Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Reach Out and Read at New York Presbyterian Columbia University Medical Centre

Staying with our transatlantic theme after our feature on San Francisco’s Reading Partners, this week finds Books and Adventures in New York to find out more about the Reach Out and Read (ROR) programme at the New York Presbyterian Columbia University Medical Centre.

ROR is a national literacy and healthcare programme which operates across the USA. Under the scheme, volunteers read stories to children in clinic waiting rooms, paediatricians advise carers on the importance of reading aloud, and children visiting their doctor from the ages of six months to five years receive a new book to take home at every check-up.

Paediatricians and educators working together founded the programme in Boston in 1989; in 1997, Reach Out and Read came to New York Presbyterian Columbia Medical Centre, serving families in largely Spanish-speaking areas of Northern Manhattan.

Over 13 years the programme has grown from a single site in Washington Heights to cover five clinics, serving more than 10,000 children and distributing nearly 20,000 books per year.

Volunteers commit at least six months a year to engaging children in literacy activities and demonstrating to carers that sharing books with a child helps them to bond and communicate with adults. Volunteers’ interactions in the waiting room can inspire parents and carers to support their children’s literacy at home.

Paediatricians and hospital administrators have shown equal dedication to the programme, reflecting their belief that exposing young children to high quality, age-appropriate literature will not only encourage a passion for books, but also have a positive impact on growth and development.

‘Paediatricians do not merely give books to their patients as lollypops at the end of a well-child visit,’ says Emelin Martinez, Literacy Co-ordinator at New York Presbyterian. ‘They provide parents with advice and strategies they can use to enhance their child’s social, cognitive and motor skills development in using books that are developmentally appropriate.’

ROR as a programme takes a long-term view of literacy support: as part of care visits throughout early childhood, doctors see the same children two to four times a year.

‘Advice from each encounter builds on the last encounter and at the end of the five years, each child has a library of 12-14 high-quality, culturally, developmentally and linguistically appropriate books,’ explains Dr. Mary McCord, medical director of the programme. Many volunteers establish a bond with patients who attend multiple well-child visits. As the average wait in a clinic runs to two hours, volunteers have plenty of time to engage children with pleasurable and constructive reading sessions on each visit!

What really marks ROR out from other literacy programmes we’ve discussed on Books and Adventures is its pre-emptive approach. Where many schemes operate with a remedial focus, ROR aims to prevent literacy problems before they start. There is a focus on delivering anticipatory guidance to the carers of young children, promoting literacy and healthy development from as young as six months.

Emelin Martinez explains how this attention to literacy benefits a community’s health and well-being: ‘From a population perspective, poverty is the single most important determinant of health. Education has proven to be the only strategy to successfully move people out of poverty. Promoting literacy is one of the most important tasks that a paediatrician has with their patients early in life, to ensure that children can become healthy and successful adults.’

The ROR team at Presbyterian are proud of the positive impact their programme has had on families in Northern Manhattan. Caregivers have reported that watching their children’s interaction with volunteers has inspired them to implement the strategies seen in the clinic when they get home.

Emelin Martinez says, ‘On many occasions, I’ve witnessed parents reading to their children in the waiting rooms of our clinics, which demonstrates that parents’ behaviour regarding early literacy is changing. For some families, ROR books are the first books they have in the home. For others, parental illiteracy emerges as a problem when giving out these books and encourages caregivers to attend literacy programmes themselves. For paediatricians, it is touching to see how children ask for the books as soon as they come in, changing a long standing tradition of having stickers or candy be the reward for a medical visit.’

Huge thanks to Emelin Martinez and Dr. Mary McCord for joining Books and Adventures to discuss a programme which reflects such a positive and progressive approach to literacy and well-being. You can find out more at

Thursday, 23 September 2010

Birmingham Half Marathon / Volunteer Reading Help Fundraising Update

As regular readers will know, I’m running the Birmingham Half Marathon on 24th October to raise funds for Volunteer Reading Help, after I found out that they need just £510 to fund their helper for 2010-11 at Herne Bay Infant School in Kent.

