A ‘reawakening’ through reading: Jack’s Story

Our annual AGM is coming up next week, and we’re looking forward to celebrating a year of achievements with some of our group members from across the country. Many of our group members have gone on to extend their experiences with us past going to a shared reading group regularly, including taking up volunteering opportunities, and it is these often life-changing stories that we celebrate all year through.

Jack came to one of our shared reading groups in a rehabiliation facility on Merseyside, and has since gone on to become a volunteer on our Merseyside Big Lottery Reader Scheme and as part of our Connect at Calderstones programme.

When meeting with us, Jack revealed a life of turmoil prior to joining the shared reading group.

“Before I came to the house I was an amphetamine addict for 20 years and an alcoholic on top…so before the group my life was a mess – a total mess. I lost access to my kids, and I had an active social life but it was all centered around drugs.”

Jack was always an engaged and insightful member of the group, but found it hard at times to accept and listen to other people’s points of view, often becoming defensive or slightly confrontational when there was a difference in perspective. During review, Jack reflected on positive changes he had noted in himself:

“Going to one of these reading groups can only be a benefit, even if you come away with it raging about someone else’s opinion or disagreeing with them, at least you’ve engaged with someone else – you have heard someone else’s opinion. But I’ve found that 99% of the time those opinions are usually worth listening to. I have got better at taking things on board and empathising with people rather than rubbishing their opinion. To see both sides of an argument a bit better, to consider other people’s feelings bit more.”

Jack went on to describe his experience at The Reader as ‘reawakening’ something inside of him:

“It’s more re-awoken things that have been dormant, because you get so used to shutting off the intellectual side of your brain down when you’re in addiction…It’s re-awoken the fact that nowadays nice people might want to know me, whereas 6 months ago, they would’ve taken one look at me and jogged on. It’s re-awoken a sense of self confidence, self-esteem, that I don’t know of many things that would’ve done the same to be honest…

I don’t know about any actual changes in me, rather, reawakening things in me that were there in the first place that had just been suppressed, and now, I’ve been able to exercise and reawaken things inside me, that I suppose I thought were lost, because you do just lose faith in your own abilities, and hope that anything will ever get better. It made me realize that I can connect with other people through something as simple as a book, a story. There’s that real human contact element of it.”

Since successfully completing his rehabilitation programme, Jack has moved back to Sheffield. We have since put Jack in touch with our Sheffield Reader-in-Residence so he can continue his journey with us.

The Reader’s Annual Report 2014/15 will be published next week to coincide with our AGM, featuring more of our group members’ stories.

Finding a way into reading: Alan’s Story

In the run-up to the publication of The Reader’s Annual Report 2014/15, here’s another highlight from our shared reading activity in the past year. 

Our shared reading projects with children and young people focus entirely on reading for pleasure. Even in school settings, stories are shared in an informal, interactive and engaging way to encourage an enthusiasm for reading. Alan is one of our young readers at a primary school in Liverpool, where we have been working in partnership with City of Readers.

Alan, along with twenty other year 3 and 4 pupils, attended the first shared reading session which we ran at a local primary school as part of the Reading Revolutionaries Roadshow. As the group were new to the training course and shared reading model we explained that if students felt too shy or anxious to ask any questions out loud, they could write their questions on a post it note, in which we would address and respond to after the morning break.

We read Oh No George! by Chris Haughton and a lively discussion ensued with lots of the pupils relaying stories about their naughty pets. The group were totally engrossed and all participated in shouting out ‘OH NO GEORGE!’

One group member stated:

“It’s hard when you’re told not to do something though, because it makes you want to do it even more. Like George…I bet he wasn’t even thinking about eating the cake or the playing in the mud, but as soon as he’s told to ‘be good!’ they’re his first thoughts. I’m like that too…like George…as soon as I’m told I ‘can’t’ that’s when I ‘want’.”

After we finished reading, Alan, who had been mostly quiet for the duration, approached me and stated that he had made a mistake with his question on his Post It note and needed to ‘fix it’. We went through the notes until we found his Post It which read ‘I don’t read anything’. He took his note and came up to me around ten minutes later with a new submission which read ‘Did George go in the bin or not? Would George be good next time or not?’

