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Chester Retold Project: Bringing Storytelling to the Community

PEACE FAWUSI and ALIX BOOTH go behind the scenes with Dr Eileen Pollard about what the experiential module offers to Level 5 students and the community.

Dr Eileen Pollard is a Senior Lecturer in English Literature at the University of Chester. Eileen was tasked with creating a module that would foster links between Storyhouse, the Chester community and the University. The Chester Retold Project was influenced by similar projects “Get into Reading”, “Storying Sheffield” and her own experience. The purpose – widening access, working with the community and reintroducing English as a subject that excites people!

Eileen’s background is primarily in widening participation, so before she became a lecturer, she worked quite extensively in community settings with people, who in many cases couldn't read.

Eileen and her undergraduates outside StoryHouse. Source: Chester Retold Project Website

According to Eileen herself, “they were still able to appreciate stories because we would say take a book and the facilitator would read a section of it out each week, so even if you're unable to read yourself, you were still able to be involved. Those values were always a part of my own practise as a lecturer trying to make it accessible to others”.

The project has previously been involved with local organisations such as Fallen Angels Dance Theatre (2018), a charity that helps people recover from addiction and mental health issues through movement and dance, and Cheshire LIVE! (2019), who focus on inclusion for young people with physical and/or learning disabilities.

Throughout the interview, Eileen continues to emphasise the importance of inclusivity and belonging. She highlights that it is important to try to foster an environment in which every person there feels a sense of belonging.

“I think that inclusion is essential, it's a given. I think we should really be thinking about is the word belonging. I think that the word belonging is much more meaningful and much more what we should be aiming for. That's always an ongoing process and you won't necessarily always succeed.”

Eileen's Tedx Talk. Source: Tedx Website

Sessions are taught either at University of Chester’s main campus or at Storyhouse, the city’s new arts hub. The teaching has taken a range of forms, including talks, small group discussions, acting and meditation exercises.

Want to find out more about Chester Retold Project, why not watch Eileen’s TEDx talk here.

If you are interested in getting involved in this experimental module, visit their website or contact Eileen directly for more information.

Here are some highlights from our interview, including her experience opening up the classroom to the community and whether University of Chester is inclusive enough.

How would you describe the project to someone new?

The Chester Retold Project is a module that is about something central to the English Literature undergraduate programme, storytelling. I suppose for people within the University, it functions as a very short, very experimental Work-Based Learning project. The idea behind of the project is that anybody can tell a story, and anybody can appreciate a story. The module is also aimed at connecting students with the wider community, which has been really benefical.

Why do you think storytelling is so important?

Stories are so accessible, they’re all around us. If you haven’t had the benefit of doing A-Level English or going to University, the likelihood is that you will still have enjoyed watching stories presented on television, watching them presented on film maybe you are really into computer game. Popular culture is packed to the gills with stories and it’s not elitist nor exclusionary; stories are a universal and everyone can find their way into it.

Why is it beneficial for students to meet such different people?

As the module opens the classroom up to the community, it means that both the students and the community can learn from each other. Being a student is a privilege. Being able to be in a University setting, to teach, to learn, to share ideas and to have this time, I see it as a privilege for myself as well and I thought, learning alongside people who haven’t had that privilege would be a beneficial way to gain perspective.

To what extent to you think you have been able to open the classroom to those who feel like University isn’t for them?

In the first year (and I’m not a fan of maths), it was about 50% successful. I had worked with Fallen Angels and a woman who worked as a wellbeing practitioner, she was there to support the group. She ended up being a community student herself and although she wasn’t my intended audience, she was a fantastic contributor. It was also less successful than I had hoped as there were members of the group who didn’t feel 100% comfortable within a University classroom.

The second year was 85% successful. Over the years, I worked in many different settings, from secondary school to higher education and in communities. Despite my experience in working with different ages and abilities, working with Live Cheshire was the most mixed ability group that I have ever worked with. There were students with some forms of physical disability or sensory and cognitive impairments. I was very, very nervous because what I didn’t want was in trying to make the space inclusive, I would actually make it exclusive and everybody there would have a terrible time. I spent a lot of time doing sensory work, for example, one activity was holding an ice cube in your hands for as long as you could and then talking to each other about how it felt. It was all about including everybody and creating a bond and awareness. Overall, it was fantastically successful, everybody had a good time, everybody felt like they had something to contribute, and I took away something extremely important from this:

If I can manage to make all feel as bonded and together as they did in such a mixed ability group, then nobody should feel excluded from higher education.

Do you think University of Chester is inclusive?

Having taught in other places, Chester it quite good. In general, we should always come from an inclusive perspective. Chester very much always wants to improve itself, it’s very open to improvement and able to look at what it’s done and see when something isn’t working, which appears to be rare in comparison to other institutions.

One thing that needs to be considered more is about the use of the word ‘inclusion’. We should be aiming for ‘belonging’, instead. We need to foster an environment in which every person feels that they belong.

Why do you think the module has been successful, and what have been the difficulties encountered?

It has run twice so far, and it has run very well, surpassing expectations. There is a lot of commitment, engagement and care by everybody. This module is a risk for students and people coming in from the community, but I would say the real challenge is that doing something that is this daring is absolutely exhausting; physically, psychologically and emotionally.

To apply the quote ‘innovation has no blueprints’ here, running this module is absolutely brilliant, you think “oh wow, that’s great”, but the reality of actually innovating without a blueprint is terrifying. It’s like driving a car very, very fast whilst at the same time, building the road. To add to that, I’ve got a whole load of people in the car and yet I’m still building the road.

I feel the main problem for me is that the project hasn’t yet felt sustainable and I’m working on that. Another is that I’m a huge team player and a collaborator. It’s felt very associated with one individual, and I’m hoping that it will become more team based, which will also make it more sustainable.

What parts of the community are you directly involved with and how has that experience been?

So far, I have worked with a wide range of people who have experienced different forms of social exclusion and are re-engaging with the wider community. The first community I worked with were Fallen Angels Dance Theatre. They are a charity that help people recover from addiction and mental health problems through movement and dance. They’re an exceptional group of wonderful people. It was a very immersive process, and I was first put into contact with the group through Storyhouse.

Where you have people who aren’t necessarily comfortable with the prospect of higher education, it takes time to build rapport. Building rapport is crucial, otherwise they won’t interact much with you – you have to help people to trust you and I think this is worth doing. You can’t simply turn up at a community group and be like “oh hi, would you like to do this course” and expect positive responses immediately.

In the second year as I worked with the Fallen Angels Project. They help people with various disabilities to get employed, it’s a fantastic project and you know the people who work there are so keen, they really wanted participation between their community members and myself. Unfortunately, many were extremely shy, and I was unable to continue with them, however they did put me in contact with another charity called Live Cheshire who work with young people with either learning or physical disabilities.

Working with Live Cheshire was more straightforward as they were already initiated into groups, one of which was called Moving On, with 13 to 18-year-olds. I spent a few afternoons getting to know them whilst we cooked and chilled together. Rather than the session they would have on the Friday morning in their community centre, they would have it with me and my students instead. From this experience, I’ll try and approach a similar community which has already established group settings, and where members already know each other.

Written by Alix Booth and Peace Fawusi

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