Stabilizing the Reading Week model

The Trek Program grew quickly but its evolution was incremental and straightforward. We moved easily through the progression of getting started, figuring out what worked, and then creating an infrastructure to sustain the program. The evolution of the Reading Week model was not as smooth.

After dramatically increasing the number of students doing Community Service Learning (CSL) projects during Reading Week in 2004, the staff team felt relatively satisfied with what we had done. Although we knew we needed to do some fine-tuning, we believed the central elements of the model were working. We had learned how to:

  • Recruit students and sustain their interest through to project completion
  • Design useful projects that could be completed in three days
  • Deliver a fun, informative orientation day
  • Provide leadership to students so their teams would be effective and get the projects done
  • Bring closure to the experience by highlighting what students had learned and what had been accomplished.

But we realized that managing the scale of the enterprise was a strain. And we saw that we were wading into deep waters by challenging students to confront the complex dynamics of social marginalization and social change. So, for Reading Week 2005, we decided not to expand the number of student participants again but to concentrate on solidifying the infrastructure for the model and fine-tuning the aspects that needed further work.

IMG_0592In 2005, we again recruited 200 students to take part in Reading Week. The students did 14 projects. All but one took place in an East Vancouver elementary school; the other took place at the UBC Farm. We decided to focus on projects in schools because our attempts to do short-term projects in non-profit organizations in the Downtown Eastside had not been as successful as we hoped. The clients of these organizations needed more than three days to establish a rapport with students. Given their differences, it was not realistic to expect students and marginalized people to form working relationships in such a short time. But this was not an issue in the schools; kids and UBC students seemed to form bonds almost immediately. So, in collaboration with our partner organizations, we concluded that the Reading Week model was not a good fit for organizations in the Downtown Eastside.

In 2005, we again held the kick-off and closing events at the Chinese Cultural Centre. We had the previous year’s experience under our belts, so many of the logistical details (e.g., registering students, getting students into their project teams, feeding them lunch, etc.) were easy to manage. Once again we were impressed by how much students learned and how much work they got done.

In 2006, satisfied that the model was working well, we felt confident about our ability to expand the number of participants again. So we recruited 300 students and planned for 20 projects: 19 in schools and one at the UBC Farm. But afterwards, we realized we had taken on too much. The operation did not run as smoothly as we had hoped, so the following year we cut back on the number of students. We continued refining the model based on our own observations as well as feedback from students, leaders, and schools.

In subsequent years, we set targets for the number of students to be involved based on the project ideas generated by the schools and our assessment of how many students the staff and the infrastructure could effectively manage. In the years from 2008 to 2011, between 200 and 350 students were involved each year, with almost 500 being involved in 2010, the year when Reading Week was extended to two weeks to coincide with the Vancouver Winter Olympics. We settled into the routine of only doing projects in schools, since these projects invariably were successful.

Some elements of the Reading Week model worked well from the beginning (e.g., recruitment of students was never a problem). Others presented challenges (e.g., getting students to engage in structured reflection activities was rarely easy).

Elements of the model that worked well from the start

Recruiting students

Reading Week posterThe approach to recruiting students that became routine started with us identifying which schools wanted to do projects and then determining how many students would be needed. With this target number in mind, we would start publicizing the opportunity to get involved in a Reading Week CSL project. This usually happened in November, not long after the recruitment drive for ongoing placements in the Trek Program had ended. With the help of our photographer and graphic designer, Chloe Lewis, we prepared colourful posters and cards to distribute across campus. These posed the question, “What are YOU doing for Reading Week?” These helped to create a buzz on campus about the CSL Reading Week projects.

But it was students themselves who enabled us to meet our recruitment targets every year. Students who took part in Reading Week projects were incredibly enthusiastic about their experiences. They loved becoming part of a school community, even for a few days. Some students told us, wistfully, that as a result of spending time with kids at recess, they realized they had forgotten how to play. Many students groaned about how exhausted they were at the end of every day. They gained a new appreciation for teachers who were able to keep up the pace even though they were older (some of them much older). Some students told touching stories of kids taking their hand as they walked from one activity to another or having kids say, “I love you.”

