Tucked away in a normal London school playground, on a normal London street, running through a normal London borough, there is a phone box that is anything but normal. At least, that is, to members of Aldborough Primary School’s WE Club.
To these students, the phone box is magic. An unassuming fixture in their playground, here young girls are transformed into wizards battling the forces of evil, while young boys leave behind schoolwork to become deep-sea explorers in search of shipwrecks.
This is how the story unfolds for the characters at the heart of Aldborough’s phone box adventures. Devi, Shawn, Rahavy and Rishaan are Year 6 classmates and WE Club members at Aldborough Primary School. They also happen to be under the spell of great books—particularly tales of fantasy—and the phone box is where they go to get their fix.
Transformed into a mini library, the space is overflowing with copies of Harry Potter, The Phantom Tollbooth and The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. The books are free for any student or parent to borrow. “We always wanted to be a school that focused on reading, a school that celebrates books,” explains Susan Mullaney, Headteacher at Aldborough. But the school’s ambition has been met with challenges.
Aldborough is in the London borough of Redbridge, one of the most ethnically diverse in all of the UK. A high percentage of students speak English as a second language; many of their parents struggle with the language. Before the great phone box conversion, students would balk when asked if they read at home with their families.
Students’ lack of enthusiasm for reading—both as part of the curriculum and as a pastime—inspired Mullaney’s goal to make reading fun. “We looked at how many of our children read for enjoyment versus how many read because we tell them to, and shifting that balance was our starting point.”
With that in mind, she went to her WE Club, a group of Year 6 students who lead campaigns on everything from fighting the stigma around poverty and promoting positive mental health to collecting food for local foodbanks. The WE Club came up with big ideas to transform the school as part of the WE Read Together campaign, a WE Schools campaign to advance literacy and expand access to books.
The phone box-turned-lending-library is the group’s most eye-catching success.
Once a year, the school has a big book fair. Boxes of books line the corridors, waiting for eager students to claim them. Not all the students, though, have the pocket money to match their interest. That’s where the idea for the book swap came from, according to 11-year-old Rishaan. The WE Club members wrote letters to parents, asking for donations. Once they collected enough books, they filled the phone box and held an opening ceremony to commemorate the initiative. “Kids gathered and were immediately interested,” Rishaan says of his classmates clamouring for books after the ribbon cutting. “As soon as we opened it, I saw parents taking books, too.”
Parent interest, for Mullaney, was the most exciting part. Many of the parents aren’t confident with English and are intimidated by the school. As a result, they don’t come to meetings or participate as much as they could. But with the lending library, they’re starting to get involved. She explains, “Now they come to book swap at the end of the school day, they talk, they laugh, they take a book and it’s helped them become more comfortable, more engaged with the school.”
Sanjay Patel is a prime example of the change fostered in parents. “I’m not a book junkie, not by any means,” the father of two says self-effacingly. He didn’t grow up reading and so didn’t often read to his daughters—Anita, 10, and 7-year-old Emily. Then they began bringing books home from the swap and things started to change. “They’re deciding what to read, they’re bringing home books that are challenging and interesting that I’d never think of, and it’s expanding their vocabulary and their confidence.” Now the family reads together most nights. And the positive effects go beyond quality time; the father credits reading for helping both daughters come out of their shell.
As for the WE Club members, they are witnessing the changes in their classmates every day. Rahavy recalls a friend thanking her the week after the first book swap, while still clutching her new book. “It felt incredible, knowing we can introduce a love of books to people, even if they don’t have books at home.”
With bookworms budding all through the corridors of Aldborough, the second pillar of the WE Club’s plan brought them into the classrooms: a reading buddies program made up of 40 upper year applicants who signed up to read with younger schoolmates.
Today, lunchtime sees reading buddies meeting once a week to work on comprehension and vocabulary over a good book. The excitement generated by the older students is palpable, gushes Mullaney. And they, in turn, become role models and take on new responsibility. “Reading buddies show how reading is fun. We do funny voices, we tell jokes, it encourages our buddies to read more,” explains 11-year-old Devi. “By making reading fun, it helps the little ones see the enjoyable side of it.”
It’s easy to pick up on the student body’s passion for reading when strolling the halls of Aldborough. As each student enters the school, Mullaney often greets them by asking about the latest book they’re reading. Fittingly, the phone box—a repository of fantasy worlds—stands next to her office at the school’s entrance, waiting to be wheeled into the school playground for book swap. Framing the scene are pages from student book reports, adorning the hall’s display cases. Some are written in neat script, others have been scrawled by young students in pencil; each is a testament to the newfound love of reading that measures school-wide.
“Books are being talked about a lot more and children want to be reading buddies,” says Mullaney proudly. “Most importantly, our students are reading for enjoyment.” She wanted Aldborough to be a school that celebrates books. The student-led WE Club made sure that it is. Now, the sound of reading rings out from the classrooms, the playground and homes of a generation of budding book lovers.
Jesse Mintz is a lifelong learner and believer in the power of stories to educate and inspire. He knows everyone has an interesting story—it’s just a matter of asking the right questions.