The Martian Embassy

Sean Mooney writes about a factory that's cranking the cogs of kids' creativity.

Aliens have landed in Sydney and set up an embassy in Redfern. But fear not – they come in peace, and are on a mission to spread creativity through the city, one tall tale at a time. This is the news according to the Sydney Story Factory (SSF), a non-profit organisation founded by former Sydney Morning Herald journalists Tim Dick and Cath Keenan for writers aged seven to 17 years. The SSF's headquarters at 176 Redfern Street, Redfern, opened in July 2012, complete with an alien-embassy-themed shopfront and a writing centre at the back.

According to Keenan, there is method in this Martian madness. "It stops it feeling like school or some other boring after-school thing you have to go to," she says. "It's a nice creative space and a signal that you can think outside the box and do something a bit unusual. Another benefit is that all the information about us is available in the shop all the time, so any kid can walk in off the street and decide, 'Wow, I'd really like to do the playwriting course on Sundays,' and sign up."

The SSF runs after-school programs, workshops during school hours and a range of programs on Sundays and during school holidays, providing children with free one-on-one or small-group tuition for their writing projects. Volunteer authors, editors, academics and other creative professionals work to inspire the city's next generation of storytellers, with a particular focus on children from disadvantaged, migrant and Indigenous backgrounds.

The SSF concept is based on the San Francisco writers' centre 826 Valencia, founded in 2002 by writer Dave Eggers and educator Ninive Caligari. "Sydney is particularly poorly serviced for that sort of thing, so we just thought it would be a really great thing to do," says Keenan. The SSF has been funded through donations from bodies such as the Vincent Fairfax Family Foundation and the Sydney Lord Mayor's Salary Trust, and individuals such as journalist Peter FitzSimons, Australian Indigenous Education Foundation director Warren Mundine and Maggie Newlyn from the Australian Storytelling Guild (NSW). SSF shopfront sales (of items such as tins of gravity and Martian passports) will also generate funds.

Before the project could go public, one of Keenan's primary tasks was to enlist the support of Sydney-based writers. As a former arts writer and literary editor, her contact book was very useful. "Virtually all of them said yes, which was a really big help," she says. The SSF now has 700 volunteers on its books.

The project's first pilot program was held at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Primary School in Waterloo, a small Catholic school where most of the children are from Indigenous or non-English-speaking backgrounds. During the six-week program, six children aged eight to 10 wrote stories about Martians visiting Earth. "At the end, they each received a book of their stories that a professional illustrator had created a cover for, with an author photo on the back," says Keenan, who led the team of eight volunteer tutors. "They were so proud." Their stories and those of students at Alexandria Park Community School have been published in an anthology called I Met A Martian & Other Stories, along with tales penned by writers such as Debra Adelaide, Malcolm Knox, William McInnes and Markus Zusak.

One volunteer with a passion for improving literacy through writing and performing arts is Robyn Ewing, professor of teacher education and the arts at the University of Sydney, and SSF board vice-president. Ewing helped create SSF courses and devise ways to measure their effectiveness. "It will take us time to build up a body of evidence that shows how valuable this can be, but the volunteers involved at Our Lady of Mount Carmel could see the difference it made to some of those children after only six after-school sessions," she says.

Ewing says the fact that so many talented individuals have volunteered for the SSF shows its enormous potential. "It's really good that people who are expert writers want to get involved because research shows children need opportunities to interact with experts."

Ewing believes initiatives such as SSF are particularly important in the current climate. "We have to be really careful in terms of the road we're travelling in education at the moment, with such an emphasis on things like NAPLAN (National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy) tests," she says. "One of the problems is people don't understand these tests can only measure some things about literacy and writing; they can't really measure creativity because they have to adhere to a fairly strict marking scale. It is absolutely essential to encourage kids to continue to develop their creativity and imagination."

SSF board member Larissa Behrendt says she hopes the organisation will help imbue more children with a love of reading, especially in her area. "Redfern is my local community, and it seems like such a fantastic project to be doing in the area," she says. "I thought it was something that could really capture the imagination of young people and was the sort of thing that could do really well." Behrendt is professor of law and director of research at the Jumbunna Indigenous House of Learning at the University of Technology, Sydney, and was the 2011 NSW Australian of the Year. She is also the author of Commonwealth Writer's Prize-winning novel Home, so writing is in her blood. "My mother had me reading from a very young age," says Behrendt. "As we moved around a lot, I found a refuge in reading; it was a place of happiness for me."

Behrendt sees the SSF's comical storefront playing an important role in attracting children who don't receive the same kind of educational support she did. "It provides an environment where there is a culture of learning presented in a really subtle and unintimidating way," she says. "While this isn't a project specifically for Aboriginal kids, working in education myself, I can see just how important this is for kids in the Aboriginal community. I'm really passionate about seeing the extent to which we can engage them with the program."

As well as stimulating young imaginations, Cath Keenan wants the SSF to help children from all walks of life feel free to tell their own stories. "It can be difficult to convince them their story is something interesting that people might want to read," she says. "They think 'my life's boring, nothing happens'. I think it's important to change this attitude."

This article was first published in the September 2012 edition of Sydney's Child.

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