November 11

Evaluating a World of Reading Challenges

For my professional development project this year, I have decided to tackle the question of school reading challenges.  There is a lot more to this than you would imagine.  In fact, there have been numerous studies done to evaluate if these challenges encourage or discourage reading, or even if they make any impact at all.

I have run 5 school-wide reading challenges since my arrival here 7 years ago, and they all had fairly minimal student and teacher participation.  I tried a wide variety of prizes (from pizza parties, to small prizes, to classroom parties) and formats (number of books read, number of time spent reading, individual classroom goals, book bingo, social media sharing, etc…)  Unfortunately, there wasn’t much cohesion… some grades participated regularly, and some didn’t at all.  One of my tasks in this project is gathering feedback from language arts teachers about what worked and what didn’t.  More on the feedback later!

I started my project by looking at some of the biggest Canadian reading challenges.  Most of these are done in Public Libraries to encourage summer reading, but their applications are wider as well.  Here is a chart with some of the challenges that I have looked at so far;

An Overview of popular challenge styles in Canada

Name of Challenge How it works Prizes and rewards
TD Summer Reading Club Students get a nicely designed notebook where they track their reading.  For each book read they gain stickers.  This works as a sort of reading passport. Stickers for each book read that students add to the notebook.  They also get to put their name in for a draw for big prizes every summer day they read.
OPL summer reading club This is the same as the TD Summer reading club but involves more programming such as events involving robotics, events with animals, events with authors and illustrators. Prizes are drawn for participation and books read.
St. Albert Public Library Summer Reading Games (Alberta) Kids are given a reading tracker that includes a puzzle.  Students are able to colour in one piece of the puzzle per 10 minutes of reading.  There are 4, 8, or 12 hour trackers.   When the tracker puzzle is finished, kids get a small prize.  The prizes were mostly coupons for free food and treats at various places.  There was also candy and stickers.
Edmonton Public Library Reading Challenge Kids are given a reading tracker.  For every tracker completed, the child can make a button with the button maker.  A ballot was also entered for large prizes. A button made with each tracker returned.  Large prizes included a Nintendo Switch, an electric scooter, zoo passes.
Read to Succeed – The Ottawa Senators Reading Challenge Teachers set a reading goal online.  They track the class’ reading with an online tracker.  As each month ends teachers submit progress.   In April winners can get a pizza party with Spartycat or meet an Ottawa Senator.  Prizes are also drawn.
Toronto Public Library Reading Challenge Print a form that involves choosing 12 books to read across 12 genres in 12 months.  Participate in online forums about your reading.  Complete the challenge and then submit it at the end for your chance to win prizes. Prizes are not stated.
Battle of the Books (Selected Canadian Cities) 6 students from the school are put on the team.  Students read from a book list.  They then meet to compete in a question challenge.  The answer to each question is from the book. Winners get a trophy and move on to local and regional competitions.  
Indigo Reading Challenge – (Canada-Wide) The Indigo reading challenge is a book genre bingo card.  For every bingo you win prizes.  The expectation is that you participate via social media.   Book giveaways and credits.

It was very interesting to see the wide variety of formats and prizes available and how creative and elaborate some of them got.  I love the tie-in at OPL of including events such as guest speakers and authors.  I love the creativity of kids making their own buttons as prizes, or the idea of the puzzle time trackers.  There are so many amazing librarians out there working so hard to encourage kids to read in an age where most kids would rather be on a device.  It is a beautiful thing!

What Does the Research Say?

My next step was to cover some Scholarly research.  I chose two research papers.  The first was called ‘A Hook and a Book: Rewards as Motivators in Public Library Summer Reading Programs’ by Ruth V. Small, Marilyn P. Arnone, and Erin Bennett who are from the Association for Library Service to Children.  This paper, published and peer-reviewed in 2017, makes some surprising and interesting points.  Their first major point was about intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.  If motivation is intrinsic, it means that children were engaging in a task for its own sake out of interest and enjoyment.  It also contributes to lifelong learning.  On the other hand, extrinsically motivated learning includes a reward system or prize.  These rewards focus the learner’s attention on the prize, rather than the learning itself.  It was noted that in a paper by B.F. Skinner that giving extrinsic rewards for reading sends the learner a message that the task or behaviour is not, in and of itself interesting or valuable.  In fact, it must be in some way disagreeable since a reward is required to make them do it.  It was also noted that extrinsic rewards can undermine students self-esteem and motivation.  Children who received rewards for reading have less interest in reading unless the reward is a book.  The researchers of this paper wanted to uncover the truth of Skinner’s points.

