The Reader Leader who packed up her things and took Shared Reading to France

The Reader has trained people to Read to Lead all over the world and already has Shared Reading communities from Sweden to New Zealand.

We haven’t yet made the stride across the channel to our nearest neighbour – or we didn’t think we had – until we learned that one former London-based Reader Leader has packed up her handbook and taken the practice there herself.

Alice Colquhoun completed her Read to Lead training in October 2016 and ran two Shared Reading groups in London with a year in a centre for homeless people and a ten-week project reading scripts at the Bush Theatre in Shepherd’s Bush.

She said: “It was really magical. It really made me feel part of London.”

But when her partner took a job in Grenoble, France, and while she was finishing her doctorate, she needed to make the move and leave her groups behind.

“I actually considered flying back each week just to carry on!” she laughs.

The groups were rather special, Alice, who has a theatrical background, explains.

The Bush Theatre group reads a play over six weeks as it’s being produced for the stage. “Reading Hir by Taylor Mac – a piece about gender – was transformative. Many people had no idea about these new terms, like cisgender and trans, so it was like re-learning the alphabet.

“With the homeless centre, we had the opportunity to take a lot of the group to read in Kensington Palace. When I moved, I missed the community aspects of it.”

So, Alice set about launching Shared Reading in France.

“The library in La Tronche was hesitant at first, they said ‘why do you want to do it voluntarily?’. But they agreed to hosting me on a trial basis.

“I really didn’t know how many people would want to speak in English, or whether people would be interested. But we’ve been going since October, have had over 50 enquiries about the group and get 16 people coming each week. People have even approached me asking if Shared Reading happens in Paris, but I have to tell them it’s just here for now.”

Many people join the group to improve their English, Alice says, which means they take things a lot slower than a typical Shared Reading group.

“It’s quite different reading with people with English as second language, but a lot of the life narratives come through regardless of the language barrier,” she says. “They pick up on archetypal mother figures, childhood stories and historical periods – and make clear connections there – there’s a real sense of something bubbling underneath.

“It’s been hard as well – but there’s a strong sense of community in the group which has been really nice to see. Creativity overtakes the fears they’ve had before over knowing right words.”

Alice says the group were keen for British texts at the beginning – and that poetry has “gone down really well, the rhyming and rhythm. But it’s been trial and error”.

Alice even sends an email around to her Readers giving advice about different texts to read for practice while not in the group.

“We read Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy, and the character of the mean governess really struck a chord – one group member, in their 80s, broke down and spoke about their experience as a child. It was really amazing that in broken English everything was coming through.

“We’ve talked about wealth and poverty, relating the protests in France at the moment to the texts.

“These stories transcend cultures, the roles people have taken on – fathers, mothers, daughters – and it’s fascinating to translate that to each other.

“Like all Shared Reading groups, it’s people talking about their personal lives with complete strangers. We talk about loss a lot – many of them are retired and everybody’s had very complex lives.”

She firmly believes Shared Reading can easily cross borders.

“It’s a really interesting model for bilingual communities – a really inclusive tool that people should feel confident with. I didn’t know it was going to work but it really does.

“I’ll set up a read group wherever I am in the world.”

Alice has already spent a year in Grenoble and has another to go – but has managed to pick up French on her journey.

If you’d like to set up a Shared Reading group in your local community, email volunteering@thereader.org.uk to find out how to get started.

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