Students felt proud of what they accomplished, especially when projects demanded skills and creativity that students initially feared they did not possess. Students were also surprised at the questions these deceptively straightforward projects raised in their minds. Why were there so few art supplies in the cupboards in these schools? Why was there no librarian on staff? Why did some of these schools have to provide breakfast to their kids? Doing the projects felt good, but students came away asking some tough questions.

There was another benefit we organizers had not anticipated. Many students reported that the team of students they worked with during Reading Week had become their primary social network. The friendships formed over those three days of shared effort lasted, often for years. After hearing this repeatedly, we started focusing our recruitment efforts on first year students, hoping the friendships they formed would prevent the social isolation UBC students often complain of.

The fact that students told their friends and classmates that doing a Reading Week project was a great way to spend spring break meant that we always recruited the number of students we needed. We often had a waiting list. Reading Week CSL projects became part of UBC student culture.

Having staff and students lead projects

The staff and senior students who acted as project leaders were an important link between the Learning Exchange and the school. Leaders were responsible for ensuring the project was completed on time. If a tangible product like a compost box was being built, leaders had to ensure it was built to a reasonable standard. They were also responsible for challenging students to reflect critically about how their experiences were related to the academic content we were introducing.

This sounds straightforward enough, but, in reality, the role was demanding. Prior to Reading Week, the leader had to connect with the school’s point person and then put the final touches on the project plan. Project leaders had to make sure that any necessary supplies or equipment were on site. Leaders also needed to make contact with the students in their group before the kick-off day so they could start creating some cohesion and commitment within the group. At the kick-off, leaders continued the team-building process, working to get students excited about their project.

During Reading Week itself the leader was responsible for motivating students to do great work together as a team, liaising with the school to ensure everything was going according to plan, trouble-shooting when it wasn’t (glitches were frequent but minor), leading students in reflection activities, ensuring the project goals were met by the end of the project, and ensuring there was some kind of formal closure to the experience for both UBC students and children in the schools (e.g., schools often held assemblies at the end of projects where the children and teachers formally expressed their thanks).

To help leaders succeed, for Reading Week 2005, we developed a written manual for leaders. This manual gave an overview of UBC’s Reading Week model, outlined roles and responsibilities of project leaders and student leaders, and offered tips on leading reflection sessions, as well as sample project schedules and other resources.

Fortunately, the people who volunteered to act as leaders were as excited as UBC students about being involved in these projects. As we formalized the training for leaders and fine-tuned the demands of the role, we tried to get UBC supervisors to allow staff to take work time to participate in this leadership training opportunity. Supervisors usually agreed because of the perceived professional development value of this experience. But the reality was that most staff members ended up adding the project leader role onto their existing workload, e.g., most found themselves catching up on emails in the evenings. Some UBC staff who undertook this role were dedicated enough to use their vacation time, especially in the early years before managers at UBC became confident that this learning experience would bring benefits back to the workplace.

Our approach to training project leaders evolved over several years. In collaboration with staff in the Organizational Development and Learning unit in Human Resources as well as our colleagues in Student Development, we gradually developed a four to five day training program that linked relevant concepts and theories about leadership with information about the school settings and an overview of the CSL model. Each training day included presentations of theory but we relied heavily on participatory learning methods.

The Reading Week brand

Margo presenting a coveted Trek Program t-shirt to Martha Piper
Margo presenting a coveted Trek Program t-shirt to Martha Piper (photo copyright UBC)

As our Reading Week CSL projects gained profile on campus and became part of UBC student culture, we wanted to enhance participants’ sense of being proud to be part of this innovative and worthwhile effort. Early on in the development of the Trek Program, we had designed t-shirts and given them to staff and students. The t-shirt was given as a form of recognition for people’s contribution. It was also a way for Learning Exchange people to be identifiable at career fairs or other events where we were recruiting students. These t-shirts were a big hit. It seemed they contributed to a sense of identity and group cohesion.

So we designed t-shirts and later, zippered jackets for staff and project leaders to wear during Reading Week. (The jackets meant that leaders could stay warm when doing activities outside.) These shirts and jackets had several advantages. It meant that “go-to” people were easily identified during kick-off days where hundreds of people could be milling around and it was sometimes necessary for organizers or students to quickly find someone who could help them with a problem. It meant that students could easily find their leaders in the early stages of the projects, which was important given that leaders were usually not distinguishable by other means (e.g., they were often not much older than the students). These symbols of people’s roles also seemed to have a unifying effect. They contributed to people feeling they belonged to a respected group. They were a symbol of inclusion in an innovative enterprise that had earned a certain status on campus.

