Spotlight on Northern Ireland: Reaching Out

We return to our Spotlight on Northern Ireland series, by Project Worker Patricia Canning. In this final instalment, she discusses the impact that Get Into Reading can have in completely different environments, as well as looking forward to potential future developments.

Queen’s University, Belfast

Every Thursday since November 2011 at Queen’s University, 12 postgraduate students from within a range of different disciplines from the School of English, come together to read the same thing at our open Get Into Reading group. My own experiences of university recall an almost religiously observed segregation policy in terms of ‘genres of literature’. Victorian literature was studied apart from medieval literature; renaissance literature was considered a different discipline to American literature, and so on. Not so every Thursday – we read Shakespeare alongside Charles Dickens, Brontë alongside Carol-Ann Duffy. What’s more, everybody ‘gets it’.

I taught students at Queen’s for a few years and one student in my class, a creative, diligent learner and writer, attended for the entire course. This student, B, came to the shared reading group. At the second week of our Get Into Reading sessions, B bravely shared a very personal experience, impelled by the story we were reading at the time – a painful struggle with debilitating depression, for which B had to take over a year off to facilitate recovery. I taught B.  As close as I am (or think I am) to my students, I never knew of any of what B had been (and at the time, still was) going through. I was saddened by my own blindness to the human experience, which had been swallowed up by the academic one. Yet, here B was, in the company of relative strangers, speaking eloquently and emotionally about those experiences. ‘I can understand this poem’, says B,

 ‘it’s a way of understanding what depression is for me… a way of putting it into words. I like that’.

Literature, Fernando Pessoa would argue, gives us a means of ‘getting it’. As he says, to express something is to conserve its virtue and take away the terror’. B, inspired by the text to share his own experiences, helped us ‘get it’.

Belfast Healthcare Trust

After our Lisburn showcase in February 2011, we established a partnership with the Health Improvement Team at the Belfast Trust, who were interested in developing Get Into Reading as a staff wellbeing initiative. After many meetings with Team members, as well as potential funders, we secured a 6-week pilot project, funded by the ‘Here4U’ wellbeing group at the hospital. We have secured funding from the Health Consortium for a 24-week project to run after the pilot. As one group member put it,

‘I never read – my husband constantly winds me up about my reluctance to read – but this is just brilliant!’

One of the group members comes in every week buzzing with anticipatory pleasure, telling us she now reads the literature we read with a few of the elderly people she visits as part of her work role, and they – like her – love it. I have been asked by a few of the group if we can offer GIR in their respective workplaces (under the Trust umbrella, but geographically disparate). We have also been approached by a member of the Trust inquiring about the possibility of running groups in psychiatric inpatient units. The wonderful thing about this new request is that our reformed ‘non-reader’ made the recommendation.

Reading with Children: All Children’s Integrated Primary School, Co. Down.

I ran a few taster sessions at this local primary school with the Primary 7 children who were preparing for the transition to follow-on schools. 28 children took part over a few weeks and all of them wanted more. The ‘wow’ moments from this group were often from deeply engaged children offering intuitive readings in the sessions, but who, outside the sessions, were disinterested or under-confident readers. We are working towards establishing a 2012-13 project in this primary and its feeder secondary school in Newcastle.

Looking ahead

We are embarking on a very exciting stage of development in Northern Ireland, making some wonderful connections with individuals, organisations and funders, as well as establishing partnerships within a range of sectors (health, criminal justice, education, community). At the heart of this work, and the cornerstone of its success thus far, are the people with whom we read. Every week, the grass roots reading experiences offer the greatest evidence for the necessity of literature in all our lives. As J has said, ‘those words may not be mine, but they sure as hell tell my story’. Finding ‘those words’ offers J, and others, a way of making sense. Sharing them means doing it. Together.

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