Well, I'm glad to say we're now more than three quarters of the way there, thanks to some generous donations.

In particular I'd like to thank staff and customers of the Anne Tudor fashion shop in Stratford-upon-Avon, who worked hard to boost my coffers prior to the run!

Just a few hundred pounds will pay for a year’s worth of one-to-one work with the children who most need support with their reading skills, so please click on the justgiving widget at the bottom of this post or head straight to to help out this marvellous charity.

Thursday, 16 September 2010

Reading Partners - One to One Literacy Support in California and Washington D.C.

This week Books and Adventures crosses the Atlantic to feature Reading Partners.

This US non-profit literacy organisation, which celebrates its tenth anniversary this year, helps children to become lifelong readers by developing communities’ ability to provide individual literacy support.

I was particularly excited to discover the scheme as there are many parallels between Reading Partners and the UK literacy charity Volunteer Reading Help, on which you can find more here.

Reading Partners was founded in 1999. A retired school nurse, Mary Wright Shaw, was working in a neighbourhood of Palo Alto, California, when she discovered that many local children were unable to read the books provided in her clinic’s waiting room. Together with two friends, she committed to do something about this – and what was then the ‘YES Reading’ programme was born.

Now known as Reading Partners, the organisation has expanded throughout California and Washington D.C., serving over 1700 pupils and growing from a single trailer outside of an elementary school to 37 school sites.

Volunteers work on school campuses in 45-minute one-to-one sessions with children who need extra help to get their reading up to grade level. Many pupils, coming from homes where English is not the first language, may have stronger speaking skills, but still require support with reading and writing. Reading Partners, whose volunteers range all the way from high-schoolers through to retirees, records an 88% success rate in helping students accelerate their progress in reading.

Development Manager Allison W. Cohen joins Books and Adventures to tell us more.

‘Our model is scalable, high impact, and high quality,’ she explains. ‘In the past five years Reading Partners has grown by over 600% and maintained consistent results for students in the program.’

The Reading Partners scheme has its own curriculum, designed to California Department of Education standards in collaboration with experts from the Stanford School of Education. The organisation uses Houghton Mifflin’s RIGBY PM to assess student progress, alongside state standardized tests.

This commitment to providing measurable results makes Reading Partners an attractive option for charitable donors, as Allison makes clear: ‘Reading Partners gives donors measurable, tangible results that they can point to. It is easy to see how your money is being used and the value of that donation.’

Reading Partners has responded to the challenges of the economic climate by partnering with the federal AmeriCorps programme. As the charity becomes leaner and more efficient, plans for the future are optimistic: ‘We hope to serve at least 100 schools in the next three years and tackle the childhood literacy crisis on a national scale.’

You can find out more about Reading Partners, and read their report ’10 Stories for 10 Years’, here.

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Hansel and Gretel, Ghosts and Mirrors: Ignite 2010 at the Royal Opera House

On Sunday I managed to spend some time at the Ignite Festival in Covent Garden, thanks to a tip-off from Claire Massey's Fairy Tale Cupboard.

Over three days, guest curator Joanna MacGregor had transformed London’s Royal Opera House into an enchanted zone whose magic permeated not only performance spaces but also foyers, cloakrooms and cafes within the building.

I guess it’s the academic in me, but my favourite part was the museum-styled Hansel and Gretel exhibition from Ghosts and Mirrors, Drama Centre London’s presentation of moments from opera in a living cabinet of curiosities.

Behind the doors of the subterranean Supper Rooms, visitors to Ghosts… found strange fragments from the world of opera, reworked as English-language vignettes by director Richard Williams, in minutely detailed sets by David Collis and Janey Gardiner.

An excerpt from Tosca, bringing us close to Scarpia’s interrogation of Cavaradossi, was almost too comfortable for anyone who’s spent a night on the sofa in front of Law and Order: high culture neatly equated to primetime police procedural.