Elements of the model that required fine-tuning

Conveying the purpose of the projects

As we got more students and schools involved in Reading Week, we realized we needed to do a better job of letting both the students and our community partners know why UBC was putting so much effort into these projects. We could not assume that everyone knew what the Learning Exchange was or what our goals or approach were. Plus we had learned through experience that when students understand the context for a CSL project and have clear questions to contemplate, they learn more.

Gradually we developed a set of key messages we wanted students to hear. We integrated these messages into the kick-off event and used them as central themes for exploration during the educational and reflective components of each project.

The emphasis given to each of these themes differed from year to year, as did the tactics we used to introduce key topics or questions. We tried various approaches based on the feedback we got from students and leaders. For example, topics or questions were introduced in formal speeches given at the kick-off day by me or other leaders from UBC or the School Board. They were discussed in small group sessions facilitated by project leaders or offered as subjects students could write about in the blank journals we gave them. Key topics were often central to the educational workshops that accompanied each project. And they were covered again at the end of the projects, in closing circles or other small group discussions.

We encouraged students to think critically and creatively throughout the week about these key questions:

  • What is service? What does it mean to be of service? Or to be a recipient of service? What conditions allow you to be in the position of offering service in the community?
  • How does learning happen? How does the learning you are doing this week compare to the learning you do in your classes at UBC or in other settings? How does reflection add to your learning?
  • What does it mean to be a global citizen? In what ways are you acting like a global citizen this week?
  • What does it mean to promote the values of a civil and sustainable society? What kinds of values might these be? What are the marks of a civil society? What does being sustainable entail?

We tried to get students to understand that these questions were all interconnected. And that the goal was not for them to find a “right” answer, but to let the questions unsettle their previous assumptions and inspire new ways of looking at the issues. We encouraged students to see how their actions during Reading Week could help them understand the questions.

One student who took part in Reading Week and the Trek Program and went on to become a student staff member at the Learning Exchange confirmed that we were able to get students thinking deeply while at the same time attending to the nitty-gritty details. To hear Jacqui Ferraby talking about this, click below.

“I think you guys really nailed it . . .”


paint brushes in holderJust as it was important for students to understand the issues we wanted to explore and why, it was also important for host schools to be aware of and aligned with our goals for what students would learn. So, for example, before the 2005 projects, we held an orientation session for teachers and principals from partner schools to introduce them to the rationale for the Reading Week projects and to get them thinking creatively about how their projects could meet their school’s goals as well as connecting to the themes we wanted students to explore. This session to orient school partners was very successful. One benefit was that principals and teachers from different schools shared ideas and advice based on their prior experience with earlier Reading Week projects.

Planning for the projects

As the scale of the Reading Week initiative expanded, we devoted increasing amounts of time and energy to the kinds of planning activities we relied on to manage our work. For example, the week after Reading Week 2005 ended, we started setting overall goals for Reading Week 2006! This was intended to make the process less stressful for Learning Exchange staff and staff in the schools, to make sure the projects achieved meaningful goals rather than being make-work projects, and to deepen the relationships we had with our community partners. We also wanted to make sure the projects would effectively incorporate the three key elements of the CSL model: service, academic content, and structured reflection.

While this approach made theoretical sense and worked for us at UBC, the reality was that many schools did not have the luxury of thinking that far ahead. The tradition in the Vancouver school district of transferring inner city school principals every three or four years complicated matters. In some cases, we had to wait until September to see whether the new principal was going to want the school involved in Reading Week projects or in other cases, whether we could follow our enthusiastic supporters to their new schools.

The Service

kids painting2We developed an increasingly clear understanding of what kinds of projects were feasible to do in what had evolved into a three day schedule for the service and the learning components of the CSL projects. (We wanted to leave students a few days in the week to relax or perhaps even study!) But we were not exactly sure how to predict project success. We did some projects that were too complicated and ambitious. This left students and community partners either feeling frustrated that the project had not been completed or more often, it prompted them to complete the project on their own time so they could feel the satisfaction of fulfilling their commitment. But this sometimes left a bad aftertaste. In other cases, projects were so modest they were completed on the first day of work. We also aspired to be able to predict the influence of factors like the age and skills of the school children involved, the number of UBC students on the team, the skills or knowledge required of the UBC students, and the logistical risks involved (e.g., weather conditions if the project was to be done outdoors).

