Developing Resilience through Prose

Hull College

This project aimed to consciously develop student resilience through the presentation and writing of prose in the GCSE English curriculum. We specifically focused on resilience as a curriculum theme and measured the impact of this on the learners.

Would developing the concept of resilience in the curriculum promote resilient thinking?

You can download a PDF of this report on the Excellence Gateway (link pending).


Hull is a deprived city and our students often struggle with the problems that emerge from this, including lower than national average academic educational achievement, behavioural problems and, as a result, low attendance. Learners’ experience of English can often be negative, as they either see themselves as failures or they don’t see the relevance of the core English skills. Much of the work of the English team, therefore, focuses on student well-being and confidence building. Alongside this, we work to develop key English skills to enable students to maximise their opportunities in their careers and, more broadly, in their lives. English presents a unique opportunity to explore ideas of resilience within the curriculum. We aimed to use the presentation and production of prose as a method for learners to consciously think about resilience as a route to challenging themselves, focusing on a group of ‘Special Educational Needs and Disabilities’ (SEND) /Employability learners. We took as an initial starting point The Sheffield College’s OTLA 7 project on building resilience through the development of mindsets. Though our approach differed, we were inspired by their use of the language of resilience. We were also inspired by the project-based learning approach developed by Ron Berger in which learners are encouraged to produce beautiful meaningful work.

Other Contextual Information

Our action research was part of the Education and Training Foundation’s OTLA 8 Programme. Our research focused on six core groups of learners, shared by three staff members. The learners were all based in our Employability/SEND department. Many learners are identified as high-needs, with 20% having Education and Health Care Plans (EHCPs). A disproportionately large number of the learners had left school prior to exams owing to behavioural issues. Their low-grade profile reflects learning loss through the pandemic. Initial assessments revealed almost all the learners were working at entry level for English.


The project started with the presentation of texts which told a story of a character struggling against difficulty. This included the writing of Beryl Bainbridge, survivor on the Titanic, the story of Lewis Daynes and the murder of Breck Bednar, in addition to extracts from a range of fiction texts. This then prompted discussions about resilience before the regular analytical work took place.

When students undertook creative writing, it was as a story of resilience; the characters they created were dealing with conflict and had to choose how to act in the face of difficulty. Learners developed ideas from prompts before working collaboratively to develop their narratives.

English skills trackerInterestingly, in the collaboration process learners were almost always increasing the conflict faced by the protagonists and, crucially, actively generating ideas together on how the characters would deal with the challenge. For example, one learner’s story – ‘Late for the Exam’ – began with his character missing a bus. By the end of the development phase, the character also had to deal with rude bus drivers, losing money, sitting next to an unruly toddler and dropping his phone at the entrance to college. Each of these challenges had a corresponding character reaction followed by an active discussion regarding coping strategies which the character might use to deal with the conflict. Perhaps most encouragingly (and unexpectedly), learners ‘allowed’ the character to get angry and react badly to situations but ensured that this was followed by an apology or moment of regret and contrition. This was an entirely learner-led discussion and we, as a staff team, were impressed by the learners’ sympathetic understanding of negative feelings as being a temporary, but entirely human event.

Creative writing was structured through our WEST method (Words, Emotions, Structure and Techniques). A prompt word would be presented (for example, ‘Danger’). Learners generated personal connotations from this based on their own experiences. A story structure was then drafted before specific prose techniques were purposefully added for effect. This framework was designed to encourage emotional literacy and language sophistication in the work of the learners.

A selection of our research group of learners engaged with the First Story project, which aimed to develop emotional literacy through poetry and prose, reinforcing many of the themes developed in class.

English skills trackerWe observed that learners were struggling to readjust to the classroom setting and, following such a long period of disruption to their learning routines, were missing fundamental English skills. We rebuilt our delivery to focus on incremental skills development, creating a skills-tracker which was referenced in every lesson (see below and Appendix 3). This allowed us to track progress and focus on the incremental steps to develop their skills further. Alongside this we were mindful of the language used and ensured we remained positive and forward thinking.

Feedback was collected from students and staff on the project at two different points, with a focus on written testimony.

The culmination of the project was the creation of a book of creative writing by the learners on the theme of resilience. This was produced entirely by the learners in our core group and included a launch event to which parents/carers and other college staff were invited.

Outcomes and Impact

Teaching, Learning and Assessment

The teachers involved in the project were all highly skilled, experienced practitioners and were proficient in developing learners’ confidence in English. They reported that the specific focus on resilience as a theme in the curriculum positively impacted their practice as skilled practitioners, they allowed the project to take unexpected turns. For example, one teacher’s use of the ‘cut up’ technique of creative writing (see Appendix 3.D) enabled a disengaged learner to communicate his feelings through assembly of language, rather than the anxieties that can come with language generation.

The group of staff engaged in the project were a close team and had been successfully working together to develop resources and curriculum for many years. Through their involvement in the project, this collaboration has expanded to include conversations on how the resilience of the learners can be developed in the class, and discussions around feelings complement the academic discussion whilst also supporting the learners as people.
Covid-related staff absence had a significant impact on the project during the winter months. The wider discussions which occurred on the theme of resilience and the focus on emotional literacy in the classroom helped both staff and students through a difficult period of disruption to learning. Agency staff also reported that learners were understanding, respectful and showed genuine empathy for the welfare of their teachers.

The development of an explicitly skill-focused curriculum has been transformative. Staff found that it enabled them to provide specific feedback, more effective formative assessment and links to vocational areas leading to increased learner confidence.

