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Shared Reading is giving young boys in a California juvenile hall ‘a place to be together’

Written by Kirsty Styles, 1st March 2019

Kathy sent herself across the world last summer to take up The Reader’s Read to Lead training at our Liverpool HQ – perhaps just about the only thing you can’t get in California.

She was already very experienced at reading aloud, teaching English in community schools, as well as to more vulnerable young people in juvenile hall, a youth detention facility.

“It seems like a small thing but it’s not,” she explains of her new Shared Reading skills.  “To slow down, make more eye contact, it’s remarkable. You do that and things open up and change.” She has always worked to ensure boys get to read ‘girls’ books and since Read to Lead, has been working her way through Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess. 

“It’s always surprising and wonderful the way they respond. These are adolescent boys, and the correctional officers in the room are often adult men, and they like it too! “We’re so convinced these stories are traditionally ‘girls’ stories’ – but books like this give boys access to the world in a powerful way that they otherwise wouldn’t get.  

“It give us a place to be in together.” What will be less familiar to Reader Leaders are ‘Snappies and Clappies’, Kathy’s way of helping the kids to express praise for each other. She gives us a taste of her latest class reading…

“Ermengarde… we learn about her troubled relationship with her father – who humiliates and is disappointed by her. 

“And she adores Sara – who is kind and loving to her… and the threesome of Emily the doll, Sara and Ermengarde is so lovely. 

“Ermengarde is enchanted by Sara’s storytelling about Emily. She knows it’s fantasy… but that’s accepted. I asked the class, ‘what’s their relationship like?’.  

“‘It’s a special relationship!” says one of the boys.  

“I look at him and say… ’ohhh…thank you!’.

“’Snappies and Clappies’ hoots another boy, snapping and clapping… so sweet.  

“Another boy chimes in when I ask ‘how is it special?’.  

“‘She doesn’t judge her!’.

“’Wonderful!’ I exclaim.

“And there’s a big round of Snappies and Clappies.

“At the end of the hour, one of the corrections staff says that he keeps thinking of the song Sara Smile by Hall and Oates…and the boy who’d led the hooting says, ‘Hey, we have a few minutes left! Let’s hear it!’.

“And so the officer pulls it up on the screen and we sit and listen. I sing a line or two…and we read the lyrics while we listen. 

“The boys are liking it… a lot. ‘It’s mellow!’, the hooter says. And we end the session, all of us smiling and feeling connected.”  

Kathy hasn’t limited her Shared Reading to the classroom.

“I decided to do a session with the school board at the community school – I just wanted them to know about it.  

“Half of them were weeping during it and afterward one of the senior leaders sent me a ‘thank you’ note.

“It’s very flexible but I think the hardest part is trying to explain it, to get adults to understand it – it has to be the right setting, the right moment.

“I had a friend recently who was going through a hard time and we read aloud some Denise Levertov poetry. “It’s about picking the right piece – one that resonates – I think that’s part of ‘baking the cake’.  

“I’ve done it with other friends too – a teacher pair in fact – and at one point the woman got very emotional, vulnerable, and said ‘I always felt like I wasn’t smart enough to do poetry’.

“And I’ve felt the same thing. I’ve learned a lot about myself through the process. “Shared Reading offers us a way to be together. To share yourself and thoughts and feelings through the writer’s language.”

Since attending Read to Lead, Kathy has stayed in touch with one of her fellow participants from Germany.  

“We’ve been mailing each other, and when the letter arrives, taking a photo and posting it on Facebook – even with all this technology, we’ve loved writing long letters to each other.

“It’s amazing to look back and think that this whole experience started when I discovered The Reader website, quite by accident, and now I feel as if I’ve found my tribe.”

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