Academic content

We also were getting some sense of what kinds of “academic content” worked in the context of the Reading Week projects in schools, but we still felt this crucial aspect of the CSL model was weak. The impact of the workshops we were incorporating was very dependent on the skills of the presenters and the formats they used. Some presenters promised participatory workshops but ended up lecturing. Other presenters came highly recommended to us but their style and content were not well received by young adults itching to do something. What were the best ways to complement students’ service work with relevant curriculum? We struggled with this question.


We faced similar challenges with regard to reflection, which we believed to be crucial to students’ ability to make connections between what they were doing and the questions we wanted them to explore. We had been getting students writing in journals and discussing their experiences in small groups ever since the first Reading Week project, but here, too, the skills of the leaders mattered and they were variable. In addition, since we were pitching the projects as fun things to do during Reading Week, some students resisted the idea of sitting around talking or sitting quietly writing.

Getting students to engage in traditional kinds of reflective activities was especially challenging in the elementary school context, where students were surrounded by hundreds of hyper-active kids who wanted their attention. I really “got” this one sunny afternoon when I was responsible for leading a reflection session in an elementary school. I had spent the morning outside working in the school garden surrounded by kids. These kids asked amazing questions, laughed unreservedly, and were in constant motion. Afterwards, I went inside to a stuffy room filled with people sitting quietly on hard, plastic chairs. I imagined myself prompting discussion about how it is that in Canada there are significant numbers of kids who come to school hungry every morning. I thought to myself, “To hell with this, I want to go outside and play!”

So we experimented with other ways to encourage reflective thinking. For example, we tried to plant reflective seeds during active phases of the project that we hoped would take root later when students were in calmer, quieter spaces. We encouraged leaders to look for teachable moments during the service work when a challenging question could be asked and a quick stand-up discussion could take place. We also learned that expecting students to really open up to each other on their first day together was not realistic. Therefore we encouraged leaders to focus on building trust and team spirit in the early stages of the project so that students would be more comfortable sharing their reflections towards the end of the project.

Why the learning was so powerful

bench in playground from sideWe gradually came to understand that the Reading Week experience led to powerful learning outcomes because of several factors. Students were immersed in a compelling, high energy environment that was significantly different from ordinary student life. UBC students could not sit on the sidelines of these projects. In most projects, students were challenged to take part in activities that were unfamiliar, e.g., building simple structures like compost boxes or raised garden beds. They were responsible for delivering something tangible to people they came to care about. Failure was not an option. Their success depended on their ability to work effectively with people they had never met before. Students had to figure out how to work as a team and do so within a very tight time frame. In most cases, the projects involved physical activity, sometimes hard labour. For students used to sitting passively in classrooms using only their minds and their verbal abilities, the CSL projects exercised different figurative and literal muscles. And the reflection activities, while challenging to facilitate, did get students thinking critically about the contexts for the projects they were doing. Responses to evaluation questionnaires that students completed every year showed that students did reflect on what it meant to be a global citizen. They did confront realities they might otherwise not have understood. (For more, see How CSL promotes learning.)

The Reading Week model is resource-intensive. But the consistency of the learning outcomes for university students, the amazing array of tangible and intangible products that student teams have left behind, and the potential for influencing the lives of kids in schools makes the investment unquestionably worthwhile.

To learn more:

To read brief descriptions of a few examples of the kinds of Reading Week projects UBC students have done in inner city schools in Vancouver, click here.

To read the argument I made for the value of Reading Week CSL projects, the value of having university students do CSL in public schools and my reflections on how CSL contributes to the education of global citizens, see the related posts from my University Affairs blog.

To view a 10 minute video about UBC’s Reading Week CSL projects, click below. The video includes information about the Reading Week model and our projects in schools as well as examples of curricular CSL projects done during Reading Week.

To view a 5 minute video that describes a school Reading Week project that focused on math skills, click below


For the next chapter in The Learning Exchange Story go to Collaborating with the YWCA.