What is interesting is that these researchers actually found that the reading challenge participants felt that their reading competence was positively affected by their participation.  In fact, the results, based on interviews with students, parents, and librarians, found that relevant rewards given to students who have low intrinsic motivation can have a long-term positive impact.  It was noted, however, that the key to developing intrinsic motivation for reading relied on allowing children to choose books relevant to their interests, the setting of PERSONAL goals, and that the rewards should be related to reading or connected to the subject of the books they are reading.

The second paper I read was from Andrew Morrison at the University of Connecticut and was written as an Honors Scholar Theses.  It is called ‘Incentivized Learning and Libraries: A Comparative Study of Summer Reading Programs in Connecticut’ and was published in 2020.  This paper had a bit of a wider in scope in the sense that it was looking at how to promote reading in the face of declining library funding and interest without losing the intrinsic benefits.  This study contained some sad statistics, the first being that in 2018 average time spent reading for pleasure declined 24% from ten years earlier and that people age 15-34 read on average for only six minutes a day.  (I imagine this does not include reading posts on social media platforms.)  This paper covered the way many public libraries in Connecticut were running summer reading programs and highlighted some of the things that were working and some of the things that didn’t.  One of the key points is the value of these programs being a way to get kids into public libraries more frequently.  Once children make a connection to the place, the staff, and the books, you can grow readers.

Instead of counting books read, most programs aim for 20 minutes of reading time per day.  Shorter chunks that came with rewards made the goal more obtainable.  And just as in the other study, one of the key points was that libraries need to foster a love of reading no matter what the text’s genre, level, or audience, to create life-long readers.  This to me is a key point in an academic environment.  To gain a lifelong love of reading, we need to remember that it is not a level or genre of book that is important, it is the encouraging of student interests that will make this a life-long habit.

A wide variety of rewards in these programs included gift cards to arts classes, admission to museums, free books, field trips, etc…  In other words, the focus was less about material rewards as it was about rewards or experiences that continue to educate the child.

How Do Our Teachers Feel About Reading Challenges?

From here I moved onto surveying our OJCS language arts teachers.  It was very interesting to see the results of this survey.  Here are some of the results;



So our teachers feel that there is value in a school-wide reading challenge.  And yet in an open and honest conversation with several of them, they admitted that the reading challenges often caused students to rapidly flip through books and say that they read them just to be able to mark it down as read.  In conversation, it also came out that they felt that the challenge made reading seem like a chore, which is something that the researchers pointed out.  It causes reading to lose its intrinsic value.

It is interesting to see that they felt the most motivating prizes for their kids weren’t the ones that cost money, but rather, the class party prizes.  They also felt that it was important to have a classroom goal to meet.

How Are the Students at the OJCS Reading This Year?

Circulation this year is higher than it has ever been across all grades.  My numbers are as follows;

2019 School Year from September to November:

Last school year from September to November (during this period they had to reserve books online.)

This school year so far:

This year circulation is up exponentially!  It will be the year with the highest circulation ever since I arrived at the OJCS.  It is interesting to note though that the grade with the lowest book sign out rate consistently is grade 8 (JK and SK are signed out by the teachers.)  I think this is likely due to all of the novel studies that go on in that grade, combined with a bigger homework load and of course, the fact that reading is competing against social media.

I also introduced a Manga section at the library that has created a reading frenzy among some of our historically most reluctant readers.  It is very true that by letting students read according to their own passions and interests, circulation goes way way up.

So What Now?

