Structo talks to Katie Waldegrave

“The thing they always talk about is about is the confidence to think, ‘I am good enough’”

This interview first appeared in issue 11, published February 2014.

Header photo (CC-BY): dcJohn

I came across First Story a couple of years ago. Someone mentioned that they were looking for help designing covers for their story anthologies, and so I did some investigating. What I found was a remarkable charity, helping young people not only to write, but, more importantly, to find their voice. Four anthology covers later, I sat down with First Story’s co-founder and executive director, Katie Waldegrave. — Euan

How do you encapsulate First Story?

The thing that I was sad about when I was teaching was how much I—as a teacher at the time—and therefore my students, were thinking about grades. It was all the stuff you hear about endlessly: focussing on the C–D borderline, and so on. The richer experience of being a young person, alive and excited about the world, lost out to that, despite the best will in the world from schools and teachers. First Story is partly about literacy—that’s the key, obvious benefit—but it’s about much more than that too. It’s about helping people to realise their value in the world. To see and notice the world around them, and to see that their voice has value in their world. We started this year at the Young Writers’ Festival; we had Malorie Blackman and 800 kids in a tent—it was crazy and wonderful. There were lots of writing workshops and 30 other writers. And then the weekly workshops started in September as well the various trips and events throughout the year. Finally in the summer every school then produces an anthology. Then there’s a book launch at the school, and a summer residential trip. It’s always interesting, the journey the kids go on. From that first piece of writing where, very often, there will be a lot of death and vampires and boarding schools involved. Everyone will be called Jane or Peter or something—which is telling because, at my school at least, I taught no white students. And in some sense it doesn’t belong to the young person, hence the thing about their names being Jane and Peter. By the end of the process the stories are apparently much smaller. They might be a memory of a walk to school with their grandmother in Pakistan or a meal with their father. After that they might go back to writing about intergalactic space wars with pandas or something, but those pandas–

Will have more believable relationships?

[Laughs] They will have more believable relationships. And they will have more concrete detail in their descriptions. There’s a stronger sense of voice and overall quality, but most of it is recognising that, actually, it’s the details of our lives that are interesting. What all this adds up to is, yes, improved literacy, but in a wider sense, real confidence and real creativity and thoughtfulness. Also the act of revising and producing a book not only is confidence-boosting in itself, but finishing something, revising and redrafting, engaging with writerlyness… this is not the elevator pitch! [Laughs] The short answer would be that it’s about broadening horizons.

What was the first idea, when you were a teacher? You wanted to invite an author into your class?

William [Fiennes, co-founder of First Story] and I were introduced by mutual friends. One of the first inspirations had been Dave Eggers’ 826 National project. I’d read about it and thought that it was wonderful, but always with the reservation that, while I think it works absolutely amazingly in America, I was sitting out in Hounslow. To reach the kind of kids I wanted to reach, we had to be there, in the schools, at three-thirty. But then I was introduced to William Fiennes, who was also a fan of 826, who was being paid to be writer-in-residence at The American School in London. He was talking about what that was doing for the students’ confidence and the rest of it, and I was being a bit chippy and said, ‘but it would never happen in a school like mine’. To his eternal credit he volunteered to come in to the school. We weren’t sure anyone would turn up, but they did and they came back and they came back and voted with their feet. There wasn’t an enormous amount of strategic planning… well, we probably should have done much more thinking about it. It was quite organic.I wanted to work with the tougher end of secondary schools. As a teacher, I was conscious that I most failed kids when they hit GCSE or Key Stage 4 and A-Levels, when they are falling in love and school is going to end and they have hormones, and life is complicated, and all I was telling them was that it was really, really important that they get a C not a D and all that kind of stuff. But working with that age group creates its own challenges because you’re competing directly with all the revision classes, so I wasn’t sure they would come. But they did and they loved it, and I grew as a teacher. I’d become a little institutionalised I suppose. I used to lose sight of what excited me about teaching. In that first year we saw such a magical transformation in the students, and I felt it in me as a teacher.

How long had you been a teacher?

