Joel Hunt, school librarian at The Bulwell Academy in Nottingham, has come to the end of his first year as the school’s lead for the First Story Young Writers Programme. Working with First Story Writer-in-Residence Paula Rawsthorne, young writers have participated in workshops, school visits and competitions. Joel describes the impact for students and the school.
“This has been my first experience with First Story, and I’ve been completely won over. I started at my school a little over a year ago, and my line manager had built up a strong relationship with First Story in her previous school. She wanted to bring it into The Bulwell Academy, and I was more than happy to support with sessions taking place in the library. Little did I know she would move on to a new role just as the programme was starting up, leaving me as the First Story lead at my school! Fortunately our writer-in-residence Paula Rawsthorne is very experienced, and made every step of the process incredibly easy. We will continue First Story in 2023-24, and this time I’ll be our lead right from the start.”
Enthusiasm for the Young Writers Programme at Bulwell Academy quickly grew, sometimes accidentally:
“I run multiple after-school clubs in the library, with First Story running every Thursday. We invited students facing barriers to learning to attend and also advertised the opportunity to other students. In the early months we picked up a steady trickle of students. Every week or so we’d have a new face arrive at the table. One of these new starters entered through the library doors with trademark confidence only to seem uncertain once he was sitting down with us. He engaged well, however, and even shared his piece at the end of the session. It was only afterwards that he explained to me that he had got the wrong day, intending to come to Wednesday’s club for board games! I recently overheard him candidly tell another First Story participant that this was “The best mistake I ever made.” You will find Diego’s wonderfully imaginative pieces in our upcoming anthology Sixteen Minds.“
Joel has been consistently impressed by the quality of writing produced by all of the Bulwell Academy students, and the confidence with which they deliver their work aloud.
“Throughout the programme, our writers exceeded my expectations. Some of them were eager to collaborate and share their writing from the very first session, while others needed a bit more time to take stock and gain confidence, but by the end of our writing journey every single one of them had bloomed into a genuine writer.
“Naturally I am overjoyed that one of our cohort, Gracie Charles, won this year’s First Story Six-Word Story Competition. Her work is a perfect example of the power of words left unspoken.
“I’m sorry!” “You’re not!” “I know…”
“Another piece that stuck with me is Paulo Mwazyungna’s ‘Just A White Room’, which was shortlisted for the 100 Word Story Competition. I was instantly taken by Paulo’s piece, not necessarily because it was the most technically proficient of our cohort’s 100-word stories, but because it was so unique and showed a fascinating glimpse into Paulo’s understated and subtly surreal creativity.
“Finally, I remember the look I shared with Paula when we read Ksawery Czarnecki’s first of many pieces about birds. We soon discovered that birds are Ksawery’s passion. As an EAL student who often seems happy to observe and listen rather than be the centre of attention, Ksawery’s engagement with the group changed entirely when he began to channel his love of birds through his writing, exploring it from many different angles. It’s this first poem from him, however, ‘I Live in a Bird’s Nest’, that truly stands out to me.”
Joel has advice for other School Leads on selecting students to take part in a Young Writers Programme, and how to make the most out of a partnership with First Story:
“I’d like to offer two tips that stand out to me as I approach the culmination of my initial First Story experience. Firstly, when it comes to finding your cohort, prioritise enthusiasm and engagement over ability. Not every student will be a natural novelist or poet right off the bat, and some may have never tried creative writing before in their lives. But as long as they engage, students’ writing will improve enormously over the course of the programme, as will their confidence and willingness to share.
“Perhaps we would have gained more students had we run the programme over lunchtime, but I wouldn’t trade our enthusiastic and passionate cohort for anything, and if we have the pleasure of running First Story again next year, I’ll certainly be sticking to an after-school slot!
“Secondly, take advantage of the extra opportunities that First Story provide. Our students have taken three trips this year through First Story (East Midlands Connect at NTU, Nottingham UNESCO City of Literature‘s Author’s Day at Lakeside Arts Centre and a tour and workshop at Bromley House Library) and each one has been of enormous benefit to those who attended, as well as establishing lasting and meaningful contacts for the wider school. Books have been gifted to our cohort and to the school library, and students have been directed towards writing opportunities beyond the First Story programme so they can further develop and explore their craft.”
At the start of our session, we had students who would never have shared their work, especially not in front of a crowd of strangers. By the end of the programme, three students who originally said they definitely wouldn’t read aloud at our launch party got up and read with confidence and pride. A fourth student wasn’t even part of the programme but wrote a poem just for the occasion and asked to have a chance to read it on stage, which we encouraged and allowed. This is actively spreading a culture of writing and reading aloud in our school after only one year of the programme.Joel Hunt, librarian, The Bulwell Academy