Catherine Keenan, the executive director of the Sydney Story Factory and the 2016 Australian of the year Local Hero, is our guest blogger today. Welcome Cath and congratulations on your well deserved award.
In the nearly four years since the Sydney Story Factory opened in Redfern, we’ve taken over 8,000 enrolments from young people aged 7 to 17. We offer them free creative writing and storytelling programs and they have surprised us with everything from poems about robot birds to ghost stories, a pantomime, food reviews, newspapers and podcasts. You can read some of their wonderful stories here.
Most of these young people are marginalised in some way. Around one quarter of our students are Indigenous and just under half are from non-English speaking backgrounds, particularly refugees and asylum seekers. All our programs – whether they’re a one-off two-hour workshop or a term-long program in a school – end in a publication. This might be an animation recorded on a DVD, or a beautifully illustrated book: either way, it’s something the students can take home and proudly show their family. There is nothing like the smile that spreads across the face of an eight-year-old when they hold that publication in their hands. Especially if that child normally struggles with literacy, as many of our students do.
The thing that makes our workshops different – and makes writing at the Sydney Story Factory different from writing at school – is that our classes are run with volunteers. We have a fantastic staff of expert writers and teachers, and they plan and lead every workshop. But within each workshop, we may have, say, 20 students and 10 volunteers who work with those students one-on-one to support them as they write. The volunteer’s job is to say to the student: “That’s a great idea! Tell me more.” Writing is hard for everyone, whether you’re 7 or 70, and the volunteer is there to help when the student gets stuck. They ask questions and throw ideas around, and gently get the student going again. The volunteers don’t need to be experts in writing, and they don’t need to be teachers (though some of our best volunteers are retired teachers). They just need to be genuinely interested in the children they’re working with. You cannot over-estimate the power of having an adult, who’s not a family member and not a teacher, genuinely engaged with what a child thinks. You can almost see them stand a little bit taller.
There’s one boy I can think of – let’s call him John – whose mum almost literally dragged him through the door when we opened. He hated writing. He had just graduated from a remedial reading program and he would lie over two stools, facing the other way, yelling out “BORING!”
But our volunteers persevered. They didn’t treat him as a kid who was bad at writing; they were relentlessly curious to find out how he was going to finish his story and what would happen next. And very slowly, despite his best efforts, John’s ideas came. When he threw one out, our volunteer would grab it and say: ‘Yes. And? Then he’d have another idea and they’d run with that too. ‘Yes. And?’ At the end of that first course, which we ran in collaboration with the Museum of Contemporary Art, he’d worked with a small group to produce a short stop-motion animated film which was screened at the MCA for parents and friends who clapped and cheered.
Naturally, John still told us he hated the course. But he came back the next term. And the next. And the next. Nearly four years later he’s still coming. In fact, he’s enrolled in our longest ever course, a year-long program to write a novella of up to 30,000 words. He’s a very different boy from the one who first walked through our door. He’s doing better at school, and he’s far more confident as a person. When younger kids come into the Story Factory, he welcomes them and shows them around. We don’t claim credit for all of that, of course, but some part of it is because he has become something he never thought he would be: a writer.
Back in 2011, it seemed a risky decision to leave my job as a journalist at the Sydney Morning Herald to run the Sydney Story Factory. I would never have done it without the tireless and self-effacing support of my co-founder and Herald colleague, Tim Dick. But every time I see John, every time I see that light go on in a child’s eye when they understand the power and joy of words, I know I made the right decision.
For more information, go to http://www.sydneystoryfactory.org.au/. We’re always looking for more volunteers. If you’d like to volunteer, please go to http://www.sydneystoryfactory.org.au/about-volunteering/.