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The Pandas Have Arrived!

25 september 2014

This week the English Department have launched the fantastic Literacy Scheme ‘The Panda Awards’ with Key Stage 3 students. Head of English, Gemma Treeby, tells us more about the scheme.

  • The British International School Shanghai, Puxi joins in with the Panda Awards

Many years ago, the scheme was launched amongst Asian International Schools to make reading more of a communal experience. As all of the students within a school get to read the same collection, it encourages them to collaborate and engage in active discussions about texts, characters, writers and ideas.

Last year, the scheme was a fantastic success. Many of the students were highly engaged and several students who were not keen readers managed to explore many different styles of writing that they may not otherwise have encountered. This culminated in a celebration afternoon where KS3 came together, dressed as panda book characters, to give some highly engaging presentations on their favourite texts before everyone had the opportunity to vote on which book should take the title of best book.

The overwhelming winner in the BISS Puxi vote was R.J. Palacio’s heart-warming novel ‘Wonder’ which uses a multi-stranded narrative to tell the tale of a boy with extreme facial disfigurement heading into mainstream education and explores the impact this has on him and those around him. Unsurprisingly, this went on to be the winner of the overall competition across Asia and the author was presented their award of a hand-painted silk scroll. The mature reader’s choice was John Green’s ‘The Fault in our Stars’ which was also the BISS Puxi favourite.

Librarians, students and teachers from participating schools are allowed to submit their choices for the novels to be shortlisted; therefore, the shortlist tends to be an eclectic mix. This year we have: an eccentric toy-making billionaire, sinister foster home owners, Russian ballerinas from the Cold War, a lad called Eel experiencing London in the time of Cholera and a beautiful coming of age tale of two young Mexicans who form a friendship through many adversities in an American town.

What the books offer, in their diversity, is the opportunity for young people to empathise and gain a deeper understanding of other ways of living in sometimes difficult circumstances. As a result, several of these books have slightly more mature themes and some strong language. This language is not used gratuitously, but to reflect a sense of realism around the themes of teenage rebellion and the gritty and sometimes difficult circumstances characters are living in. The two books in the older reader category (for ages 11-14) which contain this are: ‘Dancer, Daughter, Traitor Spy’ and ‘Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe’. Nevertheless, these books have a lot to offer young readers.

For example, ‘Aristotle and Dante’ is a multi-award winning book which has already gained much critical success. Publishers Weekly review called it "a tender, honest exploration of identity and sexuality, and a passionate reminder that love—whether romantic or familial—should be open, free, and without shame." The book has won numerous awards, including the Lambda Literary Award and Stonewall Book Award, an Amelia Elizabeth Walden Award honour, Pura Belpré Narrative Medal for Latino fiction, and Michael L. Printz Award honour for Young Adult fiction.

However, we appreciate that some students develop at different rates of maturity to others and some parents will feel their children are not ready to be exposed to this. Therefore, within the Panda Quiz book we have added a parental signature line on these texts, so that you can let us know whether you are happy for your child to read them. We are also happy, as teachers, to discuss these texts with students in detail and allow them to explore these themes in a safe environment where they can raise any questions.

As the scheme was so successful, we have also extended our collection of the Mature Reader shortlist aimed at 15-18 year olds which we will be using with Year 10 and above. Again, several of these novels have more adult language and themes and for these we will request parental consent. However, many of these texts are perfectly suitable for more advanced readers at Key Stage 3. We will make a list of these and offer them to our keen Key Stage 3 readers who speed through the Panda books and are looking for more challenging reads.

The Panda Awards have proved to be so successful that several European independent schools have also enrolled as well as many top schools in Asia. To make the scheme even more of an exciting experience this year, we are also linking up with the British International School of Beijing online through the Global Classroom, online blogging and wikis to allow students between the schools to discuss and review the books.

We hope that parents will support us with the scheme – please ask your children about the texts and make sure they always have one to be reading. If you would like any more information about the awards or any of the texts please do not hesitate to contact me.

- Miss Treeby, Head of English