I’d been teaching for four years. It was long enough to… you teach so many children every week, you work so hard as a teacher, particularly in a more challenging school and in your first years when you’re still figuring it all out. To have this hour and a half each week, with a writer and with these 16 people, to think of them as people, and people who are funny, and it not being about them getting a particular grade. I carried that with me for the rest of the week. It remained. If the funding was all to go belly-up, and we weren’t to continue, that’s where the legacy lies—the work we’ve done with the kids is fantastic—the legacy lies with the teachers. They are an integral part of the group, and we work really closely together.

How do the groups work—does the school approach you?

We’re in the nice position now that, yes, the schools tend to approach us. We now have quite a long waiting list of schools, which is hard in some ways, but kind of wonderful too. So typically they will approach us. What it needs is to have an absolute buy-in from every level, from the wonderful teacher who’s going to lead it—and usually there are two sharing through the weeks—and it needs the head’s buy-in, and it needs the line-manager to understand what’s going on. They’re complex places, schools, and each of those levels needs to work. The schools pay towards the project, 20 or 30%, that’s one of the reasons we need to make sure [the understanding] filters up through the levels. A big part of the philosophy is the teacher-writer collaboration. We have termly teacher-writer meetings. The first of these is in the July before the December start, where we introduce the teacher and talk about how the year is going to shape up and discuss questions about the particular school and the rest of it. The Festival is probably the students’ first engagement with First Story, which is really exciting and wonderful. Then it will be a group of maybe 21 kids and whatever wild and wacky things the writers want to do. We’ve developed what you could loosely call a syllabus, not a restrictive one, more like a cookbook of ideas. It might begin with the students being asked to close their eyes and remember being 10. What are the sounds, the smells, the tastes? Quite often it begins with talk, and with them recognising there’s a story in that: the memory of the smell of a particular food, say. And so it goes on. The teacher always writes alongside, is part of it all, and is often published in the anthology. It’s a nice leveller and quite important for the teacher to remember how terrifying it is to be asked to read something out loud that you’ve only just written. [Laughs]

How do you get authors involved?

The authors get involved in a similar way to the schools. Partly because we pay the writers, and partly because the writers tend to believe in what we’re doing, we have a large list of writers who’d like to be involved. And most of our writers have now done it for multiple years. Now we’re expanding, so we have just recruited a whole bunch of wonderful new writers—

Are they local to the schools?

As far as possible, yes. It’s nice if they’re local, but also we’re playing a matching game. We might be working in a school with quite challenging students who have had all sorts of hurdles thrown at them, so if you have a writer who is also a psychotherapist, or has lots of experience, you’ll make them travel across London to be in the right place. It’s about fitting those pieces together.

First Story has 40 groups this year. Where are they based?

London, Oxford, East Midlands, and Bradford, which is our newest one.

And all this takes place out of school time?

Yes. Typically three-thirty until five.

For all three terms?

Just the autumn and the spring term. It works very well because the summer term is so heavily exam-oriented. During that period we turn the manuscript into books, and recruit an army of wonderful, generous volunteers to help publish the anthologies. Then, after half-term when the exams are winding down, that’s when we have the book launches in each school.

Do they select pieces from throughout the year to use in the anthology?

Exactly. Writers often say they find themselves in the revising and the redrafting, so the rhythm of the year might be that the first term is fast, lots of writing and generating of new pieces, and in the second they begin to think about which pieces they want to polish and work on.

How do the students react to the scheme?

There’s something about engaging with a real, Googlable writer and having a relationship with them. Not just seeing them at a talk, but engaging with them and having access to what is in some ways a sort of mentor figure, that opens up the world, not just the world of writing—we would be hopeless if we were tell all these kids to go off and be writers, and we’re absolutely not. Then there is the fact of valuing the stories themselves and their taking value in them. It’s fun. But we do an awful lot of evaluation. One of the things we’ve been using is the New Philanthropy Capital’s Well-being Measure. It’s tricky to evaluate arts-based projects because really the only tools we have are things like exam grades. Clearly we would hope that there was a link, and we can see a correlation between improved grades and what we do, but if we were setting out to improve exam grades in a straightforward way, we probably wouldn’t do it like this. And that’s not what we try and do; it’s almost trying to be a counter-balance to that. The Well-being Measure is one way of trying to get a more holistic sense of student resilience and confidence and all of those words that we need in order to be employable, I suppose, and in order to live a fuller life. The research shows that First Story has a significant positive impact on students’ emotional well-being, resilience, self-esteem, and life satisfaction. This year we’re doing a piece of research which is more tailored to us, specifically looking at things like creativity and what we call literate communication, rather than the word ‘literacy’. And we’re also using mindfulness, and looking at students’ engagement with the world; their curiosity, their excitement.

