Literary festivals would be nothing without writers, and writers always need readers. On Friday, as part of Cuirt’s 2014 festival, there was a panel discussion on Innovations in Youth Programming, which focused on different ways of encouraging reading and creative writing in schools.
The free event in the Town Hall Studio was well-attended, with several there taking notes. On the panel was: Sean Love, director of Fighting Words, which he co-founded with Roddy Doyle, and which has now mentored more than 40,000 young people in creative writing since 2009; Patrick Fisher, a "reader-in-residence" in Glasgow schools for the Reader Organisation Scotland; and Dylan Calder, director of Pop Up Projects CIC, which works with schools across Britain to create intensive one-off creative literary projects. Moderating was Maeve Mulrennan, head of visual art and education programming at the Galway Arts Centre.
Fisher’s job has the simplicity of all truly great innovations. His job is to go into schools in Glasgow, and spend one hour a week reading with different groups of children for their pleasure. The children can help choose the books, the sessions have continuity throughout the school year, and there are no exams. The sole goal is to create a delight in reading in young people that will sustain them for their lives ahead.
“If something is pleasurable, children want more of it,” he says. There are never more than 10 children in a group, and he also works one-on-one with children in foster homes. There are currently 150 of these reading groups across Britain, often working with children who have not been read to at home, or ever read for pleasure outside the classroom. The reading groups also have a role in helping children to transition from primary to secondary schools, by providing them with a continuous service. “It’s not about literacy,” Fisher explains, stressing how important it is to keep the weekly reading space focused on engagement with reading, rather than as part of any set curriculum.
For Love and Fighting Words, the pending challenge with their highly successful programme is the dilemma of balancing the autonomy of what they currently do, with any possible future merging with a formal curriculum.
"One of the attractive things at present about us to children is that what we do is not seen as schoolwork," Love says. Fighting Words is expanding its centres across Ireland, such is the demand. A former director of Amnesty International, Love suggests to the audience that "The right to be creative is a right. It's not a written fundamental human right, but it should be a right. Self-expression creates self-esteem and self-confidence." Fighting Words is free to all who participate, mainly due to the high numbers of volunteers who work with the organisation.
By contrast, Calder’s Pop Up Projects don’t go into schools unless the school funds at least 50 per cent of the cost. Asked by Mulrennan what he would ideally do next if money was unlimited, he answers: “I’d never have to write a grant application again,” a response that draws sighs of recognition from many in the audience.
“In an ideal world, my job wouldn’t exist,” Fisher says, although he’d love to see a Reader in Residence in every school in Britain, doing what he does. He sees opportunities for similar reading groups to be created within the wider community, where parents and neighbours can get together to run their own reading groups for children; the commonality being the joy of reading.
The Cuirt festival continues this weekend. Details at cuirt.ie