Back in 2019, Olivia Richards, a dedicated and innovative teacher, won a Let Teachers SHINE award with her ground-breaking programme, The Story Project. Two years later, in September 2022, she received her third round of funding. With this latest grant, Olivia has big plans to expand the reach and impact of The Story Project to even more classrooms and students across the country.
The Story Project provides training and resources for teachers to use fictional stories as a tool to support the well-being of their students. The programme matches different well-being skills that children might need, primarily at the primary school level, but also working with some secondary schools. The programme finds engaging and diverse stories that show a character experiencing or learning a skill, and then creates resources around that. This means that when the teacher wants to teach a particular well-being skill, they have a story, and accompanying ideas, questions, and activities.
The idea is that the whole school takes part in the programme. Olivia trains one teacher from each school who becomes a “Story Project teacher” who then disseminates the programme to the rest of the staff. It can also be used as an intervention for specific children who need extra support with their well-being and literacy. Currently, there are 70 schools engaging with the programme.
Olivia, who is a qualified and experienced English teacher, always loved reading. She said, “I think reading and writing always supported my own well-being, but when I was in the classroom and teaching, I wasn’t always seeing these benefits impact the children. There was a lot of pressure due to tests, so sometimes the enjoyment and emotional aspects of texts were lost.
“At this time, I had a guest speaker called Andy French come into my school who had taken part in a programme called “Stories Connect”, which is an initiative aimed at using literature to raise bring about change in the criminal justice system, specifically in the area of prison reform. He spoke a lot about how the character’s experiences and emotions had really helped him change his life around, especially with themes around friendship, work, and loneliness.”
Inspired by Andy’s story, Olivia decided to look into this project further and found out that the project was based on an American programme called ‘Changing Lives Through Literature’. She also discovered there were a lot of programmes in the US that were using literature to support people’s mental health. She wanted to learn more, so applied for a “Churchill Fellowship” which allows people from the UK to visit projects overseas that could help develop their practice in the UK. After successfully receiving the fellowship, Olivia went to America and visited 13 programmes that were all specifically using reading and writing in some way to help children’s well-being.
Speaking on this, Olivia said, “I learned so much from this research, particularly the programmes where they were integrating social and well-being skills into the English curriculum, right from nursery up to university level. When I returned to the UK, I really wanted to implement what I had learnt, so whilst working at St Paul’s Primary school, I spoke with children, teachers, and parents to try to understand their views and I began to build The Story Project.”
When Olivia won the Let Teachers SHINE funding in 2019, she was able to turn this idea into a reality by creating resources and trialling the project in three different schools. She created a website where teachers could access the resources and went into schools to provide training. In the first year, she was able to see the potential of the project, and when she received the second grant in 2020, she was able to work with 28 schools.
Speaking to one of the teachers that worked with Olivia and used The Story Project from the beginning said, “My reception class has absolutely adored the texts. They have remembered all of the characters they’ve met through them, and the emotions/stories linked to them. They love our SP display board, and we make links to keywords frequently. They are fully engaged in the range of activities linked to each week. We use our visual emotions chart which has really helped with their vocabulary. We all love it!”
Olivia reflected on her journey with the support she has received from SHINE so far and said, “I have been able to collect impact data and get feedback from schools as to what is working and what needs to be changed. COVID obviously had a big impact, as I feel that children’s well-being became an even bigger priority, which resulted in more schools showing an interest in The Story Project. I was able to support schools with their home learning and help parents to get involved in teaching some of these skills.”
As The Story Project grew, Olivia wanted to investigate the impact of the project in more detail. She was able to do this with the support of a Farmington Scholarship from Oxford University. During this time, Olivia also worked with Professor Anthony Towey at St Mary’s University, who encouraged Olivia to pursue a PhD to continue her research.
“Throughout all of this, SHINE really helped me to keep the project going and growing, so when they said I could have a further grant in September 2022, I decided it was time for me to focus all my time on The Story Project, as well as completing a PhD on it.
“SHINE has been such an integral part of my journey with The Story Project. Their support and belief in my ideas have been invaluable. From the staff members to other SHINE participants, there has always been someone available to chat with and offer guidance. Meeting some of the donors was also a highlight, as it provided an opportunity to share information about The Story Project and learn about other projects.
Running The Story Project has been a challenging but rewarding experience for Olivia. She has gained valuable insights and knowledge that have helped her to improve and grow the programme. Through this journey, she has learned the importance of having a strong understanding of the project’s overall goals and aims, but also being flexible in how they are met. For example, during the COVID-19 pandemic, she adapted her original school-based model to include more home learning and parental involvement. Despite the challenges, Olivia feels more confident in making decisions and navigating the project’s development.
Reflecting on this, Olivia said, “It can be difficult to know what the right decision is when you’re from a teaching background and not a business one. However, there are many benefits to working on an education project as a teacher. Asking for help and understanding that you don’t have to know everything right away has been key. It’s all about taking things one step at a time.
In the years to come, Olivia has set her sights on expanding the reach of The Story Project nationwide, whilst continuing to evaluate its impact using her PhD. Her plans include targeting an additional 50 schools annually, with a focus on those located in the North of England and in disadvantaged communities.