At the other end of the spectrum, the scene from La Traviata, which allowed the audience to approach the mourners at the side of coffin, was almost unbearably intimate and felt almost intrusive to watch from arm’s-length distance.

After these tableaux and another taken from Der Rosenkavalier, it was a bizarre experience to step into the Hansel and Gretel room, and be addressed by the curators of a mocked-up museum exhibit, who anatomised the fairytale – and Humperdinck’s opera - through the academic presentation of an archaeological dig.

Laminated academic reports were passed around to visitors as the two scholars, deftly played by Alex Large and Michael Hanratty, explained their aim of obtaining DNA samples from a chicken bone and lollipops uncovered at a 1936 excavation in the German village of Rottweil.

A theory of ‘Old Crone Optometry’ was used to explain how ‘living in an over-aerated and artificially engineered gingerbread environment could result in a serious loss of response from the optic nerves’; similarly there was a ‘theory of crumb consumption’ and a display correcting factual errors in Engelbert Humperdinck’s account of the ‘Hansel and Gretel Incident’.

The atmosphere of W.G. Sebald-meets-Fred-Dineage was perfect, and the performers took every response in their stride, from visitors entirely ignorant of the folk tale through to more inquisitive, difficult types like me!

It would be lovely to see Ghosts… performed in a larger venue one day, with the Hansel and Gretel performers given more time to develop a thorough backstory to the project and slightly more rounded characters, but even in its current form this was far and away the pick of an outstanding line-up at Ignite 2010.

Claire Massey’s post, with information on the whole Ignite Festival, can be found here.

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Steve Killick Interview - Being Our Best at Cae Mabon

Storyteller and child psychologist Steve Killick returns to Books and Adventures this week, in advance of his workshop ‘Being Our Best: Bridging Storytelling and Positive Psychology’, run with Eric Maddern at Cae Mabon this month.

The four day event offers participants the opportunity to explore and apply the wisdom of traditional stories in the context of modern psychology.

Steve explains: ‘By Being Our Best we mean looking at the best aspects of human nature, love, creativity, compassion, co-operation, rather than our negatives: selfish, destructive, short-sighted ,fearful. In a sense, this is the symbolic struggle between good and bad that is played out in stories.

‘Stories have always been the most effective ways of transmitting ideas, values and beliefs essential in religion, mythology and simply learning how to live. Education without them is impoverished and, in my mind, impossible.

‘In the course Eric Maddern and I are running we look at what Positive Psychology, the study of wellbeing and optimal performance, and what the wisdom of traditional tales is telling us- and what they have in common- and there are some surprises there!’

Steve is concerned that, in a technologised world, oral storytelling should continue to have a place alongside other media. ‘Storytelling takes place without technology, just “eye to eye, heart to heart and mind to mind” as the proverb goes.’

Often, participating in this oral tradition involves retelling time-honoured myths and fables. This requires a delicate balance of respect and reinterpretation:

‘On one hand, you cannot just change a story on a whim. On the other hand, it is a dynamic thing that needs to resonate again in the present, rather than be a museum piece to be looked at and never touched.

‘A story is a message from the past to today. For me it is about making the tale live now – what values do we find in this story now? We don’t always know what the story meant in the past.’

As an example, Steve points to the radical renegotiations of traditional stories which have been popularised by the like of Neil Gaiman and Angela Carter:

‘Heinrich Zimmer said about myths that they have to be questioned and consulted anew, with every age approaching them with its own variety of ignorance and understanding. If you are working with traditional material you do it with love and care. You retain the spirit and breathe new life: That’s what I think Carter and Gaiman have done fantastically. Carter’s reworkings, particularly, have contributed to the revival of interest in storytelling.’

There’s still an opportunity for participants to sign up for Steve and Eric’s journey of narrative exploration at Cae Mabon from 23rd-26th September. You’ll find more information on Steve’s site at