In one twenty minute shared reading session Alan had transformed from a self defined ‘non reader’ to an inquisitive and interested literary thinker.

A's story City of Readers
Alan’s amended Post It note after reading Oh No George!

“By being in the reading group, I exist as a person”: Anna’s Story

The Reader‘s Annual Report 2014/15 will be published later this month, in time to read at our 2015 AGM where we’ll be celebrating a year of successes and triumphs with our group members from across the country.

In the meantime we’re already getting into a celebratory spirit and offering a sneak peek into our Annual Report with some of our Reader Stories. Great literature is at the heart of everything we do, and the impact that reading great literature has upon our group members around the UK – whether seeming small on the surface or goes deeper to reveal something truly life-changing – give us our most remarkable highlights day by day, week by week, and year upon year.

Anna is one of our group members in Wirral, who has been going to shared reading sessions for nearly ten years. She is in her late fifties. One of our Wirral group leaders tells us more about Anna’s Story:

“Life has not always been kind to Anna. She admits that in the past she isolated herself because she was taking care of her uncle and she has also suffered from depression. Last year her daughter died. She continues to look after her father. Anna says:

“Depression is a flat feeling, everything is on one level. That flat feeling goes away when I am here and we’re reading poems and stories together. We might be crying or laughing but that flat feeling isn’t there. I used to be a very quiet and reserved person. But the reading group has brought me out of myself . It’s taken me ten years for me to do but I can put in an input now. I can give my opinions. When I read out loud someone’s listening to me. By being in the reading group I exist as a person. There has been a different Anna. but now I’ve got opinions and I interrupt.”

Anna is a volunteer at Central Park in Birkenhead and often shares the poems we read with one of her fellow volunteers. She attends two of our reading groups now and is a thoughtful, articulate and caring reader. She is also an enthusiastic advocate for shared reading:

“The reading group says – yes, you can come here. You can be part of society.”

Stay tuned to The Reader Online over the next couple of weeks for more Reader Stories in the run-up to our AGM.

Get Into Reading: Reducing Implicit Prejudice

Four women talk about The Unforgotten Coat outdoorsThis week, we were pointed towards a rather insightful article about a piece of psychological research by one of our partners in Belgium, Dirk Terryn. Dirk has been part of our ongoing work in developing a shared reading partnership with the city of Antwerp and the wider region of Flanders, led by the city council’s education service, which has played a huge role in taking the work of The Reader Organisation to an international level.

The research, which was carried out by the Association for Psychological Science (APS) and published in their journal Psychological Science, focused on the prevalence and tendency of implicit prejudice; particularly across different cultures and ethnicities. The article (which can be read here) describes how this sort of prejudice is often caused by a lack of knowledge or lack of understanding about a particular (or indeed, several) culture(s), and how the APS research showed that increased connection and exposure to members of a cultural group is likely to decrease our prejudice towards it.

More specifically though, the research showed that even a brief opportunity to take part in another’s culture can vastly improve intergroup attitudes, even months down the line. Cues for participation or connection as small or insignificant as, for example, a shared birthday, have been shown to bring people together, eventually even leading them to share common goals and motivations.

In a way, this is what The Reader Organisation is trying to achieve through Get Into Reading, our shared reading scheme that takes place in a variety of settings throughout the country, every day and every week. The bringing together of people from various backgrounds and walks of life to sit within a small group of about 5 – 8 people is what, first of all, creates an opening; an opportunity for communication and social connection between those very people.

After that, the various perceptions and meanings that are often steadily teased out from the text which the group may be reading is the second step. This is essentially the creating and strengthening of shared meanings, often across social and cultural boundaries , which is what Get Into Reading is all about. Members of a group can and often do find that they have things in common, which inevitably leads to social relationships being forged outside of the group. And over longer periods of time, many begin to share personal feelings or anecdotes that are unwittingly brought to the surface by the nature of the various texts.

The researchers at APS do note, however, that the positive effects of the study are very much dependent on people feeling that they have “freely chosen to participate and engage in cultural activities”. Making people feel obligated to take part can, therefore, reduce these benefits and even possibly have an adverse effect.

