Read and Feed: reading, writing, social justice, & sandwiches.

The Trussell Trust, a network that runs over 400 foodbanks, helps to support some of the poorest people in the UK who depend on these resources. According to the Trust, between April 2015 and May 2016, there were 160,048 three-day emergency food supplies given to people in crisis in the north west of England. Using statistics from the 2011 UK Census, the Rochdale Borough Profile reported the Smallbridge & Firgrove ward in Rochdale as one of the borough’s most deprived wards with one of the lowest life expectancy levels.  In a positive move to counter this, and to raise expectations, enter the summer’s Read and Feed Scheme held at Smallbridge Library which ties into the national Summer Reading Challenge.

I’m not going to write about the launch of the scheme; that can be seen here on the council’s website. (In short: it was an overwhelming whirlwind of press, council officials, and feisty, lively young people. That’s Jessica the Giraffe you can see me with. Yes, I’m not photogenic.)  The idea of the project is that during the summer holiday, in order to give their parents a bit of respite and to have a healthy, filling option for lunch, there are two hour sessions three times a week of crafting, creativity, and writing available for the young people who live nearby.  I’m running Monday’s session and writer-artist Emily is running Thursday and Friday.

Here’s some reflections on the first two weeks, edited from my journal. I’ve also included some pictures of the amazing creations made.

Week 1: the weird beard that must be feared

Basing the session on Roald Dahl’s The Twits we began the session with an icebreaker I downloaded the Hairy Beard resource from the Roald Dahl website.  To begin the session I shared ground rules that I began to devise with the library staff. This was a big mistake. I think I should not have tried to impose these and realised this too late. We then played a game based on “I went to the shop and bought a…” with”I have a horrible hairy beard that’s filled with…”.  We got to G before abandoning this to the crafting session.

I’m not going to lie: this was a difficult session. The ground rules from the beginning were ignored as a minority of the group were challenging. This eventually necessitated input from the library staff. I had expected some challenge, however, I was under-prepared in dealing with it so that’s a lesson I have taken away.  I need to get input from the young people into what the sessions could involve and the behaviour expected from everyone. It’s always a little disorientating when any new thing starts so I remain optimistic and hope to win some trust during August.

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Week 2: word collages and story making

Using left over magazines including: Mslexia, Starburst, and Nature’s Home, I cut out various words and images with the aim of inspiring new writing.  I’ve run this activity before as part of a project with Riverside for homeless and vulnerable adults. Collaging involves using words or phrases cut out from an article, or a few articles, to make textual art and new stories or poetry. I’ve a large quantity of magazines I use for this and find quite a lot of magazines abandoned on trains which are useful for this activity – recycling words, then the magazine afterwards.  At the beginning of the session, I asked the young people what they wanted from me with the rule that it needed to involve creative writing and crafting with words! I’ve had thematic suggestions from adventures to horror via Horrid Henry, Roald Dahl and Harry Potter, the TV series Totally Spies, and computer games such as Five Nights at Freddy’s. (I’m not so convinced about the latter one, however, computer games do have stories. It was a brainstorm and that’s what the lads want!)  We then devised a Group Agreement beginning with a blank sheet of paper to add what we want from each other including ‘respect each other’, ‘don’t throw things’, ‘no bullying’, and ‘no violence’. I want to add ‘have fun’ next week!  The collaging went well, however, we did lose half the group after the sandwiches were finished.  I think we may need to tweak what happens in the second half of the session with an emphasis on a more laid-back feel to the afternoon.  It’ll help deal with any postprandial slumps as well. . .

This was definitely a better week.  I think that rather than using “ground rules” and shifting the language towards “group agreement” worked well. Receiving feedback about what the young people want to do was also helpful and I’m going to have fun devising the next few sessions in order to fit in with activities for the Summer Reading Challenge.

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The feeling so far. . . 

While the group’s participants may change weekly, I think that I’m going to facilitate a new group agreement every week and check in with the suggestions.  I’d love to hear your thoughts if you work in a similar area and hope that these reflections help anyone involved with similar initiatives.  With my hand on my heart, I believe passionately that this is a project that is worth it; these are voices and stories that deserve, no, they need to be heard.

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