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The idea for The Story Project was first sparked by an encounter with a man called Andy French early in my career as an English teacher.

My students had been studying the novella Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck. I found they were growing weary of the text as we scrutinised every detail during preparation for their GCSEs. Andy came to deliver a presentation at my school about how he had turned his life around after spending most of his 40 years in and out of prison. The key to ending that cycle was a project called ‘Stories Connect’.

Stories Connect was a prison-based reading group that also studied Of Mice and Men. But rather than focus on technical English skills, prisoners were urged to relate the story with their own lives so they could begin to understand and control their own emotions.

My students were greatly inspired by Andy’s talk, as it helped them to see the book from a different perspective. I, too, was inspired, and began to consider how the idea behind Stories Connect could be replicated at school.

So what did you do next?

I discovered that Stories Connect was based on an American programme called ‘Changing Lives Through Literature’. In the US, they had taken the concept much further. Rather than being put behind bars, petty criminals were ordered to attend a reading group with their probation officers and the judge. The results were dramatic: reoffending fell by 50 per cent.

Digging further, I discovered there were several projects in the US and Canada using reading and writing to support young people’s mental health. These included Pongo Teen Writing, a poetry programme that works in homeless shelters, prisons and with other marginalised communities; RULER, a project created by Yale University that uses stories as the start of understanding emotions; Youth Communication; that publishes young people’s stories and then uses them to teach emotional skills in schools; and many more.

Thanks to a Winston Churchill Memorial Trust Scholarship I travelled to North America to visit 13 of the programmes that had inspired me.

What happened when you returned to the UK?

I focused my attention on testing and adapting concepts I had observed on my travels within primary school settings, as I had learnt that the younger this work can be embedded the more effective it is. I began working as the Wellbeing Lead at St Paul’s C of E Primary School in Addlestone, a fantastic school that shares my vision of prioritising wellbeing.

In consultation with fellow teachers and pupils, I began to test ideas for how I could implement what I had learnt from the research into the UK context. As my ideas developed I was awarded a Let Teacher’s Shine award from The Shine Trust that recognised the potenial of the idea and allowed me to develop the idea into The Story Project.

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