Group members are not encouraged to participate in Get Into Reading groups with the aim or motive to improve their understanding of another’s culture. Reasons for attendance at a GIR group will obviously vary massively for many people, being highly dependable on the setting, nature and purpose of the group; not to mention the personal reasons of the readers themselves. But multicultural interaction does take place regularly across GIR groups, and is without a doubt one of the most valued benefits.

Just take this view from a London-based reader who moved to the UK from Madrid and decided to participate in a GIR group to familiarise herself with British culture and have more opportunity to practice her English. She said:

It’s nice to arrive and be greeted with such kindness. The reading of fragments that are then discussed at a not-too-big a table with a cup of tea in hand creates an intimate atmosphere conducive to sharing impressions, feelings and experiences. Our coordinator, Val (also Penny and others), plays a key role as she keeps the cadence, encourages us to talk, touches points to develop and contributes, like the others, with her personal experiences that enrich the conversation. Val’s high intelligence, skills and sensitivity make it a particularly pleasant and interesting experience.

My group has been very generous to me and Val and the other members take the time to explain to me what I might miss because English is not my native language, because I did not grow up here, or for whatever reason. The time shared has favoured the development of personal relationships and more than once I have found myself sharing concerns as well as good and bad personal news.

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We may perhaps say then that multicultural interaction is a secondary outcome, or ‘byproduct’ of Get Into Reading…it strives to improve connections amongst people within communities, which may or not include those from contrasting social and cultural backgrounds. This is the beauty of Get Into Reading – the fact that no two groups are ever the same in their composition, and the fact that new and unforeseen outcomes are making themselves known all the time.

Reducing implicit cultural prejudice may just be another of these many wonderful outcomes. While it is perhaps not always the aim, it is certainly always most welcome.

Betty’s Reader Story

dementia 2Earlier this week on The Reader Online we gave a summary of the ‘Living Well with Dementia’ session at Shared Reading for Healthy Communities, this year’s National Conference of The Reader Organisation. The session presented some thought-provoking examples of how shared reading can impact upon people living with dementia, leading on the positive findings from CRILS‘ research publication, A Literature-Based Intervention for Older People Living with Dementia.

Each week, our Project Workers and many of our volunteers are sharing reading with older people and those living with dementia, providing time and space to relax, interact with others and engage in meaningful, stimulating activity. Not only do residents get to connect with great literature but their mood and concentration improves, with personal memories and stories beginning to emerge.

Here’s one of our Reader Stories from Betty, a resident in a care home – just one example of how taking part in shared reading can prove to be ‘a window on the world’ and much more for people living with dementia.

Betty is a regular at the Care Home 1 group. She is 93 years old. Since before Christmas, Betty’s health seems to have deteriorated, but she is still keen to come to the group and share poetry. One week when she was not in the group I was told she was in the quiet lounge and didn’t want to move. When I went to say hello however, she was most put out and said ‘I would have come, I love the poetry.’  So we read a couple of poems together, just the two of us.

Betty particularly likes poems about the sea. As a child she lived in Flint in Wales, but always visited Talacra on the coast and has clear memories of it. Eventually her father built a bungalow at Talacra and she recalls many holidays, including a sad one when some young men were drowned. Betty also has a strong memory of being cut off by the tide and being ‘guided’ back to shore by a dog. She never knew what became of the dog.

dementia 4Another great favourite of Betty’s is ‘Pedlars’ by W D Rands. She remembers it as one of the first poems she learned as a child. She and the other members of the group had a really good conversation about seeing gypsies travelling in traditional wooden caravans and remembering the tinkling sound they made as everything inside moved around.

Betty had a happy marriage, but does not seem to have had children of her own, although she fostered them. She also loved to garden and seems knowledgeable when we read poems about nature or gardens. Betty has plainly always loved to read. She says her mother loved poetry and she thinks that’s where her love of it originates. She recalls a mobile library (a horse and cart) coming to her childhood home in Flint. Her mother would keep the more ‘grown up’ books on a high shelf, but as they got older, Betty and her siblings were allowed to reach for these.

Find more of our Readers’ Stories on our website, where you can also discover more about shared reading with older people and people living with dementia.