National Writing Project

826 Reinvents the Writing Center

By: Gavin Tachibana
Date: July 14, 2010

Summary: 826 centers across the country have created a different notion of what a writing center is, and partnerships between local Writing Project sites and chapters of 826 National are helping students become better writers, and for some, published authors.


Take a look inside 826LA.

How cool is a writing center that's not called a "writing center" but The Echo Park Time Travel Mart, a storefront that declares "Wherever You Are, We're Already Then" and sells time travel supplies like boxes of robot toupees (rust-stain removers), deodorant sticks called "Viking odorant bars" smelling of "sweat and rotten vegetables," and metal cans of Mammoth Chunks (100% Woolly Mammoth Meat!)?

Very cool, of course. And even more so when you realize the store's profits benefit the programs at the actual writing center, a modernly decorated space located just behind the Time Travel Mart. The center is a spacious room filled with dark-wood tables, a self-publishing table with a printer and binder, and plenty of chairs for author readings and presentations.

That's the story of 826LA, one of the 826 centers that has reformulated the writing and tutoring center model, and garnered major press, celebrity support, a strong core of volunteers—including partnerships between local Writing Project sites and local chapters of 826 National—to help children ages 6-18 become better students and writers, and some, published authors.

Each of the eight 826 chapters—in San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles, Ann Arbor, Chicago, Seattle, Boston, and Washington, DC—provides drop-in tutoring, class field trips, writing workshops, and in-school programs free of charge.

"There's something about the 826 culture where people are very open and kind and are willing to connect with students, but not by saying 'This is grammatically incorrect, you have to change this, you have to change that,'" said Joel Arquillos, executive director of 826LA and a Bay Area Writing Project teacher-consultant.

"We're focused on what the kids bring to us and building on that."

A Theme Park of Writing

Founded in 2002 by bestselling author Dave Eggers and veteran public school teacher Nínive Calegari, 826 found that to get kids involved in the writing process, the writing and tutoring center had to be a place they would want to be. When 826 Valencia, the flagship center, opened up in San Francisco, it stood out immediately as the city's only pirate supply store (with glass eyes and one-of-a-kind peg-legs), establishing the tradition of a cleverly themed storefront for each 826 location to raise funds, inspire creativity, and advertise its programs to the local community.

It's not just a homework assignment. It's a real experience.

The San Francisco Chronicle compared 826 Valencia to a theme park: "They come for the free tutoring and workshops, but often are lured in by the sweetly twisted Disneyland that is the pirate supply store, with its strange little dioramas and hidden trapdoors. There is even a Fish Theater: a tiny, enclosed alcove where seats face a large aquarium containing store mascot Karl the Porcupine Pufferfish."

Students can come to the centers, or sometimes the volunteers will go into schools where help is badly needed.

"We'll purposely go into classrooms that are not perfectly set up," said Arquillos. "They need this kind of experience to hopefully rekindle their love of, or at least start them on a path to enjoy, writing."

With 826, students write with a purpose. 826 programs almost always end with a finished product, such as a newspaper, a book, or a film, inspiring young authors to levels of expression they had not previously known. Because of the trust they've earned with students, volunteers can help them reach their goals. (For more, read samples of student writing.)

Part of 826's mission, Arquillos said, is "to help connect kids to adult mentors, but also understand that writing is a process and it involves interacting with another person to get your ideas out and to rewrite and rewrite and rewrite."

Writing Project Teachers See Classes Thrive

UCLA Writing Project teacher-consultant Erin Powers took her lunchtime writing club of middle school students to 826LA in Echo Park, where they each crafted their own Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book. The workshops began with whole-group instruction, including brainstorming the narrative's basics: setting, characters, conflict, and so forth.

After the book got its start with the whole group, adult tutors worked with small groups of students to write additional chapters for the book. When the writing was completed, the books were bound on the spot with an "About the Author" section on the back cover that included a photograph of the individual student.

"The students loved their experiences at 826LA," said Powers, a literacy coach based at UCLA Center X. "I watched them read their books as we rode the public buses back to campus. Once we got back to campus they wanted to read their books aloud to one another."

Fellow UCLA Writing Project teacher-consultant Deborah Lowe's class completed a book at 826LA titled Entering New Territory, a compendium of immigrant dreams from the high schoolers' perspectives. The book received coverage from NPR and The Los Angeles Times and includes a foreword from Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. The students were later guided by staff through a series of public readings.

Teachers say that after an experience at 826LA, students begin to change the way they see themselves as writers.

"To me, 826LA has a goal that's similar to my goal for the writing club: it's about changing perceptions," said Powers. "The students who attend the workshop see themselves—if only for a day—as writers. If it's an identity that they hadn't considered before, they certainly think about it now."

826 and Its Influential Friends

The services at the 826 centers are all free. Largely that is a result of the fundraising efforts, which initially rode the coattails of Eggers' large fan base and celebrity support (watch a funny video, the Tutors of 826LA, with the likes of Jonah Hill and Michael Cera showing their tutoring skills).

"There's no doubt that at the beginning, that [celebrity support] was the major outreach tool," Arquillos said.

But since then, word has gotten out about the strong results of the program. Combined with a highly regarded marketing campaign, the fundraising operation is constantly in full gear.

Of course, it doesn't hurt that when 826 calls, celebrities often call back.

The latest fundraiser for 826LA, for instance, was a conversation between Scott Turow and Dustin Hoffman on "the writing life" and Turow's latest work. When 826LA created an album full of student-written songs and needed big-name artists to perform them, the result was a fundraising album that featured Fiona Apple, She & Him, Cold War Kids, and others.

And Eggers, the author of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and founder of the publishing house McSweeney's, still draws major publicity to his causes and his focus on public schools and teachers. In 2008, Eggers won the TED Prize (other winners include Bill Clinton and Bono), which allowed him to spend $100,000 to fulfill a wish.

Consistent with his goal of uplifting public education, Eggers proclaimed his wish that every person would "find a way to directly engage with a public school in your area, and that you'll then tell the story of how you got involved, so that within a year we have 1,000 examples of innovative public-private partnerships."

The finished product was a website full of stories called Once Upon A School.

The result of all the publicity is a high level of enthusiasm for the 826 chapters by students and teachers alike. Arquillos, who won the first-ever 826 Valencia Teacher of the Month award, said it's no accident that 826 is adept at meeting the needs of everyone in the classroom.

"The core of what we do here is obviously the kids," said Arquillos. "They're the main focus. But we're also very teacher-friendly because this organization was started by teachers, and every center across the country has a teacher involved, either in the director capacity or another capacity. So we know what the classroom is like."

And because of that, 826 staff has a great understanding of what motivates kids. From the tutoring help to the guest speakers to the completion of self-published books, the 826 experience makes a difference in kids' lives.

"All those little things build a real appreciation for writing," Arquillos concluded. "They see there's more to it. It's not just a homework assignment. It's a real experience. It's something that can live on."

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