Some of the big takeaways for me were we to decide to run a school-wide reading challenge next year would be;

  • that kids set both personal and classroom goals based on time rather than quantity of books – this could mean that kids decide they want to learn more about certain topics by reading about them (animals, famous scientists, volcanoes, etc…) and that they decide to read for 30 minutes a day after school.  They will also set a class goal that can be a certain number of hours read combined for the class.
  • that kids track their reading in a paper-journal or puzzle-page format – This would help teachers to know what was read and the level of student comprehension.  It would also allow for documentation.
  • that kids be free to read according to their own interests in order to grow a life-long love of reading – this connects to students setting personal goals and means that students determine where their reading will take them this year.  There will be no rules about what books are chosen, but students are encouraged to explore and grow.
  • that the prize for meeting the classroom goal is a class party (maybe with a literary theme?)
  • after reaching a student’s personal goal at the end of the year, students could choose a new book as a prize.

This has been a very enlightening project to work on and I am excited about where we will take this at the OJCS next year.  If you have any feedback for me about reading challenges, I’d love to see it in the comments below!


December 3

Developing the Library’s French Collection

This year I am taking the time to evaluate our French collection and I am trying to fill in some curriculum gaps in order to help our French teachers give students at the school the best possible French language education.  Over the years there have been some beautiful books ordered, but were they the ones that the teachers wanted and needed?  That was the question I needed answered.

As I sat with each teacher, it was wonderful to hear about their specific curriculum needs.  English language arts teachers are often the first to tell me what books they need or want to help teach their topics.  But it is not something done as frequently with French language or Hebrew language teachers, probably because what was missing weren’t really topical books, but books that simply help teach French reading and comprehension.  These books are most often levelled readers that allow students to tackle reading one step at a time.  And this was by far the most requested type of resource that came up in these conversations.

Our teachers want to be able to have tangible evidence of our students progress by how well they can move from book A to B to C.  What’s more, having a hard copy of a book gives teachers the peace of  mind that students are staying on task… which isn’t always possible when work is assigned on a device.

There are numerous companies that have designed fantastic French readers that allow teachers to follow student progress.  But at the OJCS we need to streamline what system the team would want to use for assessment purposes.  For this reason a meeting with the team as a whole was required.  The November PD day was an opportunity for the French team to sit down and discuss their options.

I think going into this PGP it hadn’t occured to me how much this project could grow.  This became a really important conversationa about streamlining French language education at the OJCS.

It also illustrates to me the value of having these kinds of conversations more frequently with teachers outside of English Language Arts.  It is my hope that faculty in other departments will see the value of letting me know their needs so that we can together build the best possible collection of resources in the OJCS library.

Another big area that needs to be filled for our French department is French language Jewish holiday books.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful if PJ Library published select titles in French for their big Canadian Jewish community!  That is exactly what I reached out to them to let them know.  I am sure there are many families in many of our French forward provinces who would love to have access to PJ Library titles in French.  If you agree I encourage you to also reach out to them and share your request.  Phone: 413-276-0800   Some of our staff who regularly travel to Montreal will also be keeping their eyes peeled for these special and rare books!

My next step in this project is to evaluate and reorganize the French collection we currently have and find out what we do have that meets specific teacher requirements.  I have worked to grow the French collection little by little each year and I know there are definitely curriculum matches there and I want to ensure that I get those books into the teachers hands who need them.  I also want to reorganize that collection in a way that makes it easy for French language teachers to come in and find what they need right away.

This has been a very positive undertaking and I look forward to continuing my work on this project as the year progresses.

November 13

My Wonderful Experience with Student-Led Conferences

(This article was written a few years ago and is being re-posted here to share as a part of a twitter chat #2ndchat on Wednesday November 13th at 8 pm.)

What a Grade 1 Student-Led Conference Might Look Like

My daughter’s school holds student-led conferences once a year for all grades.  Last night, my husband and I attended my daughter’s conference and it was such a great experience I wanted to share about it with teachers who may be in need of some inspiration.  

Parents signed up for a 30 minute time slot, and in that time slot, five children consecutively got to have their conference at different tables with their own parents.  My daughter grabbed her portfolio and chose a table for us to sit down at.                                                                           

This is the portfolio she made for her best work.







Each student has a checklist to work through of their school subjects and the work that they have chosen to share with their parents.

My daughter read us passages from her favourite book, spelled words using a “Boggle” game, demonstrated an exercise with fractions, and showed us her best art piece.

She also presented us with a research project she did on penguins which really impressed us!

