#Mondayblogs The importance of being a reader

In his second guest blog James Wood, a voluntary reading mentor in schools, explains why he believes reading is so important to children’s development.

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In issue 1 of Dawn of the Unread we see a teenage boy in Nottingham bored of reading and unwilling to pay much for a book, but as soon as he discovers there are stories set in his home city, he is hooked on reading. This youth is also on his mobile phone, engaged in a world that is often seen to be annihilating serious reading once children reach adolescence. In today’s society, children and young adults spend more time reading snippets of information, such as skimming through online articles, status updates, and social media messages. This has led to concerns that millennials are finding it harder to engage with ‘deep’ reading, which has clear implications for our ability to concentrate.

Literacy levels in the UK have been seen to improve in recent years according to the National Literacy Trust, with roughly 86% of eleven year olds meeting a level 4 target in reading, with a lower 67% in writing. Although these levels do seem fairly good, its clear work is still needed to increase pupils reading and writing skills. In Nottingham, the statistics are a cause for worry, with only 77% of pupils gaining a level four or higher in level two SATs, the worst ranked city in the East Midlands with 79% being the average. This is also a national problem. Six out of ten teenagers in Nottingham are leaving school without five A* to C GCSE grades, including English and maths.

To help address this issue, Nottingham’s UNESCO City of Literature team has commissioned Rebecca Goldsmith, a freelance consultant, to develop Dawn of the Unread as an engagement tool for KS3 level. Editor James Walker said: “Legacy is the most important factor I take into consideration when putting together a project. Dawn of the Unread was the beginning of a conversation about the importance of reading, and the role of libraries and bookshops in the 21st century. To know that it is now being utilised to explicitly address literacy levels is something I am intensely proud of. Rebecca is absolutely perfect for this role given her previous work with organisations such as First Story.”

Another issue facing literacy levels in Nottingham is that there are less publishers in the Midlands than many other areas of the country as the UK book industry statistics 2015 suggest. The ambiguity of the future for Angel Row Library is another concern, after the selling off of the Central Library site in December 2016. But has this really got anything to do with the levels of people reading? According to the National Literacy Trust it is difficult to measure weather children today are reading less than in the past, as although literacy levels are on the increase, children don’t seem to read so much for enjoyment, but this is hard to prove. What seems clear is that it is becoming harder to engage pupils in reading inside and outside the classroom environment. I was involved in a reading scheme for Year 7’s a few years ago while studying my A levels, I was surprised how difficult it was to get children to concentrate on reading books. The children seemed more interested in the use of technology such as using social media and playing games on consoles and tablets. The interactive world is replacing books, this means new ways need to be found to engage children in literacy and reading. Schemes such as Dawn of the Unread work to achieve this by offering multiple ways into the text through a comic serial, embedded content, YouTube videos, an App, and of course, a physical book.

So why is reading so important? Well firstly, the 21st century, although an interactive world, still requires people to be literate. Information online is still published using words, is it not? With the exception of videos (which often still includes subtitles or information), the interactive world requires people to be more literate than ever. This is one reason why schools use online resources so much now in order to prepare students to be able to use the interactive world while reading and learning. Moreover, reading stimulates the mind, creates ideas, and helps the imagination to thrive, as well as teaching people in a variety of ways. Those who are illiterate in the 21st century have little or no chance of success, however even those who don’t make an effort to read but are still literate have little chance of doing particularly well, reading is a major part of 21st century life. Language structures our world and so is clearly extremely important for children to learn and develop through reading.


Social media and the online world are slowly replacing the physical world of reading – as this blog is testament to. This makes good literacy skills more important than ever in an interactive world. Every waking moment of our lives involves language and literacy. We use the internet to search and learn, we need language and good literacy skills in order to use it successfully.

Although all these things are of extremely high importance, one thing is often overlooked in the 21st century… reading provides children and adults with recreation and escapism from the constantly bustling and busy modern world. Reading teaches us about the world through non-fiction books.

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Fictional reading however provides imagination and escapism that is essential for dealing with stress, and creates enjoyment and entertainment. Reading isn’t only essential for learning and being literate, it is also essential for its positive effect on the brain by stimulating imagination, and its effect as a relaxing, recreational form of entertainment.

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#MondayBlogs Literacy – A Journey to Justice


One year ago I attended a meeting at the Galleries of Justice with 25 people about a project called Journey to Justice (JtoJ). The day was planned with our partners: Sharon Monteith, Founding Co-director of Centre for Research in Race and Rights (C3R), Rosemary Pearce then of C3R and Bev Baker (Senior Curator and Archivist at GOJ), Tim Desmond (CEO of GOJ) and Midlands 3 Cities with PhD student Scott Weightman, JtoJ local organiser.

