826: Taking the stigma out of tutoring

National network uses creative storefronts to teach kids to love learning, themselves

A junior in high school, Edwin Gonzalez was sitting in his honors English class when “these people” showed up offering he and his classmates help with their college essays.

Edwin Gonzalez, 826 Boston program and development coordinator
Edwin Gonzalez, 826 Boston’s program and development coordinator.

At first, the 16-year-old believed his story was fine. However, once volunteers from a branch of 826 Boston began working with him, he realized he’d written a reflection of his life without answering the question the university was asking. And, apparently, Gonzalez says, volunteers were vetting the class and later decided they wanted work with the 11th and 12th grade students on an anthology. In it, they published his original essay.

“Getting my story published was one of the most impactful things that happened to me as a teenager,” Gonzalez says. “Realizing my story matters and that it’s important made me a lot more confident in my writing first and then in my standing in the world. It made me feel more important.”

The story of 826

In 2002, author Dave Eggers, known for his bestselling memoir “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius,” saw kids hanging around San Francisco’s Mission district. Eggers, thinking the kids should be doing homework or something other than being outside at a time when the area had higher crime rates, united friends to provide tutoring. They put up a sign and waited for the children to come. Nothing happened. So, they decided to rent, excavate and renovate an old gym into a warm, inviting tutoring space.

Yet, when the work was done, the landlord informed them the space was zoned for retail.

“The inside of the space looks like the inside of a ship, so they decided to sell pirate supplies — eye patches, planks, etc. — for the working pirate,” explains Gerald Richards, CEO of 826 National in San Francisco.

The organization, named for the address of the first location on 826 Valencia Street, destigmatized the idea of tutoring. Richards calls it stealth education.

“The kids have to walk through the store to get to the tutoring center. It got the attention of the community and attracted volunteers and family who wanted to know about the weird store.”

SF pirate store
Photograph by 826 Valencia
The Pirate Supply Store and King Carl’s Emporium is a cover for 826 Valencia’s tutoring and writing center.

What 826 does

Now there are seven “weird” 826 chapter storefronts around the country, each with a secret door into the tutoring center.

Stealthy or not, 826 is a multi-dimensional program structured around project-based learning to give students a greater sense of self-esteem, the ability to communicate on a higher level, an opportunity to flourish and a safe place outside of school and home where, Richards says, they can be weird and creative and be around adults who want to work with them.

826NYC
Photograph by 826NYC
Brooklyn Superhero Supply Co. / 826NYC, New York

The chapters offer tutoring. “Whatever subjects the students come in and need help with — math, science, English — it’s really a place to get their homework done. Parents say they now have more time with kids. Teachers are saying kids are getting more done.”

Richards adds that the program also benefits families where English is a second language and parents can’t always help with homework.

826LA
Photograph by 826LA
Echo Park Time Travel Mart and Mar Vista Time Travel Mart / 826LA, Los Angeles

The chapters offer storytelling and book-making. Students create characters, start a plot and write their own ending while an illustrator illustrates the story. The books are bound, with an author photo on the back, and within two hours, from start to finish, they become published authors.

“We publish everything the students write. It’s really helping kids discover and grow a love of writing. Not just creative writing, all writing. Kids get to tell their own stories. They learn to communicate. They learn to interact. They learn to work with adults. They learn to begin and finish a project,” Richards says.

They also do readings in front of an audience at a rented theater or at their school.

“We give them this confidence that people want to hear what they say and that people will listen,” he adds. They end up with really strong life skills that they take with them, building on their self-esteem.”

826Chi
Photograph by 826Chi
The Wicker Park Secret Agent Supply Co. / 826CHI, Chicago

Then there’s the Young Authors’ Book Project where chapters partner with a local class for a semester to create a student-driven book on a teacher-chosen topic. Students sit on the editorial board, write content, make design decisions and so on.

“We’ve seen increases in writing ability… and the unintended consequences of increased (school) attendance because they were able to tell their stories and became invested in that,” Richards says.

Since opening its first storefront, 826 has been serving 25,000 to 35,000 children a year for the past 15 years. In 2016, the nonprofit served 32,112 students and 957 teachers with 4,821 volunteers and completed 898 publishing projects.

The 826 writing programs are important because, Gonzalez says, community is important.

“A community of writers is hard to break into, even if you consider yourself a writer. And 826 has been creating this community of writers.”

Although Gonzalez planned to attend college before his 826 experience, he didn’t care then where he attended or what he would study.

After 826, Gonzalez earned a degree in sociology from Brandeis University in 2014 after taking a broad range of courses to discover his passion. What he discovered?

“I like working with people.” Now, the 25-year-old is 826 Boston’s program and development coordinator. “I think getting my work published at that critical juncture made me think ‘I am really smart,’ and it took my game to the next level. It changed my trajectory.”

826Chi

Benefits of 826 National programs

Academic Gains
o Writing skills
o Engagement and motivation in school and schoolwork
o Homework (completion/understanding)
Social / Emotional Gains
o Confidence/Pride
o Self-efficacy
o Fostering creativity
Communication Skills Development
o Increased self-expression
o Learning how to ask for help
o Interacting with adults

826Chi
Photograph by 826Chi
The Wicker Park Secret Agent Supply Co., Chicago

826 National chapters and storefronts

826 Boston – The Greater Boston Bigfoot Research Institute, Boston
826Chi – The Wicker Park Secret Agent Supply Co., Chicago
826DC – Tivoli’s Astounding Magic Supply Co., Washington, D.C.
826LA – Echo Park Time Travel Mart and Mar Vista Time Travel Mart, Los Angeles
826michigan – The Liberty Robot Supply & Repair, Ann Arbor; and Detroit Robot Factory, Detroit
826NYC – Brooklyn Superhero Supply Co., New York
826 Valencia – The Pirate Supply Store and King Carl's Emporium, San Francisco
For information on volunteering, click on the chapter link.

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