Speaking Our Own Language
The Reader Organisation's Shared Reading Practitioner Day, ‘Speaking our Own Language’ took place on Saturday in Liverpool Staff and Shared Reading Practitioners who have completed our Read to Lead course came together to develop their practice through a full day of quality literary thinking and doing.We were also joined by author Anna Lawrence Pietroni,who shared the creative process of writing her book Ruby's Spoon.
Charlotte Weber, our Reader-in-Residence at Hope University, shares her experiences:
One’s-self I sing, a simple separate person,
Yet utter the word Democratic, the word En-Masse.
Walt Whitman, from ‘Song of Myself’
Standing in the living room at a friends’ engagement party on Saturday night, a group of friends around me stared bemusedly at a name badge on my top that read:
On being asked to explain myself, I was once again reminded of just what an extraordinary place The Reader Organisation is.
The two words that had caused so much confusion were the titles of the workshops that I attended during our Shared Reading Practitioner Day, a conference for everyone who has completed our Read to Lead course and now runs shared reading groups in the community. The theme for the day was “quality”: what makes what we do as shared reading practitioners a quality exercise, and how do we ensure that we continue to provide quality experiences for the people we read with?
As well as workshops on ‘Balance’ and ‘Pleasure,’ there were four more, looking at other important aspects of shared reading practice: ‘Imagination,’ ‘Care,’ ‘People’ and ‘Patience’. The two that I attended were wonderful, and I know from speaking to people throughout the day that everybody felt the same way about whichever of the workshops they participated in.
In the Balance workshop, led by TRO’s Literary Learning Manager, Casi Dylan, we thought about the various types of ‘shift’ that occur during a reading group session, and the delicate balancing acts a facilitator has to attempt throughout to keep the session a live and beneficial experience. During the workshop we looked at a poem by Philip Sydney, and an extract from Women in Love by D.H. Lawrence. I found it interesting to hear what both the authors and my fellow participants in the group had to say about whether a state of ‘equilibrium’ is really what we are looking for, and whether the most interesting and exciting ‘stuff’ might actually exist in the continual process and ‘movement’ of forces. We finished by reading an extract of Walt Whitman’s ‘Song of Myself’.
The afternoon workshop, ‘Pleasure,’ was taken by Young Persons Project Worker Patrick Fisher, who is Reader-in-Residence in three schools in Glasgow. ‘Reading for pleasure’ is at the heart of what TRO does, and during the hour we spent some time thinking about what exactly ‘pleasure’ is – what it feels like, and where it comes from. Through discussion, we agreed that pleasure in shared reading groups can look, and feel, very different at different times. For example, pleasure might well be in the pure enjoyment of a great descriptive passage in a book, or a really funny poem – but it might also be a slower, quieter type of pleasure, that comes from the power of recognising something of yourself in a book or poem for the very first time. For me, the greatest pleasures that I find in literature are often not from, as Patrick called it ‘instant pay-off’, but from a slow dawning of meaning, where something I have felt but never had words to talk about, is unfolded in front of me in the words of the writer. There was time for some comedy at the end of the session, when participants in the workshop acted-out a reading group and took-on various ‘challenging’ roles: the aim being to think about how the group dynamic could be handled to ensure that everyone was still getting pleasure from the experience.
Another highlight of the day was definitely hearing from Professor Phil Davis and Dr Josie Billington from the University of Liverpool’s CRILS (Centre for Research into Reading and Linguistic Systems). Using examples from literature and from the transcripts of reading groups, they explained the vital difference between ‘literal’ thinking and ‘literary’ thinking. This second is a rare quality of thought, which any shared reading practitioner will recognise as emerging from the moment where a reading group suddenly seems to enter into a new zone. Suddenly, as Phil put it, members are working from ‘inside the text’, they are inhabiting it, and the tone becomes exploratory, genuine, and exciting. I was interested in both Phil and Josie’s comments on the ‘unself-conscious’ nature of group members when in this type of discussion, and the way that great literature can “surprise us en-route, even in the midst of a sentence.”
In the final session of the day, we were treated to a talk from a real-life author, Anna Lawrence Pietroni, whose first book, Ruby's Spoon, was published in 2010. I have not read the book myself, but after hearing Anna speak, it has definitely gone to the top of my must-read list. Anna spoke charmingly and convincingly about the creative process, and about how she was not interested in attracting readers who would ‘gobble-up’ her books as consumers – but instead wanted people who would take their time, and help the book come into being. I was fascinated by what Anna said about how when she was writing the book, the characters inside it seemed to develop and take on life almost without her help. The book, she said, does seem to have its own central life-force, and it is up to the writer to tease this out, give it shape – and then ‘send it out’ into the world, where it continues to live and grow in the minds of its readers.
So, my overall impression of the day? I can’t think of another day where there has been such a friendly, warm and relaxed atmosphere, but which was also accompanied by so much collective and individual deep, serious, and exploratory thinking. And I think something about this ‘individual’/‘collective’ dynamic is important here, just as it is in Whitman’s poem. The day felt like a wonderful opportunity for me to think about my own practice, the idiosyncrasies that necessarily make the way I think and facilitate a group slightly different from anyone else. But at the same time, it was the chance to see this individual story as a part of something much bigger; as connected to the practices of all the other 150 people in that hall, and the spirit of the Reading Revolution that had brought them all there.
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