The remit of JtoJ is “to inspire and empower people to take action for social justice through learning about human rights movements.” This voluntary organisation initially focussed on the US civil rights movement, taking Dr. Martin Luther King’s timeless message of solidarity, “whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly,” as their mantra. The first major project of JtoJ was a touring exhibition that focussed on the principles of the U.S civil rights movement. This has slowly developed and spread around the globe, linking with other activists to promote and educate about issues that specifically relate to local communities.

We were shown case studies of how other cities had got involved and I was quite taken by the scope and ambition of the project, particularly the ease with which organisations were able to collaborate and promote various causes. Nottingham, as a former ‘factory city’ with a real mix of identities and ethnicities, has a long history of activism so we were pretty spoilt for choice when trying to find causes we could promote. Some of the issues raised were: Nottingham’s refugee history; Streetwise Opera – homeless and non-homeless performers; Sash (Salaam Shalom) a Muslim/Jewish weekly soup kitchen and food bank; October Dialogues – Black History; Polish homeless men project; History of the 1958 race riots and colour bar; Child Migrant Trust HQ in Nottingham; Radical Walks; Women’s History Group; Bread and Roses Theatre group; Creating a school and FE resource packs; Nottingham’s first UK Black Lives Matter chapter. I was there as a representative of Nottingham UNESCO city of literature and Dawn of the Unread.

When Dawn of the Unread was created in 2014 I positioned illiteracy as a form of child abuse. Therefore, it is a human rights issue to me. It has been proven through countless research that an inability to read or write has profound effects upon a person’s life from their ‘trust’ in society to whether they become a home owner. Nottingham is below the regional and national average for literacy levels and so there is additional reasons to fight this cause.

Within the Dawn of the Unread comic serial we have championed other identity politics, from the Operative Libraries of the 1800s that empowered workers to self-educate and demands rights from employers to the #readwomen campaign that addressed gender inequalities within publishing. We explored the lack of representation of Black history in our final issue via George Africanus and George Powe, poiting our readers towards the work of Nottingham Black Archives (who were at the JtoJ) event as well as inspirational figures such as Norma Gregory.


On Friday 24 March, Aly Stoneman  was invited by Bradley Phipps to host a workshop at Galleries of Justice. She was there as a representative of Dawn of the Unread and as a PhD student as part of Midlands 3 Cities. In issue 10 Aly explored the imaginary life of Ms. Hood, updating the Hood legend to a modern setting where activists are protesting at fracking and the greed of banks. Written as a poem, it takes inspiration from Carol Ann Duffy’s The World’s Wife. Of her workshop Aly said:

“The idea was to present a poem and talk a bit about the context of the piece and how it links to present-day social justice issues. Ms Hood seemed a good match, as the poem explores how contemporary social, political and economic situations might create 21st Century ‘Hoods’ and how challenging inequality and marginalization of vulnerable people is as relevant today as it was a thousand years ago. Topics I addressed included authority and anarchism, war, land ownership and the feudal system, race, feminism, education, police brutality, and environmental crisis. Robin Hood may be a myth, but it’s what he stands for that counts: Truth, Freedom and Justice.”

The ability to connect and provoke conversations has been one of the greatest successes of Dawn of the Unread. We have offered small glimpses into the lives of Nottingham’s literary history, created awareness of other organisations through our embedded content, and then left other people to continue the conversations. At the time of Aly’s workshop Rebecca Goldsmith is drafting lesson plans so that schools across Nottingham can use Dawn of the Unread as a learning tool, our student placement James Wood is writing blogs for us and mentoring in schools, Connie Wood is developing and managing our Instagram account, and the recently published book by Spokesman Books has been sent out to libraries and schools across Nottingham as well as UNESCO cities across the globe. And in the background, over many cups of coffee and bus and train journeys, I’ve been putting together Dawn of the Unread II which will be called Whatever People Say I Am. Amelia Sharland has been assisting me with the research. Another journey will begin very soon …


#Mondayblogs NTU’s ‘Students in Classrooms’ Mentoring Scheme


In this first of four guest blogs, Nottingham Trent University student James Wood shares his experience of mentoring in schools and why he believes this can help the development of literacy skills.

Nottingham is a city which has been struggling with literacy levels and attainment over the last few years, with many children in Nottingham living in relative poverty. According to Nottinghamshire County Council in 2014, 17.1% of children in Nottinghamshire were living in poverty. This means 27,920 children aged 0-19. Work needs to be done to help improve education and access to learning and literacy for pupils, and mentoring is a great way to do this.

Mentoring can be great for encouraging development in pupils through one-to-one sessions. By taking the time to privately mentor pupils, a great deal can be discovered about the way that individuals learn, and sessions can be tailored to help improve their skills, attainment and educational experience in a way that suits them best.