Mindfulness in the meditation sense?

Yeah, exactly, but it’s rigorously evaluated, which is the advantage from our perspective. We didn’t come at it deliberately, but we were talking about all the things we wanted to measure like engagement and curiosity, and the language is exactly the same for mindfulness. We were excited about that because it gives us a different way of measuring… I mean, to a large extent all of these things are unmeasurable. We all know; you can see it in the students, you can see it in what teachers say about them, you can see it in the writers. It’s just there.

So it’s trying to quantify that?

Right. One instinct is to say that it’s a kind of ridiculous exercise: ‘I’m human; I can see it’. But you have to be able to articulate it and communicate that to funders. There’s an imperative there.

Has mindfulness been used elsewhere for this kind of thing?

I don’t think so. The nice thing about mindfulness is that there’s a great body of work out there so that the surveys that we use have been benchmarked. There are standards. It’s as abstract as looking at grades, but it’s actually closer to what we know we’re doing [on a human level]. I would, as a teacher, be very frustrated if we came in and said, ‘oh these grades have all gone up as we predicted and that’s all down to First Story’.

So authors spend a year in the schools, create this anthology and then it’s launched?

The launches are really exciting! We love them. Because we were so tiny in the beginning we would all go to all the launches, but then we realised that we would have to divide them up; there was no way we could all go to them all. What I love is the diversity. I remember last year at Loxford they had tap dancers and a steel drum performance. Their writer was Laura Dockrill, who’s the most wonderful, colourful, flamboyant poet, and the kids performed their work to maybe 300 people: parents and other teachers and students and staff, and it was loud and wonderful. Then we’d go to Nottingham Academy, and we would find it all set up cabaret-style, with jazz. There it was a much more intimate feeling, and there were some very moving pieces of writing read out. I think the mayor came. There is always a sense of occasion. There was burlesque dancing at one, and a chocolate fountain at another, but the point is that it’s up there with the school play or musical. And there is the sense that writing ought to be celebrated and is integral. What is nice then is when they have the younger students coming along. What we hope to do more and more is have a younger group with some level of mentoring from students who are alumni of the programme, so you have the years engaging with one another. So you have the younger kids coming to the launch and thinking, ‘that’s something I want to do’, and it hopefully just becomes part of what happens. And is celebrated.

Do you keep in touch with any of the pupils?

Today has been a good First Story day. I’ve just come from the Foyle’s Poetry Prize, where we had a winner—Esme Partridge—we’ve had students nominated in the John Betjeman [Poetry Competition], and Azfa Ali won the Tower Poetry Prize. There’s a real excitement when you see a tangible result. Of course the aim is not to get them all into writing, but we have an alumni group of students, and we try to set up work experience for them and put them in touch with people in all walks of life. The idea being that we remain a place they can come to. We have an online writer-in-residence so they can continue to post things. I want to get better at doing that, and recruit more of them back, because it’s always exciting seeing them. We’ll see them talk at events and the thing they always talk about is about is the confidence to think, ‘I am good enough’.

And it’s not just a charitable exercise. I’ve read four of the collections, and there’s some great work in there.

I think so. Each school is a huge range. In some of the most challenging, if you were coming at it blind you would want a bit of context, but there is enormous progress and courage in what they are willing to share. That’s the moving thing about the book launches, particularly when you get a six-foot boy reading something that’s really quite intimate. He’s dropped the front, the sixth-form boy thing, and I love that. In each anthology there are always a couple of students where you think ‘wow’, and all of them identify themselves as people who enjoy language and will write successfully even if they go and work for a bank and need to write to their clients. Because they will write well.