She was very proud of her work and moved on to telling us about her favourite activities in subjects where she couldn’t necessarily show us her work… her favourite game in gym (Vegetable Soup), her favourite song in music (Something Just Like This) her favourite activity in French (none apparently.)

I had an opportunity to ask her teacher about her take on these conferences. She said she had never done them before but really liked them. They were so easy to organize… the kids do all the work!

Setting Goals

Eleanor was able to set a goal at the end of our conference and think about what steps she would need to take to get there.  That was great because she got to choose an area she felt she needed improvement and her teacher then read through the goal with her and let her know it was good one to work on.  

The last word…

Overall it was such a great experience to be a parent and have your child share what they do all day because the typical response when I ask her is always the classic response; “nothing.”  She is certainly doing a lot more than nothing and it’s great to see it for myself. We were floored at some of the things she had learned. We had no idea she could do some of this stuff.  

When we were walking out I said “Mom and Dad are so proud of you Eleanor.”  

“Yeah,” she said, “you should be.”


November 5

Critical Pedagogy and Our North Stars

Over the past month I have been taking a course on a wonderful philosophy of education called Critical Pedagogy.  Critical pedagogy’s most influential theorist, Paolo Freire, compared the education system to banking.  In this banking model, teachers make deposits of knowledge which students bank for future use.  Because of this, students often approach their education as consumers and passive receivers of knowledge rather than active agents shaping their own lives.

And yet, this is how UNESCO and the IFLA define information literacy, and it is a far cry from passivity;

Information Literacy lies at the core of lifelong learning. It empowers people in all walks
of life to seek, evaluate, use and create information effectively to achieve their personal,
social, occupational and educational goals. It is a basic human right in a digital world
and promotes social inclusion of all nations.

Lifelong learning enables individuals, communities and nations to attain their goals and
to take advantage of emerging opportunities in the evolving global environment for
shared benefit. It assists them and their institutions to meet technological, economic and
social challenges, to redress disadvantage and to advance the well being of all.

This definition of information literacy means that the banking model to teaching is not going to cut it.  Students need to learn how to use information for more than financial gain.  They need to use it to make this world a better place for everyone.  At the OJCS one of our North Stars is ‘Each Person is Responsible for the Other.’  This is at the core of critical pedagogy.

The OJCS is already very active in empowering our students to be active agents in their own education.  ‘Genius Hour’ is one example of how our teachers are living these ideals and allowing students the opportunity to pursue their passions and become creators of knowledge.  Many of these projects have the goal of changing the world for the better too.

Another facet of critical pedagogy is that each student has unique perspectives and experiences to share, which is a way they can teach the teachers and their classmates.  This concept connects to the North Star ‘We are always on inspiring Jewish journeys.’  The unique perspective at our school is the Jewish perspective.  That perspective will make the experiences of our students different from those of students at non-Jewish schools.  For that reason, it is important for teachers to see through that lense.

Another key aspect of critical pedagogy is that teaching shouldn’t be the domain of the teacher alone.  Allowing students self-directed learning and discussion time during lessons is one way empower students to think for themselves and find ways to apply the lesson to their own personal experiences.  One OJCS North Star is that “We own our own learning.  We own our own story”.  Each student has so much to share and so much to teach us.  But to do so, they need lots of teacher-created opportunities to share.

One of the things we hear a lot at staff meetings is that at OJCS we are all lifelong learners.  Teachers and students are always challenging themselves and learning all the time.  This is another North Star “We Learn Better Together.”  So this course presented an opportunity for me to learn and grow.  Learning about critical pedagogy will directly impact the way that I design workshop curriculum and will change what I expect as outcomes.  Right now I mainly educate about information literacy, but to me critical pedagogy is about empowering students to take that knowledge and become ethical, active, global citizens.


Accardi, Maria T.  Critical Library Instruction: Theories & Methods.  Duluth: Library Juice Press.  2010
Elmborg, James.  Critical Information Literacy: Implications for Instructional Practice.  The Journal of Academic Librarianship, Volume 32, Number 2.  2006.
Delpit, Lisa.  Other People’s Children: Cultural Conflict in the Classroom.  New York: New Press, 1995.