Friday, 19 December 2014


Paula Rawsthorne looks at the work of FIRST STORY and reflects on her first term as a writer-in-residence.
One of the enjoyable aspects of being a writer of Young Adult fiction is being invited into schools to meet students and do author talks and workshops, but since September I’ve also been a writer-in-residence, working for a fantastic literacy charity called First Story.  My role involves undertaking weekly after-school workshops with a group of students at a Nottingham secondary school.  This provides a unique opportunity for us all to have fun developing and experimenting with creative writing.  In the summer term individual First Story groups in schools around the country will have a professionally produced anthology of their work published.

First Story was set up in 2008 by writer William Fiennes and former teacher, Katie Waldegrave.  They wanted to open up the opportunity for state secondary schools (particularly more challenging schools) to benefit from having a writer-in –residence. 

William and Katie began with First Story groups in eight London schools.  It now has writers and poets in 49 schools across the East Midlands, Gloucestershire, Lancashire, London, Oxfordshire and West Yorkshire.  To date, First Story has helped 4,500 young people write 90,000 stories and poems and publish 145 anthologies.  The First Story website contains impressive statistics about the impact of groups on students’ self-confidence as well as improvements in writing and even school attendance. 

I believe the ethos of First Story is key to its success.  It aims to develop and encourage creativity, literacy and confidence in the students.  Writers’ sessions with the First Story students aren’t tied to exams, assessments or even homework.  The emphasis is on creative writing for the pure enjoyment of it.  When students are freed from the stresses of having to reach targets and attain grades they are able to relax and develop a love of words, spend time tapping into their imaginations and conjuring up stories and poems without having to worry about ticking boxes for teachers and exam board.

Our group hold the sessions in the school library.  We always have cakes and juice to give everyone energy after a long day of lessons and I hope the atmosphere is relaxed and, at the same time, stimulating.  Through workshops, using all kinds of prompts and concepts, we let our imaginations run wild.  Importantly, First Story also values the wealth of experiences that each student brings with them and workshops that tap into memories and daily life often produce powerful, inspiring work.

 Every writer-in- residence relies on a good school liaison person (a teacher or librarian) who is committed to the project.  They're an integral part of the group, joining in with each writing exercise and keeping everyone on track.  I’m lucky to be working with Rachel Stone, one of Nottingham Emmanuel’s librarians.  Rachel has even used her considerable talent as a poet to run a session with the group.

First Story encourages off-site sessions to take students out of the school environment and this term I took my students to visit a wonderful ‘secret’ library.  Bromley House is one of the few private members libraries left in Britain and is truly a hidden gem in the heart of Nottingham.  The librarians of Bromley House were more than accommodating.  They gave us a fascinating tour of the warren-like library and also offered us their lovely reading room in which to do our workshop.  It was such an inspiring and atmospheric environment to get creative.

Also this term the school organised for performance poet, Mark Gwynne Jones, to do a session with our First Story Group and this resulted in a trip to the Nottingham Contemporary.  Here, some students got to perform their work on stage at a Lyric Lounge event as part of the 'Nottingham Festival Of Words'.

First Story held their Young Writers’ Festival in September.  Our group, along with 500 other First Story students from around the country, travelled to LMH College (Oxford University) for a fantastic day of workshops and inspiring talks from, amongst others, Mark Haddon.  The next day another 500 students came along and heard Philip Pullman speak.


 Eleanor and Becca from Nottingham Emmanuel School performing their poem to 500 student. (Photo by Richard Budd)
In March we’ll be bringing all the East Midlands students to Nottingham University:  The region’s writers-in-residence will be running workshops, and students will also get a chance to explore the campus, chat to undergraduates and find out more about life at uni.  Nottingham University has further been involved with First Story by providing an undergraduate, ‘shadow writer’ who attended our sessions and really mucked in.  

These partnerships between First Story and academic and cultural institutions are happening all over the country.  They benefit everyone involved and expose students to new experiences and aspirations.

Having your writing published in a professional produced anthology (by OUP) is a big deal and the fact that the students are involved in the whole publication process gives an even greater sense of achievement. It also teaches them important skills in editing and checking their work, working as a team to decide on a title for their book and even coming up with the cover artwork.  The launch for their anthology is also a big deal and the students play a vital role in organising the event to make it a special occasion and celebration of their writing.


Mark Haddon speaks to First Story Students at the Young Writers’ Festival (Photo by Richard Budd)

A couple of students from each school group will get the opportunity to go on a residential writing course where they’ll be working with writers, poets and peers from all over the country.  I know that students and writers alike find this an unforgettable experience. 
First Story also looks to the future with their students and hopes their experience of the group will establish a longer term love of writing.  With this goal in mind we encourage past students to set up their own writing groups, reading groups, literary society etc.

I have found my first term of working with Nottingham Emmanuel’s First Story Group an absolute pleasure.  The students are a fabulous lot and I’m continually gobsmacked by the stories and poems that they create each session.  I’m already looking forward to next term and I’m pretty sure that, around the country, my fellow First Story writers-in-residence will be feeling the same.

If you want to know more about First Story’s extensive work and how schools can get involved with them, please see their website.

 Watch this clip ‘A Year of First Story in five minutes

First Story on twitter

Paula on twitter



  1. What an amazing organisation, Paula! I have to say I've been ignorant about First Story, so thank you for sharing this, and what a wonderful experience for the students and authors alike!

  2. Thanks, Savita. First Story is a fantastic organisation so it's great to spread the word about their work. Happy Christmas. Paula

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