When a few writers and educators in San Francisco decided to give back to schools, they started a unique organization called 826 Valencia to teach kids, ages 6 to 18, the joy of writing. That was six years ago and no one imagined it would grow into a national organization with branches in seven cities. Or that the volunteers at 826 Valencia — famous writers, talented tutors and regular citizens — would produce such amazing results.
Inspiring kids to write
A San Francisco public middle school, on a gray, drizzly morning. Two boys work at a table covered in scattered papers. A tutor sits beside them.
Boy 1 to Boy 2: “It’s a rhyming title!”
Boy 2: “I love poetry.”
Boy 1: “Let’s read all the poems we wrote.”
Sixth graders in the Writers’ Room Boy 2: “Let’s read all the ‘Families at Home in 2008’ poems.”
Boy 1: “Yeah, [said with emphatic rhythm] ‘Families at Home in 2008.'”
The bell rings, signaling the end of the period.
Boy 1 and 2: “Oh, nooo!”
Reluctantly, the boys pack up their papers and shuffle out of class, continuing to chatter about their poems.
Tutor to fellow tutor nearby: “Eleven-year-old boys reading poetry to each other. That’s pretty awesome.”
This scene is not from a feel-good Hollywood movie. In fact, this scene is not fiction. It occurred early one morning in November 2008, in a vibrant, imaginatively decorated space called the Writers’ Room, a project created by 826 Valencia.
826 Valencia takes off
826 Valencia, a thriving community organization that combines learning and fun, is a place where many a young person realizes, perhaps for the first time, that writing can be exciting.
Co-founded in 2002 by author Dave Eggers and educator Ninive Calegari, 826 Valencia (named after its street address) has grown from a single store-front tutoring center into a national program in seven cities. “The original idea was that, clearly, there is a need to support students,” says Leigh Lehman, 826 Valencia’s executive director, “and Dave and Ninive had lots of talented friends with time on their hands. They wanted to bridge those two worlds.”
The Writers’ Room: deepening the community connection
“We grew quickly at first, but now we’re going more slowly,” says Lehman. “We’re trying to deepen our connection within the community, and one way that is happening is through our Writers’ Rooms at James Lick Middle School and Everett Middle School. The idea is to support teachers at the school site by creating a special room where middle-school students can receive tutoring from community members and work in Book of student writing concert with the teacher’s curriculum.”
It took over a year to bring the Writers’ Room at James Lick Middle School, which was the second one to be built in the San Francisco school district, from concept to reality. The first step was to find a school community that was a good fit. Once that happened, 826 worked closely with the principal and the teachers to integrate the program into the school day and year. “The teachers create projects, and I meet with them before they begin the unit to determine at what point it will be most helpful to have the tutors’ support,” says Emilie Coulson, 826 programs assistant.
Meanwhile, 826 Valencia worked with the district to find a room at the school to transform into a space fit for flights of fancy. No room was readily available, so the school decided that one end of the school library would have to do. Working with the district for building permits required patience, but eventually a wall was built and the room decorated with wallpaper and bookshelves filled with nautical curios and adventure books, and furnished with desks, chairs and a couch. In all, 826 spent $80,000 to create and staff the room, and to produce and design publications of student work. 826 recruited and trained over 100 volunteers, three to seven of whom Coulson calls on any given day.
Maria Jose Gonzalez-Salido, a volunteer at the Writers’ Room says: “I love to teach the kids to learn how to write better, either in Spanish or in English. When you are in the Writers’ Room, it seems like you are in a magical place, because it doesn’t look like any other classroom or any room in your house. You can immerse yourself in your imagination and write.”
How it helps
Bita Nazarian, the school’s principal and an 826 Valencia board member, believes that the huge effort that went into the project was well worth it. “There’s just something really amazing about having the community engaged with the school. Our students meet a whole new kind of person that they might not normally have access to. And I think it’s good for the volunteers to be working with our kids and getting to know the future of America, to be invested in our schools. It gives a lot to our volunteers. And for our kids it’s like they have this exposure to different kinds of people that they wouldn’t otherwise have. If the volunteer is a college student, then they’re thinking about college in that moment. Or if the volunteer is a designer, our students are starting to think about design. It broadens their perspective. I think a lot of times, we only know what’s in front of us when we’re 13, what we immediately have access to. I think it’s the job of the school to broaden that as much as possible. And one way we do that is with these volunteers.”
How it works
Every language arts teacher at the middle school sends half of their class to the Writers’ Room on a rotating basis to work on a project. With a handful of tutors staffing the room, the students receive individualized writing help for that period. The remainder of the class stays behind with their teacher, who then has an opportunity to work on a targeted mini-lesson with those students.
Writing, more than most subjects, can be personal and requires the use of multiple skills which may be at differing levels of proficiency. “When the children get one-on-one help from the tutors,” says Nazarian, “one kid gets help developing their ideas because that’s where they get stuck, and one kid might have the ideas from the onset, but they might need help expressing them in a way that’s cohesive. Or another kid has those things down and they really need a stronger voice in their writing. So every kid comes to writing with different needs and they get them met when they have one-on-one help. And the tutors are really nice to them and draw them out and they like that.”
Although the Writers’ Room at James Lick Middle School has been operating for less than a year, Coulson and team have seen measurable and positive results: “We look at feedback from teachers and students. In their evaluations, students write that they enjoy writing more and feel more confident doing it after spending time in the Writers’ Room.”
Says Lehman, “We’re not necessarily trying to grow the next crop of great American novelists. We’re focused on helping students to effectively communicate, so they can go on to experience success in whatever way they choose. So many professions require some level of writing proficiency.”