Perhaps most surprising has been the opportunity to discuss the emotional journey with learners. We assumed at the start of the project that we would simply focus on the idea of resilience and measure our attempts to develop this. In reality, the project became about emotional literacy, through creative prose – an approach which enabled learners to explore their feelings indirectly through a fictional creation. This was simply done by asking them how they felt about their writing and the characters they had created (see Appendix 2 for case studies), something we had never done before, but which provided rich opportunities for discussion and relationship development.

As previously mentioned, staff-student relationships were significantly developed as a consequence of the project. Providing feedback and having class discussions based not just on the technical elements of the written prose, but the emotional motivations of the characters and authors created a space in the classroom for emotional literacy to grow. When coupled with discussions of ‘difficulty’ in the context of the conflict characters faced this provided a valuable opportunity for learners to talk about issues they may be facing in the second or third person. The abstraction of story writing gave them a degree of cover to send their own feelings into that world and receive supportive responses from their peers (see Appendix 2.A for a case study example).

We discovered that learners have an intuitive understanding of allegory. When, as part of the research, we collected feedback from the learners, many pointed out that the most fantastical story events – for example, an attack on a school by an invading army – were developed from an honest emotional nucleus of the learner (in this case the anxieties brought on by encountering a bully again). This late-stage discovery points to a fascinating future approach to developing emotionally authentic stories which enables learners to explore their feelings.

Organisational Development

  • The writing will be collected into an anthology and will be produced in collaboration with art students in the college. This will then be shared with all learners and will form a reference for next year’s learners.
  • The ‘Skills Builder’ will become our main learner assessment/diagnostic tool, and learning undertaken in college (whether in English lessons or other curriculum areas) will be used to record progress whilst encouraging learners to draw links between their vocational course and English.
  • The focus on emotional literacy/resilience for one term will continue. However, we are integrating other ‘lenses’ into our scheme of work in an effort to develop learners as people. This may include a term in which the ‘lens’ or theme around learning is, for example, self-esteem or aspiration.
  • We will develop the idea of emotional feedback/discussion in all areas of the curriculum. This will be expanded further into the SEND area and our Functional Skills delivery. A future development project is to create a process/language for this which effectively steers learners through the emotional contexts of the lesson content.

Learning from this project

Alongside other measures we have seen a steady increase in learner predicted achievement (for our research groups, learners predicted ‘At Risk’ reduced by 30% in the period of November – February). Though it is difficult to separate our research from other initiatives our qualitative feedback has demonstrated that learners are more confident in talking about the things they find difficult emotionally.

We discovered through our research that:

  • Learners are innately creative and empathetic. Their narrative choices – however simple – seem to be drawn from their own emotional experiences. Recognising this when developing prose had the dual effect of improving their writing and developing their resilience.
  • All teachers should be discussing emotions when using both fictional and non-fictional texts in lessons. Discussions which tie motivations of characters/people to their actions provide learners with an opportunity to reflect on the impact of positive and negative feelings in their own lives. This approach could be developed with its own framework, structure or language, providing a real opportunity for practitioners to make an impact on the inner lives of their learners.
  • Resilience isn’t an easily defined concept. The concept of ‘recovery’ or ‘toughness’ as part of resilience invites unhelpful expectations on how people are expected to react to difficult situations. We experienced learners using phrases such as “I’m not resilient enough”, as if measuring themselves against an undefined standard. It quickly became clear to us that a better approach is to focus on the emotional journeys people are on, the choices they can make and how these can be explored. The more useful term is emotional literacy. Emotional literacy is defined as “recognising emotions, managing our own emotions, recognising emotions in others and developing strategies to cope and deal with these emotions.” (Waterhouse, 2019, p. 10).
  • Emotional literacy can be developed in much the same way as literacy can. By exposure to examples (stories in which characters are dealing with difficulties and the feelings that come from this) and then discussion of those examples (how are the characters dealing with these feelings? Is this helpful?) learners are encouraged to reflect on their own feelings. The opportunity to then create prose in which these feelings can be successfully managed empowers the learner to create their own frameworks for coping with difficulty.

Professional Development

Using the ETF’s Professional Standards for teachers and trainers. Please note, this report refers to the 2014-2022 standards.

  • 1. Reflect on what works best in your teaching and learning to meet the needs of your learners.

    Our project gave staff an opportunity to pause in their practice and look at the curriculum they were presenting in a different way. The theme of resilience offered another take on how they delivered curriculum, and was an opportunity to rethink their approach to teaching.

  • 13. Motivate and inspire learners to promote achievement and develop their skills to enable progression.

    Both the focus on skills in the classroom and the promotion of emotional reflection in writing developed the motivation of learners, with tangible results in the standard of their written work. Furthermore, the positive impact on staff-student relationships as a consequence of the project inspired learners and challenged their attitudes to English.

  • 17. Enable learners to share responsibility for their own learning and assessment, setting goals that stretch and challenge.

    Learners were challenged to write in a way and to a higher standard than before. They worked co-operatively and independently and saw their work published – something they never had considered possible.


Appendix 2: Learner Case Studies

Appendix 3: Supporting Documents


Berger, R. (2003) An Ethic of Excellence: Building a Culture of Craftsmanship with Students. New York: Heinemann.
Duckworth, A. (2017) Grit: Why passion and resilience are the secrets to success, London: Vermillion
OTLA 7 (2020) Sheffield College: Resilience, available on
Education and Training Foundation (2014) Professional Standards for Teachers and Trainers in Education and Training, available on: ETF_Professional_Standards_Digital_FINAL.pdf ( [accessed: 11.11.2020]
Waterhouse, A. (2019) Emotional Literacy: Supporting Emotional Health and Wellbeing in School. Abingdon: Routledge