Regular readers of this blog will know that I am currently a writer-in-residence with the charity First Story. For those of you not familiar with First Story, here’s their intro from the website:
First Story changes lives through writing.
We 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.
That opening line, ‘First Story changes lives through writing,’ is a bold statement but I can absolutely confirm that they do just that. I have just completed the first year of my work with the brilliant students of Banovallum School in Horncastle, Lincolnshire, a year which culminated in the publication of their anthology of work, Writing Outside the Box. At our launch recently I spoke with a number of parents who talked about the positive effect taking part in the program had had on their child. I have watched the students I have worked with grow in confidence over the course of the program, and it is not overstating things to say that working with First Story has changed me for the better also.
All the fantastic work completed over the academic year by the hundreds of students from across the UK, ably assisted by their teachers and resident writers, is rounded off with a summer residential which brings together students, writers, teachers and the First Story team in an annual extravaganza of writing. I was fortunate enough to be selected to work alongside the other five fantastic writers, Andy Craven-Griffiths, Christie Watson, Mark Illis, Alan Buckley and Michelle Madsen and the nearly 90 students attending the 2015 First Story Summer Residential at the end of July. I knew going in that our five days at the Preston Montford Field study Centre would be a great experience but the reality was so much better than I could ever have expected.
We hit the ground running on the first day, with a workshop that afternoon, just an hour or so after arrival; the idea being to get the writing going right away. On the remaining days each writer had two workshop sessions, one with their home group and one with another of the six groups of young writers. My home group, the Purple Hand Gang, and indeed all the students I worked with, were a delightfully spirited bunch who tackled all the tasks thrown at them with an enthusiasm and openess which was genuinely inspiring. It was clear, right from that first residential workshop, just how far all the young writers had progressed with their writing since their First Story Festival introductory workshops back in September last year, and seeing the students, when not in workshops, reading and sharing their writing with each other around the centre over the course of the five days was a fantastic thing.
On the final night, we all gathered to hear each student read a piece of writing they had worked on during the residential and the results were genuinely moving. Some read poems, others performed spoken word polemics, while others read sections of crafted prose. The pieces were by turn funny, moving, or inspirational, or, often, all three at once. In all my years of working with young writers, as a secondary school teacher and now as a leader of writing workshops, I have not see a better example of the power that writing can bestow upon an individual.
I feel very fortunate to have been part of First Story this year. The whole program from my first sessions with students at the Festival in Oxford in September up to the students’ amazing performances of their own work on the final night of the residential has reinforced for me, more than any other work I have done in a school setting, the importance of creativity in schools, and the transformative power of the act of writing and how it can give a voice to the voiceless.
So, to all First Story’s young writers across the UK I say congratulations on becoming published writers, and to everyone on the residential, students, teachers, writers and First Story staff, I say thank you for everything you did to make the residential such an overwhelmingly positive, transformative and downright fun few days. All the student work submitted over the week is being collected into a digital anthology and I can’t wait to stick a copy on my Kindle and get reading.
In closing, I would like to link to the First Story website where you can currently read a fantastic poem written by an amazing young First Story writer and member of the Purple Hand Gang, Sabah. She wrote this piece on the last day or so of the residential as a thank you to her fellow students for making her whole First Story experience so fabulous. Her words express the life-affirming and life-changing work that First Story does across so many schools and regions in the UK far better than I could hope to in this post. So get over there and give her poem ‘Aqsal al Awal’* a read. And while your over there, hit the donate button on the right of the post. Just £9 a month gives one more young person the chance to take part in First Story. That’s not much at all to change someone’s life.
*(‘Aqsal al Awal’ is Arabic for ‘First Story’)