Text of a speech given by Rachel Seiffert during an event for First Story supporters at Hachette UK on 19 November 2019.
It never gets old, this Writer-in-Residence lark. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that working with First Story is the best job in the world.
Take a group of thoughtful young people, give them a little nudge with an idea or two, a poem, a debate, and then an hour or so in a quiet place to write — hey presto, you have verses and stories, paragraphs and prologues: a whole new set of windows on the world. Spend a whole school year with them, imagine the riches produced…
I am in my third (and very happy) year working for First Story. With them, I have been Writer-in-Residence at UCL Academy in north London, working with a mixed group of students from Year 9 to Year 13, and I am now in my third consecutive year working with the Year 10 students at St Martin-in-the-Fields High School for Girls in Tulse Hill, south London.
Over the first two terms of these residencies, I deliver weekly workshops to the students; together, we explore many experiences, ideas and forms. We look at ways to put ourselves on the page; we try seeing the world anew – either through the eyes of different characters, or the lens of different genres. We experiment with writing the everyday and the impossible, and work on putting both familiar and unfamiliar experiences into words.
Teaching writing to young people is special
All First Story groups have their own dynamic, their own collective character: fifteen to twenty young writers, each of them very much their own person. Meditative or excitable; shy or defiant; lacking in confidence, or cerebral: each young person will have their own approach to the tasks I set; each also requires different kinds of support. I relish this aspect of the job especially – watching the students, getting to know them, working out what they need; trying out different methods, helping them find out how they write best.
For one, the scaffolding of a form provides reassurance; for another, it’s too restrictive – they must be enabled to bend or to break it. Some do their thinking on the page: writing, crossing out, rewriting. Others speak first, write later, having done their thinking out loud, either with me or with their peers.
For some, English is not (yet) the language of self-expression – I teach in London classrooms, so their home language may be Spanish, Twi, Arabic, Jamaican Patois… Those conversations are an exchange in which I learn as many new terms as the young writers. Regardless of home language, one or two students will need a great deal of encouragement to find the words they need; for them, it is self-belief which must be fostered. Your thoughts, your experiences: they are worth hearing.
One or two must be encouraged to seek out a quiet corner, away from all distractions; they must develop discipline. Your thoughts, your experiences, your imagination: they are worth committing to. A few require little other than the opportunity – the pen, the blank page, the time.
In a results- and exam-focussed education system, creativity can be seen as too nebulous, too risky, not quantifiable enough to satisfy the needs of a mark scheme, or the next data drop. The problem with this approach, of course, is that it often produces lifeless prose, written according to a tick list – a metaphor, a simile, some onomatopoeia or alliteration. Writing like this is a deadening experience for the students; such a shame, such a lost opportunity.
Teaching writing to young people is a skill to be honed
A First Story residency is not only for the students, but also the teachers, the department; as well as the weekly student workshops, the writer will also deliver CPD for staff at their school.
In a results- and exam-focussed education system, creativity can be seen as too nebulous, too risky, not quantifiable enough to satisfy the needs of a mark scheme, or the next data drop. The problem with this approach, of course, is that it often produces lifeless prose, written according to a tick list – a metaphor, a simile, some onomatopoeia or alliteration. Writing like this is deadening experience for the students; such a shame, such a lost opportunity.
It is also deadening for the examiners, who are readers and humans as well. The exam boards have noted this in their reports, remarking that the creative writing produced for the new GCSE was poor, too formulaic – and even that students scribbled lists of literary features in the margin of their exam scripts to tick off as they wrote.
First Story has picked up on this. Together with its Head of Learning, I have developed and delivered CPD sessions to groups of teachers – so far, these have been in partnership with UCL Special Collections in London, and at Cabot Learning Federation, a multi-academy trust in Bristol. These sessions outlined teaching principles – a creative pedagogy – and also provided workshops for teachers to use in class: sessions designed around experimentation, playing with language and form.
Experimentation and play are not just a diversion, an enjoyable but essentially empty hour in the weekly English curriculum, they are how students learn to feel language (a fundamental component of comprehension); they are also how students build a repertoire of writing experiences and techniques to draw upon (essential to any writer’s toolkit). Such workshops therefore produce results. Feedback from teachers supports this claim. In Bristol, for example, I was told by one participant that it was the most useful training she’d had since her PGCE, some ten years earlier.
I don’t have training as a teacher. But First Story supports its writers well. We are all provided with a fantastic resource book – a bank of workshop ideas and materials built up over the decade the charity has been running. First Story is also a network of writer-teachers. At annual skills-sharing days, and twice yearly teacher-writer meetings, and at the annual Young Writers’ Festival, we share new workshops, and useful pointers for teaching different students in different educational settings.
As a novice First Story writer I was invited to observe a more experienced peer. This year, I was glad to pass the favour on to another. After the session, we discussed feedback: the skill of making it kind but concrete. Feedback can be tricky to give, and even more so to receive, but it is essential: seeing improvement, feeling improvement, will make the experience of writing properly satisfying for the students.
