'Writing really can change lives'
A project that brings authors into inner-city schools, inspired by the novelist Dave Eggers, is empowering young people – and writers themselves – in ways they never expected.
Thursday 18 November 2010
The final bell of the day at Charles Edward Brooke girls' school in Lambeth, south-east London marks the usual frenzied exodus out the front door and into the world beyond, but not everybody is in quite such a hurry to leave today. Every Wednesday afternoon, there is an after-school club held here called First Story, a kind of complementary addendum to ordinary English lessons, in which participants are encouraged to write stories and read them out, and, in doing so, to mine a level of intimacy not normally exhibited within school walls.
The class is presided over by Salena Godden, a performance poet who would rather you describe her as anything but. "I'm a writer," she says defiantly, over a pre-class cigarette. "'Performance poet' makes people think I'm a rapper who isn't very good on the page, or a poet who can't quite drink beer. I can do both, thanks."
This is Godden's second year here. The first was a success for all concerned. "It's about the only thing that makes me feel like a proper grown-up," she says. "Well, this and tax returns."
She usually commands a class of 18 girls, but hasn't today factored in the cold, hard truth that teenagers, even enthusiastic creative-writing ones, can still be so easily waylaid elsewhere. Some, this afternoon, are absent due to a required extra maths lesson, a few others are in detention, and several more are trying out for the cheerleading team. "I've tried to tell my students that shaking pom-poms will never win them the Booker," Godden says disconsolately. "But what can you do?"
And so into a well-stocked school library on this particular Wednesday afternoon trickle just five students. And although they are initially awkward and shy, they soon warm up, buoyed in no small part by Godden's natural, and infectious, enthusiasm. Keen to shake off the rigours of the day, she asks them first to close their eyes, and to imagine somebody very close to them. "What are they wearing, what is the expression on their face?" she asks. "When was the last time you saw them, and what does thinking about them now stir up inside you?" She then tells them to open their eyes, and to start writing. A quarter of an hour later, they read their efforts out loud.
Most of the stories concern family members, either old or ailing or distant, or in some cases deceased. "Dad, I miss you every day, and I wish I could see you just one more time," one concludes. Everybody applauds, and Godden isn't the only one wiping a tear from her eye. "OK, blimey," she bustles. "Let's try to lift the mood a little, shall we?" She now pulls out an envelope filled with strips of paper, each bearing a word. "I want you to pull out one each, then write a letter of complaint about it." One word is rainbow, another fear. The letter complaining about the illicit lure of chocolate gets the biggest laugh.
First Story is a bold initiative, and the first of its kind within the UK. Inspired by novelist and essayist Dave Eggers' efforts across the Atlantic in empowering children in disadvantaged areas through writing – his 826 National now runs in eight cities across the US – it started life here three years ago, the brainchild of writer William Fiennes and former schoolteacher Katie Waldegrave, daughter of Tory peer Lord William Waldegrave. It registered as a charity, and quickly secured funding from both the government and the private sector. Like 826 National, First Story targets schools within areas of economic deprivation, and to date operates across London, Oxford and Nottingham. Courses run once a week for much of the year, before petering out, necessarily, in the summer, when all thoughts turn to exam preparation. Each class is taken by a professional writer – Raffaella Barker, Helen Cross, Tim Pears – each of whom receives a nominal annual fee.
"Writers have always done other stuff alongside writing books," Fiennes points out, "and so this is one such option for them. Its benefits work both ways, because it can be very creatively stimulating for the writer as well."
The scheme, which aims to go fully nationwide soon, has some heavy literary backing from the likes of Philip Pullman and Zadie Smith. "First Story is a very exciting idea," Pullman says. "Having been a teacher myself, I know how writing – real writing, not the artificial exercises produced in tests and examinations – can liberate and strengthen young people's sense of themselves as almost nothing else can."
It's a sentiment echoed by Fiennes. The writer has spent the past three years teaching at a school in Hounslow. "Initially, the pupils' output was pretty limited," he recalls, "lots of stories about vampires and murderers, endless Da Vinci Code rip-offs, but the kids I was teaching were often Sikh and Punjabi, with rich backgrounds, and full of real, raw voices. The task was to find those voices. And we have, which is wonderful, because writing should be available to everybody."