In the last few years Nottingham Trent University has set up a scheme in order to encourage pupil’s development in literacy, academic subjects and skills based development through mentoring in local schools. The mentoring scheme also aims to create an awareness of the benefits of higher education and encourage pupils to pursue university, apprenticeships, sixth form or college. I have been lucky enough to be a member of this scheme for the last two years.

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Mentoring can help pupils to find out the best way for them to read, revise, work and learn. 

The scheme involves each mentor tutoring four pupils in local Nottingham schools for one hour a week each in a variety of academic and personal skills subjects. I have sessions in subjects such as CV building, dealing with stress, organisation, revision skills, speech skills, aspirations, higher education and GCSE topics.  Planning is required for each session to ensure it runs smoothly and meets the specific needs of individuals.

Through this scheme I have realised the importance of mentoring in education to schools and children’s development. And for good reason! Mentors from higher education backgrounds bring recent experiences of school life that are relatable to the mentee, allowing them to connect with their mentor better than with many teachers. University students understand the hardship of the current education system, as well as the life of a pupil, which is appreciated, as it reassures these young people that university students can relate to their situation.

However, some pupils may feel threatened by someone from university, they may see successful students doing a degree as a nerd or ‘one of those’. These pupils feel like they are very different to their university mentors and so may feel alienated. However, schemes such as Nottingham Trent’s ‘Students in Classrooms’ can help to promote the relationship and similarities between mentors from university backgrounds and mentees. I have mentored students with behaviour problems, something I have never had, but the pupils can relate to me in others ways, as I understand the pressures and stresses of school life. Through conversations with me they have hopefully come to realise how interesting and exciting university life is, often asking questions about what it is like to study a degree, the costs, what it is like to live on my own or pay rent, as well as how I got to university.

In schools there isn’t much time prioritised for developing non-academic skills. Instead, teachers tend to focus more on writing, reading, maths and scientific skills. Although teachers do improve pupil’s literacy skills, in certain cases teachers find it hard to encourage reading. Mentors, who are not constrained by performance statistics and the everyday pressures expected of a teacher, are able to offer support to pupils that goes beyond the curriculum.

Mentors can use their own experiences to suggest reading that pupils may enjoy, such as the Dawn of the Unread comic book series which isn’t on the curriculum, but which offers snippets into the lives of local literary figures, with the aim of encouraging pupils to go out and discover more about these writers for themselves.For example, I had one student who likes to write his own poetry and wants to write books, so I recommended he read some romanticist and modernist poetry as well as get some experience in what good literature looks like by reading Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Mentors can also pass on and demonstrate the skills they have developed and can use in everyday and working life, which will encourage pupils that reading a wide variety of books, is massively beneficial.

After two years of working in schools I firmly believe that mentoring can massively improve individual student’s attainment levels and literacy skills, as well as encourage reading. Therefore, I feel it is important and should be co-operated more into the education system, not just in Nottingham, but in other areas in which attainment and literacy levels are low, or access to satisfactory education is limited.

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#MondayBlogs Nottingham’s Big City Read

Big City Read is a national initiative where a city is encouraged to select one book and encourage the public to read it together. The underlining intention is to combat illiteracy, and bring reading to those who might otherwise miss out. The UKs appalling literacy statistics, combined with a survey that found 35% of boys no longer find reading interesting, were a driving force behind the creation of Dawn of the Unread. So, the City Read is a project I fully endorse.

I’ve been asked numerous times what my favourite book of all time is and I always reply, I’ll tell you on my deathbed when I’ve read a few more. It’s an impossible question to answer. So selecting a book that represents your city is equally problematic. In 2013 Bristol and Glastonbury chose Gavin Extence’s Somerset-based novel The Universe Versus Alex Woods. It’s notoriously difficult for debut authors to get the same kind of media exposure as established authors and so was a great way to help kickstart his career. This resulted in 1,000 free books being distributed. The publisher Hodder and Stoughton benefitted from the additional publicity and audience engagement by giving out free copies to people for the most imaginative readers feedback. There was also book groups created at libraries, a twitter account (@thingsalexknows) as well as a dedicated website. The book would go on to be a Richard and Judy Summer Book Read as well as win Waterstones 11 literary prize.

This year London opted for Ben Aaronvitch’s Rivers of London which was published in 2011. It features Peter Grant, a young police officer who encounters a ghost and is later drafted into a specialist Met unit that deals with magic and the supernatural. To promote the book, Aaronvitch visited 33 libraries (one for each borough) in 30 days. A blog and map detailed this adventurous book tour and was complimented by an interactive performance from award winning theatre Look Left, who trained wannabe recruits as sorcerer-detectives in Westminster Reference Library. The library is the site of Sir Isaac Newton’s house.

