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The Reader Trusting It to Catch Erin Carlstrom

Bristol Ideas
Two young people reading

Written by Erin Carlstrom

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The Reader is bringing about a Reading Revolution, in Bristol and beyond. In Bristol there are Shared Reading groups running in libraries, community centres, social housing and care homes. They have regular sessions run with local partners such as Bristol Drugs Project and Bristol Refugee and Asylum Seeker Partnership. To find a public group that you can join, visit their website.

As well as running Shared Reading groups, the charity also has its own magazine and podcast, exploring how stories and poems can connect us to one another.

In this extract from The Reader magazine, The Reader’s Teaching and Learning Leader Erin Carlstrom talks about how Shared Reading can give people the space to open up authentically, and unexpectedly.

Not long ago, I led a Shared Reading taster session for university students at King’s College in London. I was incredibly nervous. Houses of education always have that effect on me because they dredge up old beliefs that I’m a fraud in the intellectual world. I’d taken the story ‘Wood Grouse on a High Promontory Overlooking Canada’ by David Guterson to read. My anxiety soon abated as I dwelt in the story about a camping trip taken by two brothers, one a soldier recently returned from war, the other a teenager wanting to reconnect with his older brother. I listened to the students share their thoughts about the pain of growing apart and the comfort of being together in nature. At the end of the session, they talked about how this model of reading was unlike any experience they’d had in class, and how it actually helped their sense of wellbeing. One group member wrote to me afterwards to say:

What I enjoyed the most about Shared Reading was the way it enabled me to stop during my daily grind and only think about how what I’m reading makes me feel. with no demands made on me whatsoever to form correct, learned responses.

‘Only think about how what I’m reading makes me feel’. This is what is so different about Shared Reading, and why it felt so different from this student’s previous experiences of reading.

It creates space for authentic responses without the pressure to know the correct thought. The student’s words reminded me of my own past relationship with reading and the roots of that persistent uneasiness I feel in academic spaces. Years of unrecognised dyslexia and the struggle it caused in my own experiences with education led me to feel ashamed and to believe that in order to be taken seriously I needed to hide my inadequate self from family, friends, classmates and colleagues. Privately, I clung to reading. In part, I think, to face in private what was so daunting in public. but also because I needed to read. Reading what others were thinking, feeling and experiencing helped me untangle and understand my own sense of self.

The memory of that old gap between my public and private reading lives helps me understand the apprehension I see in people’s eyes when I invite them to a Shared Reading group for the first time. My go-to explanation of Shared Reading is this:

‘We read a story or a poem aloud and talk together about what they mean to us.’ Although this is effective at capturing the structure of the session, it doesn’t quite convey the potential of what could happen in the group. The truth is, I don’t know what the story or the poem will mean that day, I don’t know where the literature will lead us.

I’ll never forget a taster I led with a carers’ support group, when one man, sparked by Elizabeth Jennings’ poem ‘A Company of Friends’, spoke of how hard it was to watch his wife, whom he cared for, flit between knowing and not knowing him, herself, her surroundings. Then, the still more complicated thought: that he didn’t know either what was coming, or how many moments of knowing she would have left.

The leader of the carers’ support group later told me that reading this together opened up the group members in a way she hadn’t seen before. And that because of the conversation it brought up, she was able to better understand how to support them in their caring roles.

I don’t think the man at the carers’ support group expected to share what he did when he walked into the room that day. I remember a woman telling me at another taster how the poem ‘For a New Beginning’ by John O’Donohue was exactly what she needed that morning. She was in the process of uprooting her life and moving to a new town, and the poem met her, found her out, in a way neither of us could have anticipated.

When I’m wandering through community centres and libraries inviting people to come along to a taster session – and even on occasion enticing them with the promise of homemade baked goods – it’s hard to explain to people that the real enticement is the possibility of that meaningful personal connection. It’s hard to explain the story of the student, the carer, the woman moving to a new town, to a stranger going about their day.

I once gave a woman outside a library a flyer for a session I was about to lead, and before I had a chance to explain she asked, ‘Is this some kind of religious cult?’ Caught off guard, I tumbled my way through an explanation and walked off thinking there was no way she would come. But she did. Another time, at a community centre, I was handing out flyers to a group of parents, but it was their kids who became interested and, in the space of a few minutes, had persuaded their adults to give it a go. I wasn’t expecting to lead an intergenerational session that day, but what a memorable time we had reading Longfellow’s ‘The Arrow and the Song’. The children eagerly read and shared their thoughts on the importance of trying something new without knowing the outcome: ‘I shot an arrow into the air, It fell to earth, I knew not where.’

Meanwhile, the adults talked about the comfort of having friends who you connect to without speaking: ‘And the song, from beginning to end, I found again in the heart of a friend.’

Added to the unpredictability of how each session will unfold, I still enter each new taster with my own insecurities, as I did that day I led the session at King’s College. What if I’m not engaging enough? What if I’m not able to get people interested enough to start a discussion? What if no one likes the literature? Or likes me for bringing it to them?

My experience of Shared Reading has taught me, in the face of uncertainty and especially when confronted by my own fears of inadequacy, to trust the text. Trust that there is something good in it that will resonate with other people. I’ve learned to trust my own experience with the text, to trust that the need that kept me reading in private years ago is valuable and worth sharing in public. I’ve learned to trust that need over and beyond any expectation or demand to be ‘correct’. I don’t have some great knowledge or secret to share about the text, but as a reader I can say, ‘I’ve found meaning here.’ As a Reader Leader, I create a space around the literature, away from the ‘grind’, and invite people into that space; I give the literature and all the meaning it holds room to kindle and catch with the thoughts and feelings of the people present; I trust the poem or story to spark in the group as it has sparked in me.

I was invited to lead a Shared Reading taster session at an over-60s club as part of the afternoon program of lunch, bingo and a raffle. As the afternoon progressed, I felt the energy of the room dwindle. The bus to take people home had arrived, the raffle prizes were being passed around. I worried that I wouldn’t be able to draw their interest. But then I read Debjani Chatterjee’s poem ‘interludes’, a tried-and-tested stalwart of many past taster sessions.

Something in the tired and unfocussed group ignited. The bus driver was called in, so that he too might hear the poem and experience the rich stillness that it created for us in that space. This was not because I created some kind of better version of me who had something inspired to say or share about the literature, but because I trusted the text that I was so desperately and authentically needing in that moment to reach the other people in the room. And it did.

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