Teaching writing to young people imparts more than just the skills to write a story or a poem
Writing is a process, it requires time – sometimes lots of it – to come together. It requires patience too, and persistence, because it doesn’t always work first time around. To write well, you have to take risks, take feedback, be willing to put yourself out there, and this can be a big ask, especially of young writers – and especially alongside the regular school week, wrestling with the demands of coursework and revision timetables.
But First Story is also about this experience. Feeling the benefits of being open-minded, open-hearted, willing to try out ideas for size. It is about working as a group, giving encouragement where needed, offering suggestions, pushing each other further.
Each workshop, we finish with reading to one-another, listening and responding to the work produced. It is often at this point I am reminded that teaching young people writing can be vital for them as individuals. Some pieces will be angry or painful, others uplifting, or laugh-out-loud hilarious. Occasionally, they are impressively polished, rare gems that land on the page, seemingly complete; mostly, they are works still-in-progress. But regardless of where they are along the writing process, and regardless of the task set, week after week, there will always be something unique, something surprising, something written with new eloquence, new energy.
First Story monitor and assess their work, taking start- and end-point surveys, collecting and collating data as all good organisations must these days. But in the midst of a residency, how do I know when it is working – when it is hitting its stride? It is when I listen to a young person (perhaps especially one of the more shy, more reluctant) read a first complete poem, or even just the first lines of something they are working towards. Lines that ring true for them – perhaps for the first time.
A case in point, from a recent session…
My First Story group and I were looking at metaphors to describe love, using Litany by Billy Collins as an example of excellence. It is a love poem, but by no means a simple praise poem. It creates a complex picture of a relationship and contains not a single cliché.
A new student – Sienna – had chosen to write about her brother, but was having great difficulty. We began by talking: writing a list of things she wanted to say about him. Many of these were angry: he intimidates me; he nags me; he hurts me. Others were appreciative: he helps me with my spellings. But none were metaphors. “I don’t like metaphors!” Sienna groaned. I encouraged her to take the first of her ideas, and think about physical experiences of intimidation; this transformed the line into ‘You are the footsteps behind me on the path’ and Sienna began to feel excited. By the end of the session, she had a stanza:
You are the crawling pain in my back,
You are the pounding in my head.
You are the footsteps behind me on the path.
You are the hits, punches, slaps, kicks, pinches.
But you are the dictionary when I am lost for words.
Only five lines, but such good ones! And – crucially – Sienna knew this. She volunteered to read them for the group, and was able to see how they hit home. Sienna understood the point of writing – making a connection between her feelings and words, and between those words and her listeners. They had become her words.
There is pleasure in telling your own story. There is power and agency too. Like nothing else, young people can find their unique voice, discover themselves and define their world through writing.
I come to St Martin on a Friday afternoon, the end of my working week, so I often arrive tired, but I always leave revived. I find myself cycling home reinvigorated by such experiences. By the company of the students, of course, but also by their words; I am filled with the images and ideas they have conjured. Invariably, I will tell my family and friends about the poems or stories over the ensuing days. This is the mark of good writing: that you want to pass it on, that you wish others to share in the experience.
It takes courage to put fear on the page, to be honest with readers about feeling it ourselves; and it takes heart and soul to empathise with others who feel it.
With First Story, teaching young people writing is about sharing the results
All the residencies culminate in publication. In the final term, the Writer-in-Residence collates and edits the pieces into an anthology; students go through the process of proof-reading, approving, tweaking, reworking; devising a title in collaboration; drawing up a cover brief or design too.
Just as each group has its own character, so does each anthology. During the editing process, I am always intrigued to see which themes might emerge – will there be an overriding one? They frequently defy my expectations. I was surprised one year to read how many poems and stories addressed fear, in all its various forms; this was perhaps the last thing I had expected, as the group itself was feisty! We did spend a couple of workshops writing horror, so this accounted for some of the pieces – but by no means all.
There were so many revolving around the theme, I ended up devoting a whole section of the anthology to ‘Exploring Fear’. But still, I would not have called the writing fearful – quite the opposite, in fact. It takes courage to put fear on the page, to be honest with readers about feeling it ourselves; and it takes heart and soul to empathise with others who feel it. As a result, reading the pieces over, the overriding feeling was actually one of defiance. I found a particular spirit emerging in the editing – exactly the kind which comes with courage: when you can look a challenge full in the face, when you can name it, nail it in description, even laugh at it, as the occasion calls. This boldness was so marked in that group’s writing, I ended up devoting another section to hope – a word which the students were determined to have in their title.
The final event of every First Story residency is the anthology launch: parents, carers, friends and extended family, as well as the wider school community, are all invited to celebrate the writing, and the young people who have produced it. It is a high point – like the Sienna moment multiplied. And I love those events for all those moments.
I have to say, though, I also love returning to a school again the next year, and the next year. Coming through the gates at St Martin, I will now nod and smile and catch up with dozens of young women. First Story continues in these exchanges: it is a meaningful relationship — for both of us — a meaningful experience. As I said at the start, that never gets old.