Poet Kate Clanchy, who has been a teacher for many years, was approached by Fiennes last year, and immediately said yes. She is now into her second year as a First Story tutor, in Oxford. "People think of Oxford as purely white and middle class, but the areas around it, Cowley especially, are not like that at all," she says. "In fact, Cowley is an EU designated area of poverty, and extraordinarily racially mixed. It's like Hackney."
Clanchy believes that the importance of such classes in places such as Cowley cannot be overstated. "Going to after-school class is a very middle-class pursuit," she says. "And yes, it can be difficult to encourage kids to turn up when school has finished to do even more work, but not impossible. And that's why the anthology is so important."
At the end of each year, First Story produces an anthology of the best work from each of the students, their efforts immortalised in book form. "It shows them what all their hard work will lead up to," Clanchy says, "and it makes them feel better about themselves, gives them self-esteem, something which otherwise they very often lack."
She recounts the story of a former pupil whom, last year, she wanted to take along to the Oxford Literary Festival. "He was a rough, tough boy of 16, already a father, but a gifted writer," she notes. "The week before the festival, he'd been arrested for carrying a knife. At first, we weren't even sure whether he would be allowed into the festival at all, but we got him in. When he saw all the chairs laid out, the tables, the audience, and Philip Pullman up there on stage, he burst into tears. He wasn't afraid of violence, but he was terrified of literature."
A lot of children from poorer backgrounds, she says, believe that literature simply isn't for them. "Books, in their estimation, belong to other people, the middle classes. But to be confronted by a real writer, and be told that you have the potential to become one yourself, is a powerful thing."
Jon McGregor, author of the 2006 Booker-longlisted novel So Many Ways to Begin, has just started teaching classes in Nottingham. When he was first approached, he was, he admits, "cagey about it. I'd never taught before." But, seven weeks in, things are going well. "Although it has certainly been a steep learning curve," he says. "I'm making mistakes, but progress as well, I hope." In one early lesson, he tried to interest the pupils in William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying. "It didn't go down well at all," he laments. "I think the aim here is to make these inspirational classes as popular as the basketball club, not the chess club..."
First Story is not, William Fiennes insists, about churning out a new generation of writers, writers who will very likely find themselves either frequently out of work, unable to get published or, if they enter journalism (as many want to), remain criminally underpaid and wonder quite why they made the effort in the first place. "No, that's not the main objective at all," he smiles, "although I do believe some will go on to write, and in some cases to publish novels, because they are just so very talented. But no, a big part of education, as I understand it, should be about liberating a young person's voice and engendering self-confidence, as studies show that [having] no self-confidence is the biggest barrier to academic achievement." And if nothing else, he concedes, it might just help to spark an interest in reading for pleasure, which is never a bad thing.
Back at Charles Edward Brooke school, Salena Godden has wrapped up for the day, and two students, Iyeoze and Seun, both 14, hang around to chat. They love coming to these lessons, they say, even if it comes at the cost of cheerleading practice. "It encourages us to write more, and I really like that we have to do it on the spot," says Iyeoze, who has hopes of becoming a barrister. "I have a lot of stuff in my head. It needs to come out, you know?"
Students were encouraged to write a story in just 50 words...
The first time I got drunk, I banged my head and I was amazed that it didn't hurt.
And when I caught a pigeon, tipped petrol on it and set it on fire, it flew up for about five seconds and then came plummeting back to earth.
The first time I got arrested, I was scared and I made myself look guilty when I took the blame for a mate.
When I bought 10 lighters from the car boot and set them alight, they made a massive fire and a loud bang and I remember wanting to do it again.
I remember my first sight of a serious blood leak from my head. I didn't cry until I looked in the mirror and saw my skull.
By Arran (Oxford Upper School)
Went to shops. Won lottery. Sorted.
Jordan Joseph Wildman (Quintin Kynaston School)
My life is longer than six words.
Nathan Akehurst (Holland Park School)
I am Temitope Ajibade. Google me.
Temitope Ajibade (Islington Arts and Media School)
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