Nottingham has wisely decided to get in on the act thanks to the City of Literature team and is promoting ‘Nottingham Stories’, in conjunction with Five Leaves Bookshop; Bromley House Library and Nottingham Writers’ Studio. This is a short story collection showcasing seven local writers, two of whom have produced comics in our serial: Alison Moore (issue 13: Will You Walk Into My Parlour) and John ‘Brick’ Clark (Issue 2: My Long Walk With Slav). The others writers are: John Harvey; Shreya Sen Handley; Megan Taylor; Paula Rawsthorne; as well as a short story from the late Alan Sillitoe, specially selected by his widow, Ruth Fainlight. Alan, of course, features in my contribution to Issue 12: For It Was Saturday Night.

There will be a dedicated website where readers can share their stories or submit their own take on Nottingham life. The authors will also be reading their stories and offering writing workshops at schools, prisons, reading groups, community centres, libraries and a wide range of other venues. You can catch all of the writers at Lowdham Book Festival in June; with Nicola Monaghan reading the Sillitoe story.

John Harvey, author of the Resnick series , said: “Any way of getting good writing, good stories into the hands of new readers has to be a good thing, surely? And the Big City Read should do exactly that. And not simply good stories, but stories, by and large, about the city, written by people who live, or have lived there and who know it differently but know it well. I was chuffed to be asked to take part; just as I’ll be chuffed to be there in print alongside Alison, John, Megan, Paula, Shreya and the indomitable spirit of Alan Sillitoe.”

John Harvey

John Harvey

Defining Nottingham as a city is difficult. It’s traditionally a factory city but now a lot of the large employers have left, as have the communities that got flattened during inner city developments during the 60s and 70s. We’ve never been particularly good at bigging ourselves up either, though we have no problem telling others what they’re doing wrong. We’re built on sandstone, which is what made us master breweries before other cities. But now it’s coffeeshop chains that dominate the horizon. And then there’s our multiculturalism, with Pakistan and Poland accounting for our highest levels of immigration. How do you define a schizophrenic, contradictory city like this? Perhaps short stories are a good start…



Reimagining the School Library

Great graphic from mzzcolby.blogspot.co.uk

Great graphic from mzzcolby.blogspot.co.uk

This week I found myself in Northampton, the birthplace of Ray Gosling, and immediately had a Ray Gosling experience with a cab driver. I discovered he was a former antiques dealer who specialised in oriental rugs but had recently turned to record collecting. He asked me to peer over on to his front seat (it was a black cab) where there was a box of delights of various things he was trying to flog. We then discussed abstract art, the best uses of a shed, reading, accents, his council estate, and how to deal with fly tipping. If it hadn’t been for the library conference I was attending I could quite happily have stayed with him in his cab all day.

I had made a 2hr 45min train journey (2 changes) from Nottingham to give a 15 minute talk at ‘Rising to the Challenge: Reimagining the school library’. It was a lot of effort for a relatively short plug for DOTU but one I wouldn’t have missed for the world. Locked away in a room with 30 librarians is my idea of heaven. But my real motivation for attending was to see what school librarians had to say as they are integral in shaping the lives of many children.

The conference was framed around a quote from Alan Gibbons (Alan has written our Geoffrey Trease comic out on 8 Jan 2015): “It is not enough to have a school library. A library without a librarian is a room. A school library is not just a room. It is a relationship. It is also a culture.”

There were lots of interesting talks that included: the National Literacy Trust, ebooks, the library experience, augmented reality, the Story Stack Project, the importance of questions, adapting to change/economy and much more. Unfortunately I missed the morning sessions but was glad I got to hear Nicki Adkins’ talk on ‘Establishing reading and independent learning from year 7’.


Nicki compared her job to that of Bruce Willis in Die Hard and how you have to have a can do attitude in the face of adversity. I won’t ruin it for you (or tell you who the terrorists are in her metaphor) as she’s going to do us a guest blog soon, but it left me feeling so happy that there are enthusiastic librarians out there really changing kids’ lives through some innovative strategies and approaches to learning. From Nicki I discovered the @nerdfighters who, apparently, will take on challenges and help support your projects. They have been contacted.

There was also some incredibly frightening statistics from Debbie Morrison OBE, Principle Kingsthorpe College, about the differing opportunities for kids from public and private education, and the percentages of people who end up dead before they’re 26 if they haven’t got into a job or education when they leave school. These sentiments echo our own, with recent research into literacy and opportunities suggesting the UK is facing ‘downward mobility’. As with the librarians at this conference, our aim is also to create a thirst for reading and to utilise digital to enable numerous routes into literature.

I’m still buzzing from the conference and feeling so inspired by the passionate librarians of Northampton, and Adele Finch for inviting me. I don’t know if there is a similar conference in Nottingham but if there is I need to get to it as there were lots of offers from Northampton librarians to come back and talk to their pupils. If anybody can help with this or encourage schools/librarians to get us in for a talk, please do get in contact.