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New Horizons

16 May 2020   |   Emma Dodsworth   |   Springwell Leeds

At Springwell Leeds East Academy we are weeks away from publishing our third anthology. We have found that the process of writing for the anthology is now a highlight of the year for many of our pupils and this work has been one of our greatest success stories since opening the school just under three years ago.

We could not be more proud of our young writers and I will let Lisa Thompson-Gwede, our Subject Leader for English and Russ Litten, our author in residence tell you more about the journey we have been on.

How do you encourage teenagers who have writing, to write? I had theories on this, and I read others’ theories and slowly writing scantily
started to adorn the pages of our students’ exercise books.

However, to say that my students loved writing certainly wasn’t the case, and that was my goal. I wanted my students to enjoy writing so they would want to do it more. I then read this:

First Story is working towards a society that encourages and supports young people from all backgrounds to write creatively, for pleasure… We believe there is dignity and power in being able to tell your own story, and that writing can transform lives. Our flagship programme places professional writers into schools, where they work intensively with students and teachers to develop confidence and ability.

This was it! I couldn’t agree more!

I immediately wrote to First Story and within a very short time they had placed the perfect writer with us. Russ Litten, a published author of several books, began to work alongside us. His equable, approachable manner and solid belief that everyone has a story to tell, did exactly what First Story promoted; it ‘dignified’ our students’ voices. Students began to believe that despite often troubled relationships with education, their stories mattered.

They mattered. Reading their efforts aloud, and sometimes instilling the confidence for them to read themselves, began to fill up chasms of low confidence and negative self-belief, with worthiness and ‘modest’ pride.

Students joining us from other provisions, who had reached Year 10 but still struggled with Phonics, began to write with support.

Some in Year 11, who habitually ripped work up in frustration, began to develop a different mindset. Others, with horrendous tales of early childhood trauma, slowly began to unravel details of their lives, expressing their experiences in writing for the first time. One girl acknowledged the cathartic effect of finally telling her story for herself. Her experience wasn’t told through the eyes of a carer or a social worker, it was being told, finally, by herself.

Students began to realise that their work didn’t have to be perfect. It just had to be their own, each word symbolising a record of achievement and a step closer to academic success.

The problem with trying to “teach” creative writing is that nobody really knows how to do it, and the same can often be said for life. The best you can do is try to provide a safe and supportive environment and trust gut instinct to lead you to wherever you need to be. This was very much the approach I decided to employ when working with the young writers of Springwell Leeds East. I didn’t know anything about these kids other than they had, for one reason or another, been excluded from mainstream education. This, in many ways, is a positive thing for a writer. The life of an artist often begins on the fringes of society. Where better to set out from than a road less travelled?

The great thing about creative writing, of course, is that you cannot get it wrong. So when the young people of Springwell emptied their heads onto paper they received nothing but praise and encouragement.

One thing I always tell the young people I work with is “if you don’t write your story, someone else will.”  These writers were well aware of how they could be viewed and the things that were often written about them. Sometimes this self-awareness resulted in work that was lurid and grotesque, sometimes shocking in its adult nature. But scratch beneath the surface of these extremities and you find a yearning for a life better lived. Generally speaking, we all want the same things – love, warmth, acceptance, a safe place to exist. I hope the young writers of Springwell Leeds East found those things within the worlds created by their work.

‘New Horizons’ is our third anthology and will be published in July, and at this strange period of uncertainty due to the current Covid19 pandemic, we hope it will remind students of their accomplishments this year but further instil future aspirations onthe ‘horizon’.

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