Re-kindling the love for reading at Epworth Preparatory School for Boys and Girls

BY DEREK ALBERTS
For too long, school libraries have been trailing in the wake of the headlong rush towards more technology in the classroom.

It is a trend best illustrated by the proliferation of media centres with their banks of blinking computers and shining monitors, typically at the expense of libraries.
Much as information technology, particularly in its application to computer science, occupies an increasingly critical part in the school curriculum, the surge towards visual entertainment has resulted in some unintended consequences, not least the decline of reading.
It’s a phenomenon close to the heart of Epworth Preparatory School for Boys and Girls principal, Reynard White. “While information technology undoubtedly has its place in the classroom, reading deserves a bigger place,” he says.

Reversing the disconnect between knowledge and reading

The tussle is captured best in ironies: that unlimited access to technology is driving away the skill that made these advances possible in the first place. Or that new media forms, deployed maximally, achieve the opposite to what one would expect. The rise of social media may have facilitated online interaction, but has led to loneliness and alienation.1 Put differently, technology is all good and well, but there’s a need to return to the basics to rebalance the human values. To reverse the disconnect between knowledge and reading, White looks to the third element in the construct, the children. “It’s time for us to re-establish the emotional bond between children and books, for us as educators to rekindle the love for reading,” he says.
The implementation of White’s vision is driven by two vectors: a re-invented library, and a passionate librarian in the motherly figure of Karen Maher, a retired foundation school principal. “I couldn’t resist Reynard’s offer to head up the new library that still had to be rebuilt, mind you,” she laughs.
To bring the new library to life, White knocked on the door of FGG Architects, both for the envisioned structural changes and a revolutionary appraisal of the interior.

Inviting readers in

Key to demystifying the library was shifting its purpose from a repository of books to a place of seamless learning that extends to a remedial section upstairs. The vision was to create an inviting environment, a space where children learn how to enjoy reading. To realise the vision, the library needed to be extensively reconfigured.

First to go were the burglar bars so that more light could be invited into the space, while a neglected exterior was repurposed into a reading area with circular benches that is both playful and tranquil.
Also gone are the gun metal grey shelves reaching for the roof, the morbid silence and the pall of stale air. Instead, the interior is thoughtfully partitioned with shelves low enough for a child’s reach, geometric fun furniture, colour-coded carpets and pull-out mattresses.
The circle of learning theme resonates strongly with interior designer Kristin Pretorius who drew heavily on the trio mantra of shapes, colour and texture. “The circular issue desk serves more than just a practical purpose. Not only does it anchor the theme established elsewhere, but it also radiates accessibility and intimacy,” she says.
Similarly, the psychology of colour matches intended activities with the hues around the colour wheel; the warm yellows and reds stimulate the senses, the calming blues aim to induce a sense of reflection and tranquillity.
Different textured finishes, from exposed wood and brickwork to carpet coverings, were deployed to round out the sensory experience, according to Pretorius.

Creating personal bonds

The emotional connect is not incidental and reaches to the nub of White’s contention, that children need to establish a personal bond with books. For that to happen, the focus is not on books, but on children. It is a counter-intuitive approach Maher understands only too well, that the tactility of paper, or the love for reading, is lost on children who don’t feel engaged by the space. “That’s why we have such a strong fun element, the children can pull out a mattress, lie on the floor, or sit in the bucket seats and pretend they’re older.”
As for the reason they visit the library, Maher is fastidious about which books make it onto the shelves. “I have a wonderful relationship with our book sellers and I also research the appropriateness of books with regard to language, violence and moral values,” she says. For this reason, Maher cleaned out shelves of books no longer appropriate, and is meticulous about maintaining the trove of literature, to the point of printing a “coming soon” notice for a new book in a popular series. “Remember, we’re talking about an uninterrupted learning experience, from the reluctant reader to those children needing remedial intervention,” she says.
Maher’s mission is to progress children up the reading ladder and she does not disapprove of graphic novels, often the gateway to the real books they are based on. “We still have fiction and non-fiction categories, but there’s some stunning new series for the reluctant reader that help to introduce non- fiction, in a subtle, easy-to-read manner,” she says.
Other initiatives include a “Worry Monster” that can digest a problem, and spit out a solution the next day, a useful mechanism that helps to identify a problem a child may have difficulty in expressing.

The Epworth CAPER initiative

Parents are also drawn into Maher’s web of infectious enthusiasm, courtesy of CAPER (Children And Parents Enjoy Reading), an initiative that sees children select and take home a book that can be read to them in one night.
The efforts are reaping rich rewards. Children visit the library that opens at 07:15 before classes start at 07:40; during break times, to read, play chess, play scrabble, or just to be there.
In measurable terms, Maher is delighted at a surging increase in the number of book exchanges.
But White has the last word. “People forget that a book stimulates social interaction. When you return a library book, there’s always a conversation. And that’s more than one can say aboutan e-book.”

Derek Alberts is a journalist and support of Epworth School in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa.

Reference:
1. See: https://www.npr.org/sections/health- shots/2017/03/06/518362255/feeling-lonely-too-much-time-on-social-media- may-be-why

Category: Winter 2019

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