Last month I had the pleasure of taking a workshop for the wonderful charity ‘First Story’. Their mission is to change lives through writing. As it says on their website they ‘believe that writing can transform lives, and that there is dignity and power in every young person’s story. First Story brings talented, professional writers into secondary schools serving low-income communities to work with teachers and students to foster creativity and communication skills. By helping students find their voices through intensive, fun programmes, First Story raises aspirations and gives students the skills and confidence to achieve them’.
The author Stephanie Cross, who was running one of the courses, had been taking Alexander Technique lessons and realised its potential to help her students overcome their ‘performance anxiety’ and feel more confident reading their work aloud. The finale of the ‘First Story’ sessions is the students’ book launch. Their work is published as an anthology, (they even design the book cover) what an incredible opportunity. At the launch the students get the chance to read their pieces to an invited audience before becoming like famous authors at a literary festival and signing their books for those that attend.
My session was organised to help students prepare for this event and equip them with some practical tools to help them feel calm and collected, and help them enjoy the process. This felt like a project close to my heart. I am dyslexic and at their age it was my worse nightmare to be asked to read aloud in class. I was better in an assembly or reading something I could pre-prepare as I had my own techniques to make this slightly easier. I would mark in extra places to breathe if needed and practice reading the piece aloud so much, that on the day I was really performing the piece from memory rather than reading it. During my Alexander Technique Teacher training I was able to improve my reading of previously un-seen pieces and feel more confident with this process. This was in part due to sessions and discussions we had on ways of seeing and reading. As a result, for the first time in my life at the age of 38, I realised how differently other people read and what their techniques were, I had no idea! We also spent time as a group reading aloud from F M Alexander’s books, taking turns reading while an Alexander teacher worked with us and gave hands-on guidance. This was a friendly, non-judgemental atmosphere and gave me the room to practice reading aloud, which I find I can now enjoy, Alexander Technique is fantastic.
I wanted to create this same friendly, non-judgemental safe place to explore reading aloud with these students. The session I ran started by giving the pupils an experiential understanding of how all our bodies tend to habitually react under pressure. This is similar to the flight, fright, freeze response or ‘startle’ reflex. We know that if we are stressed the emotional brain (the amygdala) takes over and stops our thinking brain (prefrontal cortex) from working well and generally tenses up our bodies. But if we can notice some of the stresses physical effects (through Alexander embodied awareness tools) we can allow the tension to dissipate, breathe more easily, see the room around us, and our thinking brains can kick back in due to the calming of the nervous system. We then perform better and have greater peace of mind. To explore all this we played a great AT game called ‘drop the sox’ which Judith Kleinman, my teacher and mentor taught me. It is a great way of seeing how we respond to a stimulus, in this case the thought of having to read aloud to an audience is represented by catching a bean bag being dropped. The students enjoyed the game and started to notice what they were thinking and how their bodies were reacting. They fed-back these observations to the rest of the group very articulately. They initially noticed critical/worried thinking, their shoulders scrunching, elbows tightening, heads poking forward, hearts beating faster and sweaty palms. I prompted them to notice other things like their breathing and their tummies. The game then gradually lets them play with the AT concepts of pausing (inhibiting) and thinking (directing their bodies) before and while in activity. I gradually added different things for them to think about and they noticed how they responded. The students also noticed that as they thought different AT thoughts, they used their bodies with more ease and poise and things becomes easier. Even, not always catching the bean bag in the game was ok, it felt less stressful – it was ok to make mistakes!
This experiential learning then helped inform the reading aloud process of those that volunteered to read their pieces aloud to the rest of the group. I gave further guidance with some more questions and Alexander thinking during this time. The session was an experimental and open approach to reading aloud. I was very impressed with the kind and useful way they gave each other feedback. The group was respectful of each other and the whole process felt supportive, friendly and playful. Listening to them read their creative writing compositions was a joy too, it was inspiring to see what they had produced with Stephanie’s guidance.
After an hour we had a break from reading aloud and I guided them through a little movement activity they could use to help release tension before performing. Better still we then had a short biscuit-break, kindly supplied by Stephanie before the last few volunteers read in the same way, with self-observation and accepting useful feedback and suggestions as to how reading aloud might be easier.
I finished by recapping a few key points and giving out handouts with some useful questions and AT tips to help them on the day. I also reminded the students that all these skills and tools are transferable. After all any situation where we feel slightly outside of our comfort zone is just an everyday sort of ‘performance anxiety’. Some of these students had exams in the summer term, interviews to think about and other occasions where the skills they had explored and learnt in this session will come in useful. I felt the Alexander Technique was able to give these pupils skills I would have found useful at their age and made my experience of reading aloud much more comfortable. My relationship with reading aloud has been transformed through the Alexander Technique, I read aloud to the children of Educare Small School every time I teach AT there and now have the skills to read with expression and do ‘voices’. I don’t even mind when I make mistakes (and I realise nor does anyone else!). I love it, storytelling is wonderful and unexpected gift form the Alexander Technique. I wish Stephanie’s students an enjoyable book launch in the summer.
If you have any questions about the Alexander Technique or my work in schools please feel free to contact me using the details at the top of the page.