reading can flourish. Therefore, I don’t need to be cool, because this culture should have little to do with me and more to do with the students.

Literacy Ambassadors as our key driver

To facilitate the growth of a positive reading culture, we needed to do more than just put structures in place. So Southbridge Public Schools started a new program, the We Read Big Literacy Ambassadorship. Our student ambassadors are tasked with sharing their love of literacy within our schools and the larger community, which they do by serving as leaders in the cultivation of a culture of literacy at Southbridge. We support our Literacy Ambassadors by providing opportunities for them to share their love of reading in a variety of ways, among them reading to younger students in the elementary schools, and publishing book reviews online. They represent the idea that reading is powerful and that it is something that we can all do. They are promoting their love of books, showing other students that books can be transformative, momentary escapes, or can help them better understand themselves and others.

Our 20-plus literacy ambassadors applied by writing essays and open responses. Each child explained what their favorite book was (and why), discussed the importance of reading in their lives, and argued why they would be the ideal literacy ambassador. The results, quite frankly, were inspiring! Our students believe that this experience will give them confidence in fluency and public speaking. They talked about being teased because they were, at one time, poor readers. Now they want to share with others that if they can become readers, then anyone can. I believe their stories will shape our community in profound ways. 

Ambassadors shape the culture of reading in our schools and in the community 

These students will be working in a variety of ways during this upcoming academic year. Ambassadors will be deployed throughout the school year to visit our three elementary schools to read to those students, provide book recommendations, and have dialogue around books. In addition, I built a website where we will publish their forthcoming book reviews (WeReadBig.com) in order to extend their reach into the broader community. They also have a few exciting surprises for the community that they will debut later this year.

My desire is to have these students at the forefront as they push and create new initiatives. Our ambassadors will be able to say things to other students that, if uttered by an adult, could sound insincere and artificial. Their passion becomes infectious in a way that adults can’t typically achieve. They are the ideal ambassadors of literacy in our schools.

Read Adam Couturier's previous post: We Read Big: Reading as a Way of Life

Photo via David Mulder