Maureen McTaggart is enchanted by the creative writing produced in a global student awards scheme
Is there wifi in heaven? Exploration of that theme, after she was banned from using the internet by her mother, won 15-year-old Lindsey Nkem the £2,500 first prize in this year’s International Short Story Award for Young Writers run by literary magazine Litro and IGGY, the new global organisation for gifted youth.
The success of the venture – there were 500 entries across 40 countries – is a major boost for the emerging IGGY, based at Warwick University (see “Online gift for talented youngsters"), which already has 1,000 subscriptions and launches its new website this week.
Like any awards ceremony, the purpose of the event at London’s Shakespeare’s Globe theatre, was not just to honour the best – Lindsey's I Hope There's Wifi in Heaven – but to up the profile of them all. In addition, according to Patrick Dunne, who runs the university’s brilliant Warwick in Africa initiative, all the short-listed entries have a duty they shouldn’t forget to fulfil.
Opening the ceremony he said, “This is not a small competition and you are all winners. In the future you are likely now to be very successful. If you are successful, you have almost, I think, a duty to help other young people to do the same thing as you.”
IGGY director Janey Walker, who has been overseeing the partnerships - education, commercial and organisational - that are crucial for the success of such a service, said they are delighted at the range and quality of this year's entries in the international competition. "The shortlisted stories give us a glimpse of how rapidly the world is changing around these young people, and we are very pleased to be able to showcase their talents through IGGY and Litro to a wider audience."
The other contenders were 19-year-old UK student Isobel Hall (pictured) with Flowers, Memory of a Distant Country by 17-year-old Fego Martins Ahia, and Before We Call Them Monsters by Ige Abimbola, 19, both from Nigeria, and two from the USA, The Man Who Had Everything, by Lin Wang, 19, and People of the Sunrise by Sophie Drukman-Feldstein, 14 (pictured). As well as the substantial first prize, each of the six finalists received £500, and extracts from the winning story will be displayed on posters on the London Underground.
Awards success a boost for IGGY as it builds presence in schools globally
A highlight of the awards evening was a reading of an excerpt from Lindsey’s story by Peter Blegvad, a writer, illustrator, songwriter, broadcaster, teacher in Warwick's Creative Writing Programme and IGGY's lead creative writing academic (audio here). The response was heartfelt and the icing on the cake came a few moments later with a video message from winner Lindsey in Canada (see video below).
With the success of the International Short Story Award and now a new website, the IGGY organisers are keen to keep up the momentum. They have already signed up more than 130 schools to the site and are working hard to increase its high-quality content while taking on board feedback from student members.
“IGGY has attracted massively different types of schools,” explained Peter Sadler, the project’s sales and marketing manager. “Schools that have got very well founded gifted programmes that are seeing it as a way of broadening international horizons and getting students in contact with academics and other gifted students around the world. And then you’ve got schools that are perhaps earlier in the stages of looking after gifted students and they are seeing IGGY as a really nice thing to start their gifted programme off. The fact that it is available all the time to students is quite a nice way of knitting together their programmes.”
One of the important aspects of IGGY is its drive to reach as many disadvantaged gifted learners as possible – at home and abroad. To do this the team has been taking advantage of its links with other projects being run by Warwick University, especially Warwick in Africa.
Every summer for more than seven years, mathematics students and academics have been working alongside teachers and students from South African townships (see link to Lenny Henry video below). They get special training before they go and, once there, they teach students and train teachers with innovative techniques and pedagogy. It's an incredibly fruitful development: the South African students achieve more, as do their teachers, and the UK teachers gain rich experiences which mean that two thirds of them want to become teachers when they return home (only a third of them express an interest in full-time teaching before they go out).
Now IGGY is building links in South Africa too. A number of schools in the Alexandra and Soweto townships are already signed up and moves are underway to set up Saturday clubs in partnership with Monash University in north-west Johannesburg. And it can’t happen too soon for Janey Walker. She acknowledged progress is a bit slow with funding a challenge. “We are trying to set up the Saturday clubs and we are trying to do it from next March,” she says.
Later this month IGGY will launch a year long Junior Commission project inviting members to submit essays on ‘education and the internet’. “From those essays, we will collect 10 junior commissions and they will work on that topic through the course of a year with academics, with our student mentors, with each other and with the broader IGGY community and they will generate a detailed report by the end of the year” explained Peter Sadler. “It will be fascinating to see the different takes you get on that subject with students coming from different backgrounds and different countries.”
While the new crop of IGGY members might be looking forward to working with top academics and alongside their international peers, shortlisted writer Isobel Hall had something else on her mind. Currently studying for a psychology degree she said she was thrilled her writing is to be published on the IGGY and Litro magazine websites, but couldn't decide whether "to spend all £500 on shoes or be sensible and put some towards the rent" for her university student accommodation!