Walking Ten Feet Tall

by Nínive Calegari - November 14, 2008

826 National is a family of nonprofit organizations dedicated to helping students, ages 6-18, with expository and creative writing at seven locations across the country. 826 chapters are located in San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Ann Arbor, Seattle, and Boston. Our mission is based on the understanding that great leaps in learning can happen with one-on-one attention, and that strong writing skills are fundamental to future success.

Every year 826 Valencia hosts a party for the release of our Young Authors’ Book Project. It’s an incredibly happy celebration, and I always spend the evening in tears. I find it so moving to see the students walking into a beautiful building in starched white shirts or party dresses with their families following them. They’re extremely proud, and they have every reason to be. They have spent months working toward this evening.

The Young Authors’ Book Project is a four- to six-month project in which students write ten or twelve drafts of an essay that is then published in a book. Their teacher often inspires the theme, and the final product is a professionally made book sold in the students’ local bookstores, in stores all over the country, and on Amazon. All seven 826 National chapters embark in these epic publishing projects with students. We use professional standards, and the final books are handsome, serious, insightful, and always glorious.

This past year 826 Valencia -- our founding chapter in San Francisco -- worked with a public school, Gateway High School. On the day the book project was introduced, 826 staff enthusiastically told students they would be published authors in a few short months. A handful of them looked thrilled, others were slumped in their seats. They are told that good writing requires many drafts but not to worry because we would provide tutors to support the arduous process. Finally, the 826 staff invited the students to take the lead in the project; they would be in charge and own it from start to finish. Some eyes lit up, others were clearly waiting for the period to be over.

The students aren’t from the AP English class, in fact, they aren’t even in a creative writing class. They are mainstreamed students in an English class in a public school. The fact that the students don’t already necessarily love writing or see themselves as writers is the point: We want to make sure that all students get the experience of becoming published authors, not just self-selecting students who already seek out honors classes and guidance.

In this case the Gateway students were invited to write about the city they know. Not the city the tourists visit, necessarily, but the places where they shop, eat and hang out. We asked them to show the world their San Francisco.

The brainstorming began. Students and tutors sat in small groups and brainstormed ideas for their essays. When the first draft was due, the tutors were back. And then for weeks the tutors returned again and again. During these visits the tutors asked the students follow-up questions about their essays and encouraged them to add more detail. They pointed out the compelling parts. They recognized the students’ individual voices and honored the stories they told. They de-emphasized the grammar, but then they got there and they explained why a sentence deserved a shift.

After many more drafts, the editorial board -- comprised entirely of volunteer students who wanted this extra challenge -- was ready to turn this collection of essays into a book. They decided what would go in, where; they organized it into chapters, chose a title, worked with a designer to pick a cover, then reread and copyedited to make sure every word was perfect. By this point a team of students  -- including some originally reluctant ones -- was spending their free time making executive decisions on the book production exactly the way professionals would.

The final galleys were taken back to the class one last time. When the students checked their work in the galley, they started to see the permanence of the book, the real way their words were honored. The fact that the world would see their essays started to sink in. With its final approval, the book was sent to the printers.

This past June the book release event was held at City Hall. The beautiful setting was part of the master plan as many students had not been to this landmark building, and the gorgeous venue is part of honoring their work. And that evening the seventy-two students weren’t strangers to the venue, in fact they owned the space; they were the speakers, they were the authors, they were the hosts. They walked ten feet tall.

Students brought their grandmothers and girlfriends, their parents and siblings and aunts and uncles, to the event. The dressy students looked through pages of their San Francisco guidebook, “Seeing Through the Fog.” They showed their essays to their family. They searched for their names in the table of contents. They signed each other’s books. They walked around with their shoulders back. They greeted the tutors they’d worked with for months. The tutors shook their hands, smiled, and said “Congratulations.”

During the event a handful of students spoke about the process they’d been through and others read excerpts from their work. The Mayor proclaimed June 10, 2008 to be “Seeing Through the Fog” day in San Francisco. At the end of the speaking and reading, the 826 program director asked all the volunteers to stand and the students and families cheered. Then she invited the student authors to face the audience and be acknowledged, and the crowd went wild.

This is when I cry. Nothing in the world moves me more than a group of students who feel proud of their hard earned success. I want to wear their book around my neck as a necklace and tell the world what has happened to these students. The transformation is powerful: from hesitant listeners, to kids pulling out their hair with the eighth draft of the same essay, to confident students who start to act as editors, to this night, when the beaming celebrated authors are signing autographs in their book, in their City Hall, with their teachers and families there as witnesses.

This project is emblematic of what 826 stands for. The ideals we hope to inspire at 826 are simple. We know everyone needs undivided attention to improve their writing skills. And we know one-on-one work is an effective teaching tool -- we work hard to make sure that many young people get tutoring from adults who live in their city.

Books before this one have been about family immigration and migration stories, finding peace in a violent world, happiness, and what students wish their teachers knew. The stories are personal, passionate and even with their varied topics, they all tell us so much about the student authors. 826 knows that the world will be a more empathetic, sophisticated and understanding one when these stories are written, when students have the skills to write more stories, and when we take the time to read each other’s stories.

The process of writing the stories is both about working hard and having fun. The tutors are ready to get down, spend time editing and questioning and working diligently, but they also model the fact that the process of learning is joyful. We would even say that working hard and doing something huge, larger than you thought you could, is addicting. Research is telling us that when students accomplish these large projects they come back for more.

At 826 we know great writing isn’t thunderbolts and lightning, in fact the magic rests in the guidance and questioning and time the tutors spend alongside the students pushing them to make their words perfect. At all the 826 centers around the country we have professional authors’ edited manuscripts on the wall. We want our students to know that’s what writing is: hard work, scratched-out sentences, and revisions.

We get a lot of help along the way. 826 takes full advantage of everyone’s desire to do something meaningful in their lives and we know working with young people, making a difference in their lives is intoxicating. 826 tutors aren’t bound by any minimum hours when they sign up to be a tutor. Every time a tutor makes the choice to walk into our writing centers, or volunteer in a teacher’s classroom in a public school, they are doing so because they want to be there. We think it shows.

When adults provide real and rigorous challenges with real end-products, students respond to those high standards. 826 is very much about the best of project-based learning. The successful project-based learning opportunities are those that allow students to dive into a project that has an authentic audience, genuine rigor, and real apprenticeship opportunities.

Having been a classroom teacher when designing our programs, I knew I didn’t want to create a community-based organization that went into schools and told teachers how to do their work. In fact, we employ the opposite approach and we ask teachers what they’d like to see happen and then we work with them to make their dreams come true. The teacher is our guide. The teacher knows best. The teacher is our hero.

Teachers deserve our support. 826 Valencia was created to bridge the huge gap between the writing attention teachers are able to give students and the amount of undivided attention they would love to give students. At all 826 chapters in the country, we send teams of tutors into schools at a teacher’s behest, and they support students with the assignments and projects the teachers have designed. After much questioning, editing, coaching, and relationship-building, the students’ work is honored by being published in professional publications.

The end result is something they, and we, can be proud of. All this hard work comes together in these beautiful books and warm celebrations. It’s the culmination of these important pieces -- including the work, generosity, ambition, honesty, and diligence they symbolize -- that brings me to tears every time.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: November 14, 2008
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15436, Date Accessed: 1/17/2022 1:37:03 PM

Purchase Reprint Rights for this article or review