How words pave their road ahead

23rd January 2009 at 00:00
Pirate stores and spy shops are spreading across America, adding a touch of magic to creative writing workshops for underprivileged children

In a recently refurbished back alley in San Francisco, near the bay, the pedestrians walk on paving stones engraved with memorable words by writers and poets. Among these is a sentence from John Steinbeck, the Californian chronicler of humanity and hard times: "The free exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in the world."

It is a thought that captures the essence of an educational organisation founded a few streets further south, which works with children in schools, pirate shops and superhero stores across the land.

Named for the San Francisco address where it launched six years ago, 826 National reaches out to under-privileged children, aged six to 18, to work on their writing skills. But there's more to it than that, says co-founder and former teacher Ninive Calegari, who will visit Scotland next month to speak to teachers at a literacy conference organised by the Scottish Book Trust. "We give them the one-to-one attention they can't easily get in the public school system, no matter how good the teacher. They really respond to that."

Writing inability holds back huge numbers of youngsters, particularly those from poorer communities, says Marisa Gedney, programme co-ordinator. So the 826's small army of volunteers works on functional and creative writing in school classrooms and after-school drop-in centres, helping young people to discover the "free exploring mind" in each of them. "You're there for them in a way which sometimes no one else in their lives can be. You often see a real change in a student.

This one girl was having rough times at home and couldn't get interested in our writing project. We were in her classroom for about two months talking to her and her friends. I was asking her questions and she was reflecting on her life. Everyone was always pushing her down, she said, and she was trying to get through that. She wrote and wrote and got it all out. In the end she was really proud, really excited, by what she had done."

An organisation which has grown from spending $200,000 (Pounds 137,000) in its first year to $3.5 million (Pounds 2.41m), the 826 has former teachers like herself in management roles, says Ms Calegari, but few among the small army of volunteers - close to 1,400 in San Francisco alone - who make it happen on the ground. "We get journalists, writers, designers, public relations experts - all kinds of people who are professionally engaged in the field."

It is not difficult to recruit volunteers, she says. "People want to be good and want to feel good about themselves. The work is literary and intellectually engaging, which makes it appeal more than other voluntary work. We've found that if you set up the right framework, the volunteers come and they find it addicting and exciting. They discover the dramatic impact they can have on young people's lives."

The 826 uses a variety of methods - word of mouth, school and college visits, internship programmes - to publicise itself to potential volunteers and the young people who need help. One of the most striking is the outward face of the organisation in each city - a store that sells stuff to passers-by, but what stuff.

Message-bottles, rat-traps, peg-legs and pirate perfume in San Francisco's pirate store. Rocket fuel, ray guns and intergalactic peace treaties in the Seattle space shop. Capes, masks, muscles, grappling-hooks and antimatter for the budding superheroes in Brooklyn. Periscopes, trench-coats, night-vision goggles and "all kinds of disguises" at the spy shop in Chicago.

"If they think it's funny and that it will sell, we don't mind what they have in their stores," says Ms Calegari, who heads up the national network as well as the San Francisco chapter. "But some things aren't negotiable. You won't find an 826 anywhere that charges students. Or one that tells teachers what to do. Or one that's not beautiful."

The writing rooms in the back look and feel very different to the stores out front, she says, with big wooden tables, rugs, painted walls and high bookshelves stacked with books. "It's pretty magical. I don't mind if you buy a different table from the one I got on Valencia Street, as long as it's lush and gorgeous and it is clear we are honouring students even with the space."

The philosophy is playfulness with a purpose, she explains. "The writing programmes are rigorous and the students do more drafts than they ever do in an English class".

Once hooked, however, young people work hard because they enjoy achieving, creating and making progress with their writing. But it's "playfulness and warmth", eyepatches and pirate peg-legs that hook them in the first place.

A similar appeal to hearts, minds and sense of humour is taken with the volunteers, says Abigail Jacobs, a public relations director, who has been volunteering with 826 since the start. "I haven't stuck with a job as long - or a boyfriend.

"It's about the rewards you get from levelling the playing field for kids whose parents can't afford private tuition. With writing you really need someone to sit down with you and go through it sentence by sentence. You can't get that with big classes in public schools.

"Regardless of career, we all need to write nowadays. But it's not just the writing. What we do shows the students that an adult thinks they're worth sitting down with - that they are people who deserve that level of attention. They'll come in stumped with a piece of homework and, in half-an-hour, we can get them to a place that they're proud of."

While the work brings its own rewards, the 826 provides lots of little extras. "There's a feeling of camaraderie and we're thanked constantly. They give us tickets to readings and events. They highlight volunteers in the newsletter. They give us dinner once a year. They appreciate us because they know the difference we make."

This "volunteer happiness" is a key component of the 826 philosophy, says Ms Calegari. "We throw singles parties, spelling bees, thumb-wrestling contests, chilli cook-offs. You might laugh but it means the volunteers become each other's closest friends. They feel connected to and not just part of an abstract democracy-literacy movement."

Much of the work of the 826 is one-to-one support for students struggling with schoolwork, she says. "So we need to get the teachers on our side. It's about how you approach them. When I was a teacher, arts-based organisations used to come in and tell us what we should be doing. That's demeaning. So we never tell teachers what to do. We're working to make their dreams, not ours, come true."

In addition to this teacher-led support role, which might see half-a-dozen volunteers in a class for several weeks, the 826 also takes the lead with literary projects large and small. "We work on smaller publications all the time but have a big push every year on a national publishing project," says Marisa Gedney.

"We've just finished this year's book which is about the Golden Rule. So we've had up to 20 volunteers in a class at a time for two months, helping the kids write essays and stories for it. It's about kids thinking, writing, getting excited, gaining skills and confidence. It rubs off on you. It gives you energy."

The main message the 826 tries to convey to young people, says Ninive Calegari, is that writing is not magic. "It's just a bunch of plain old hard work. When students hear that from adults who do it for a living, they realise they can do it too. We study the kids before, during and after, and the number who see themselves being able to write increases dramatically.

"We are not aiming for them all to become journalists and writers. We just want to give them the skills to do anything they want with their lives."

Outside, San Francisco's Jack Keourac Alley, once the haunt of drunks and dumpsters, now celebrates writers and writing. Kerouac's own contribution on the engraved paving stones of the little back-street goes like this: "The air was soft, the stars so fine, the promise of every cobbled alley so great I thought I was in a dream."


Ninive Calegari will be a keynote speaker at Creative Sparks, a conference for learning professionals interested in creative approaches to literature in education. The other will be Michael Rosen, Children's Laureate, who will talk about new approaches to reading for pleasure in school, while workshop leaders include authors Matthew Fitt and Keith Gray, and poet Liz Niven.

There will be seminars from the Scottish Storytelling Centre and from teachers trying new approaches to enabling "teachers and librarians, writers and literature professionals to work together to foster excitement about reading, writing and language in young people".

The conference is organised by the Scottish Book Trust and sponsored by The TESS. February 27 at the Corn Exchange, Edinburgh.



Asked what they learned about themselves during an 826 writing project, students replied:

- "I am creative."

- "I can get through life."

- "Everyone can write."

- "I am a better writer when I try."

- "I can do things I didn't know I could."

- "I have many stories to tell."

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