Chatting about books

Senator O'Connor book club garners TCDSB award

Students at Senator O’Connor Catholic Secondary are putting away the video game consoles and picking up adventure novels, like The Count of Monte Cristo.

That’s thanks in part to Anna Szumilas, founder of the award-winning Boys Book Chat program at the Bayview and Victoria Park area school.

During the lunch hour, male students meet with teachers to discuss books, play Scrabble or get help with their homework.
The idea for the lunchtime book chat program was born from a concern about literacy testing results. Szumilas, a librarian, noticed the school’s grade 10 literacy results had dropped two percent last year. She was surprised to find that, as a whole, boys scored 10 percent lower than the girls on the test.

“This helped me come up with the idea that I have to do something here in the library,” she said.

After reading about the subject and speaking to other librarians, Szumilas created the program to encourage boys to read more. Although the Boys Book Chat was her idea, she does not take part in the lunchtime sessions.

“In order to make boys read you have to have positive male role models,” Szumilas said. “We have guys, like cool teachers working with them.”

The concept seems to be working already. Several students have borrowed the adventure novel The Count of Monte Cristo, following the example set by the school’s hall monitor.

“Our hall monitor Dean…he walks up and down the school and he holds a book,” Szumilas said. “All the books that he has been reading, kids are coming here to ask for.”

The program began this past October but has already received an Exemplary Practice award from the Catholic District School Board. The three teachers who volunteer their lunches for the book chat say the award is based more on the program’s promise than what it has achieved.

“It’s great fun,” said teacher Fred Perrone. “We haven’t quite worked out the system but we’re finding ways that work.”

Szumilas though, said she has heard anecdotally from some teachers that the program is showing positive effects in the classroom already.

“I’ve been talking to teachers of grade 10 students who, just by attending once a week, have improved dramatically their comprehension skills and their reading skills,” she said.

About 20 students have participated in the program so far. It is offered twice a week, one day for students in grade 9 and grade 10. While teachers at the school recommend students for the program for a variety of reasons, participation in the program is entirely voluntary.

“I’m going to try and get back,” said student Sean Fitzgibbon.

Szumilas said that girls have tried to join the group but that it is restricted to male students. However, she plans to start an open “biblioholic society” next year.

In addition to wanting to improve literacy among the school’s male student population, Szumilas had other reasons for creating a gender-segregated group.

“When you are very self-conscious about your reading skills you don’t necessarily want to showcase it in front of the other gender,” she said.

She has also found that while girls will read just about anything, guys tend to be more selective about what they read. Sports novels seem to be the most popular genre in the club, she said.

Snacks are provided during the sessions as are electronic reading tablets called Kobos, which seem to be a hit with the boys. Using technology appeals to the students and teachers appreciate the fact that the tablets come with a built-in dictionary function.

Szumilas is hopeful that the program will help boost the school’s literacy test scores next year and said the program will be back after summer with the same goal in mind.

“Start young and help them become lifelong readers,” she said.

About this article:

By: Tristan Carter
Posted: May 18 2011 3:17 pm
Filed in: NEWS
Edition: Toronto