Empowerment through self-publishing

Transforming pupils’ approach to writing and reading

Young storytellers

Young Storyteller is a new programme from Amazon and the National Literacy Trust which explores self-publishing in education. Last year, I ran the programme in the school where I work as an English teacher and Enrichment Coordinator — a state-funded secondary serving a disadvantaged community in West London.

Not only was the programme completely free to run but — by the pupils’ own testimony — it has changed lives.

Over the course of the year, I ran weekly creative writing workshops for pupils in Years 7–13 with our Poet in Residence, Lewis Buxton. We tried and tested all the great free resources from Amazon and the National Literacy Trust, which included a huge variety of inspirational topics and creative ideas to get our pupils writing — and enjoying it.

The project culminated in the publication of a beautiful, professional-looking anthology of our pupils’ work, which they gave the title: Build Me a Tower of Unspeakable Sounds. Its publication caused a huge buzz in our school community. Our headteacher called it “the enrichment highlight of the year” and said that, as a keen writer herself, she had been “wowed by the imagination and creativity of the young writers.”

We celebrated the pupils’ achievement at a truly joyous launch event where they performed their work to staff, friends and parents, who were then able to purchase a paperback copy of the anthology. What’s more, the anthology is available to buy in digital form on Amazon, which was an especially thrilling prospect for pupils whose families live in far-flung locations!

Confidence through creativity

“This project has changed me as a person. It has taught me to be confident with my thoughts, feelings and emotions, however left-field they are.” — Year 12 pupil

By telling your pupils that they are writers, you are also telling them that they deserve to be listened to. 90% of pupils who participated in our school’s project reported that their confidence had improved as a result, and 80% believed that their writing had got better. During the workshops, Lewis and I agreed that we’d treat the pupils as young writers but they only truly believed this when they held a copy of their anthology in their hands.

For one pupil with ASD, our writing workshops were the highlight of his weekly routine — a space where his unconventional writing style and surprising subject matter made him our champion in the fight against clichés. One particularly memorable piece was an impassioned ode to fish and chips! His teachers and support staff not only commented on his improved confidence but have linked his involvement in the project to an increase in his engagement in English lessons.

Publishing our disadvantaged young people’s work in a printed publication was an act of validation and a celebration of their uniqueness. As Lewis Buxton said at our launch: “These students have learned that the stories they have to tell, their lives, are interesting to people.” The confidence and self-worth gained through publication of their work has encouraged pupils to put more effort into their writing and take more creative risks — in the classroom as well as out of it.

Impact in the classroom on writing, reading and beyond

“I have really noticed improvements in the literacy of some of my new arrival Year 7s. They have gained confidence in speaking out loud and are much more involved in lessons.” — Key Stage 3 English Coordinator

As a newly qualified teacher, I grapple every day with the challenge of how to turn apathetic video-gamers into enthusiastic, independent readers. But my pupils engaged with the poetry they encountered in extra-curricular writing workshops with an excitement and sense of purpose I had rarely seen in my classroom.

I believe that the reason for the pupils’ enthusiasm in the workshops was because, in that context, they identified as writers and approached new texts as inspiration for their own creative output. In the workshops, pupils developed the kind of ‘mastery oriented’ or ‘growth mindset’ approach to learning that Carol Dweck’s research has shown to be a key factor in academic success. Author and blogger David Didau’s view that the key to improving pupil’s literacy is to ‘make the implicit explicit’ is also relevant here; if we encourage pupils to view themselves as young writers who are developing their craft, we must also aim to demystify the writing process and help them to answer questions like “why did the writer use a short sentence there?” or “why does the writer use lots of verbs in this paragraph?”

Since the Young Storyteller project, I’ve been teaching reading and writing more in tandem, with less of a delineation between the pupils’ status and that of the well-known writers they encounter. This doesn’t mean telling them that their writing is as good as that of Shakespeare or Roald Dahl; rather, it means drawing a link between their experience of the process of writing and their understanding of the impact writing has on them when they read.

The Young Storyteller programme has not only helped my pupils become more confident and better writers, but it has also changed my approach to teaching.

This blog is by Edith Johnson, Teacher of English and Enrichment Coordinator at Villiers High School in West London. It is taken from a full article published in Teach Secondary magazine’s December 2017 edition.