Towards Literary Growth and Community Participation: Lessons Learned from a Shared Book Experience in One Northern Ontario Community

Article excerpt

Introduction

In February of 2011, families in a Northern Ontario community were invited to participate in North Bay Reads Together, a community literacy project involving the weekly reading of a shared novel. For a span of seven weeks, a portion of a novel was reprinted each week in the local newspaper. As the final chapters were printed, all the children who had read the book, along with their families, were then invited to a celebration at the local public library to meet the author. The project involved partnerships with the university, the local newspaper, a well known Canadian author and the publisher of the novel. A blog was also created for sharing thoughts and ideas with the author, as well as to provide audio links to hear the story online.

A closer look at collaborative reading programs

The notion of collaborative reading surrounding a shared book is not new. Over the past years, similar programs in other cities have been successful in promoting an appreciation of reading, bringing families together, and most importantly, building a sense of community by reading together. Examples include Seattle Reads (1998), One Book, One Chicago (2001), Hamilton Reads (2004) and New York Reads (2008). As Dempsey (2009) conveys, similar programs have been held in a variety of places (libraries, colleges, cultural centers) and across continents (North America, Australia, UK), sometimes with numbers upwards of 72,000 readers. Beyond the Book (www.beyondthebookproject.org) is a Canadian research project aiming to develop definitive guidelines for similar programs. While Dempsey (2009) focuses mostly on library contexts, she suggests there is 'a wealth of ideas and resources waiting to be explored and tested in new cities and towns' (p. 7). One of our committee members, David Booth, was involved in two of the initiatives listed above, thereby helping to establish a purpose for considering the impact of a shared book initiative in a Northern, Canadian community. Recognising the need to consider younger readers, we also aimed to target a junior age group (9-12) to further connect to family literacy opportunties within the community. The selection committee chose a Canadian author, Eric Walters, and the book Three on Three, both for its fit with the target age range and for a topic to which junior students in North Bay might relate to (that of competition and gender).

North Bay Reads Together was premised on the understanding that family literacy is important to children's literacy journeys. Family literacy is a term coined by Taylor (1983), whose ethnographic work became instrumental in a shift towards an understanding of literacy as social. Taylor (1983), along with Heath (1983) and Vygotsky (1978) are key theorists credited with a shift towards a growing understanding of the literacy learner as an active meaning-maker (Gillen & Hall, 2003). Specifically, Taylor (1983) studied the everyday reading and writing activities that took place within family settings, such as reading the newspaper and making lists. These authentic literacy experiences were not always intended but nonetheless, modelled literacy behaviours to young children. Purcell-Gates (1996) extended this understanding of everyday practices to include environmental print, such as signs, ads and logos. Together, these practices serve to highlight the ways in which family members 'go about their daily lives and negotiate relationships both within the family and between the family and the broader community' (Literacy Coalition for New Brunswick, 2008, p. 20). Family members in this case do not only include parents and siblings, but also extended family members such as grandparents and their roles in the literacy development of children (Gregory, Long & Volk, 2004).

The Literacy Coalition of New Brunswick (2008) stresses that family and community relationships are not only collaborative but 'necessary to ensure continuity of learning experiences for children' (p. …