Upper Canada College’s Barton Lecture was created in honour of former principal Eric Barton, who introduced a community service program to the school in the early 1990s.
Over the years it has involved speakers from both inside and outside the UCC community who’ve aimed to help boys learn about some of society’s most vulnerable and marginalized people. This year’s lecture, given to Upper School students in Laidlaw Hall on Oct. 3, was provided by children’s author and literacy teacher Sheilah Currie.
Currie is the founder and president of ReadUP Reading Clubs and publishing company Riverdale Readers. ReadUP is composed of seven community reading clubs for kids of all ages who are learning to read, many of whom are from low-income families and at risk of falling behind. Thousands of books have been given out to hundreds of children since 2005.
“People with low literacy skills are more likely to be unemployed, to have health problems, to engage in crime, and the list goes on,” says Currie. “It’s in society’s best interest that its citizens know how to read, and read well.”
Currie’s father passed away when she was seven, leaving her mother to raise six children. Her mother remarried, creating a mixed family where she was the youngest of 10 children. She didn’t grow up privileged, which helped develop her empathy for children in similar situations.
Currie went on to study English in university and then became a teacher, working one-on-one with at-risk kids and teaching them to read. She realized that her fellow teachers didn’t have enough of the right books to give kids a good start at reading, so she wrote some herself, had a friend do the graphics, and then copied, laminated and spiral-bound each one.
She eventually approached a large education publisher and was hired to write and edit a series of early readers that it was producing. She went on to write more than 60 books for various publishers and recently incorporated Riverdale Readers to produce books for kids who are just beginning to learn how to read.
Currie started her first Toronto reading club at Eastview community centre after canvassing friends and family members for donations, purchasing books from education publishers and donating books from her own collection.
“When the families arrived at the club, I established each child’s reading level, matched the child to books at the right level, had the child sit with a volunteer, read the books aloud, and got the volunteer’s help with any tricky words,” says Currie.
“Then the books were taken home for extra practice. The children came back the next week, returned the bag of books, got another, read with a volunteer, and so on. As the children progressed, they moved up the reading levels. That’s why it’s called ReadUP.”
ReadUP has become a registered charity and Currie is impressed with the support that it’s received.
“We have been approached by individuals who give money to help us buy books and supplies for the clubs. We get donations from community organizations like Kiwanis and from large corporations that want to contribute to the community. A couple of them, like Scotiabank and Alterna Savings, have even given staff the afternoon off to come and volunteer at a ReadUP club.
“And we’ve had several children who participate in the clubs who collected donations at their birthday parties, saved half to buy themselves a present, and gave the other half to ReadUP. Eight-year-old philanthropists. Impressive.”
ReadUP is staffed by volunteers from all walks of life, including students, local professionals, retirees, parents of participants, teachers, teachers-to-be and community centre staff members.
“We have a wonderful board of directors who have busy lives and careers, but make the time for ReadUP meetings and business,” says Currie.
“Our accountant volunteered to take care of our small organization’s finances, even though she number-crunches billions of dollars in her day job, and our lawyer works at a large downtown firm but does ReadUP business at no charge to us. A graphic designer does all of our print work, and there are many others who help out in different capacities.”
Almost half of Canadian adults lack the literacy skills necessary to be fully competent in most jobs, according to Currie, and a large chunk fall into the category of low literacy. Economists surmise that a one per cent increase in the literacy rate in Canada would generate $18 billion in economic growth every year.
Anecdotes like these show how valuable the work that Currie’s doing is, and how important it is to promote reading and ensure literacy.
“I’ve chosen the life of an educator and am happy I did it,” she says. “I’ve affected the lives of kids. I don’t know how many, but lots.
“And if I’ve helped these kids not only to develop the skills to read, but also a passion for reading, then I’ve done what I had set out to do.”
Currie’s lifelong love of the written word and desire to share that with children have earned her a City of Toronto Volunteer Service Award and a Volunteer Toronto Legacy Award, so she was an appropriate choice to carry on the Barton Lecture tradition.