Champions of Reading

Published: 7 September 2022

After Huntly College enrolled in the Turnaround Schools programme, it underwent a massive transformation in its curriculum and culture and lifted student achievement and wellbeing.

Huntly is a small town in the north Waikato of about 8000 people. It sits beside the Waikato River, which winds its ways through the centre of the town. Huntly College, one of the local high schools, has a roll of a little over 200 learners.

Under a new leadership, some time ago, the school enrolled in a trial programme called Turnaround Schools, designed to help lift achievement and meet the educational goals of their learners and community.

As part of the programme, the school redesigned its curriculum to connect learners to their passions and reading and writing. Reti Hedley, a teacher, ran a class on rapping, as a lot of the rangatahi relate to the stories and themes of the genre, such as coming from challenging circumstances. “They’ve got an amazing voice, they’ve got amazing stories, they’ve got amazing perspectives to share,” he remarks and the school’s new approach allows the learners to pursue those gifts.

Michaela Pinkerton, Deputy Principal, says when the school entered the programme, “there [had been] a really strongly held belief that it was absolutely pointless buying any books,” and the school’s new leadership vowed to “challenge that way of thinking”. The school invested heavily in the library, transforming it into a space for the rangatahi to read, learn and hang out with their mates.

The school partnered with the National Library to increase accessibility of books in the school. A Speed-date-a-genre session was held, showing rangatahi all kinds of genres and books they may not have seen before and the rangatahi were able to take books away with them. These books were taken back to their Puna Ako classes, the school's version of home rooms, where immediate change was seen. “I wouldn’t have thought it would be that easy just to read aloud or read together to see that my students actually love stories” says Mulligan Murray, who teaches a Puna Ako class. A rangatahi remembers hearing the stories read aloud, “all the students were like ‘we want more, please keep reading’ and then all the teachers were like ‘we wish, but we have to get on with the other schoolwork’ we were like ‘aww’.”

The school hosted workshops with New Zealand authors such as Ben Brown, Dr Glenn Colquhoun, Des Hunt, David Reilly and Zak Waipara. Reilly challenged rangatahi to read a book per week, a challenge some took on, “all our friends have been reading since,” one says.

The school has embraced a wide range of literature, including comics and manga and the youth have responded by widening their idea of what it is to read. Tien, 2021 Head Boy, says “you’re always reading,” including things like body language, memes and texts from mates.

Bella, a young learner, says the experience of hearing writers read their poetry expanded her mind. She had never really thought about poetry before, but wrote a poem in a workshop that all her classmates thought was awesome, showing just how much the new environment challenges and supports the learners.

Pinkerton says they have raised expectations of the learners and by seeing and believing in rangatahi potential, they have changed the school’s culture.