September 20, 2007 — Vol. 43, No. 6
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826 Boston inspires writing at BPS schools

Brian Mickelson

Two men stand just inside the entranceway of the building at 3035 Washington Street in Roxbury. They talk excitedly, exchanging ideas and gesturing to the bare, brightly colored walls.

Their subject, strangely enough, is cryptozoology, defined as “the study of evidence tending to substantiate the existence of, or the search for, creatures whose reported existence is unproved, such as the Abominable Snowman, Bigfoot or the Loch Ness monster.”

To understand how this applies to 826 Boston, the new writing and tutoring center in Egleston Square, requires, well, a little imagination.

Daniel Johnson, executive director of 826 Boston, speaks passionately of his writing center’s mission — helping students between the ages of 6 and 18 with their expository and creative writing skills through one-on-one attention, as well as helping teachers inspire their students to write.

The process of helping students become better writers, Johnson says, is “like hunting for Bigfoot. It may or may not be out there, but you have to keep searching.”

In other words, writing is hard. It takes time and patience.

Jon Racek, a local artist and one of the first volunteers at 826 Boston, agrees. He has come on board to help design the center’s “retail store.” His decorative accents include unicorns, hanging animal skeletons and a large, embalmed Bigfoot hand in a jar. These items and more will be part of the Greater Boston Bigfoot Research Institute, 826 Boston’s very own museum of “pseudoscience,” which will give students a rather unorthodox muse to stoke their creativity.

The first site was founded at 826 Valencia in the heart of San Francisco’s Mission District. According to Johnson, it was also set in a business district that, due to zoning codes, required a retail component.

“What they ended up doing, which started as a joke, was to open up a pirate store with peg legs and eye patches” to satisfy the zoning laws, he said. “That eventually raised a fair amount of money as people started to buy the pirate products.” Johnson hopes the same good fortune will grace 826 Boston and its Bigfoot Institute.

The successful family of nonprofits started in 2002 by former public school teacher Nínive Clements Calegari and author Dave Eggers has shown no signs of slowing down since 826 Valencia opened its doors in April 2002. Since then, six more 826 sites have been approved and incorporated into the national organization — one each in New York City, Los Angeles, Michigan, Seattle, Chicago and now, Boston.

During her teaching days, Calegari recognized a symptom of education in San Francisco that has become a sad staple in public education nationwide: the inability of teachers to adequately teach writing to their students, an invaluable skill needed to succeed in today’s job market.

Due in no small part to the shift in educational emphasis to standardized testing ushered in by the federal No Child Left Behind Act, the declining focus on writing and the arts prompted Calegari to leave the classroom and help start an organization that would offer the kind of one-on-one attention and feedback necessary to improve students’ writing.

Like the other sites, 826 Boston will offer a variety of free programs and services throughout the school year and summer months, including specialized workshops, drop-in tutoring, field trips, in-school assistance and extensive opportunities for students to have their work published.

But at the Washington Street location, students will have the opportunity to leave behind the dull monotony of classrooms, rigid curriculums and MCAS testing for a more comfortable environment.

“As the curriculum in schools becomes more and more test-based, creative writing and the visual arts subjects are seen as luxury items in some ways, and unfortunately can’t always be offered during the school days,” Johnson said. “It’s about making education exciting and relevant. I think our trademark is to come at it in a bit of a quirky angle. Writing from a bug’s perspective, for example, or encouraging students to write ‘badly’ using clichés.”

Exposing students to a wildly out-of-the-ordinary museum of cryptozoology is just the first step in getting them to harness the power of the written word.

“Our goal is to make it look and feel unlike any space they’ve ever walked into before,” Johnson said. “There’ll be a secret door into the writing and tutoring center, right through the wall.”

“Through the wall” is where 826 Boston will hold field trips up to four times a week, welcoming entire classes for a morning of “high-energy learning” in a large, well-lit room filled with plenty of computers, reading materials and writing tools. Here the center will also hold project-based workshops ranging from cartooning to college essay writing to forming a magazine.

Teams of volunteer recruits will also travel to local schools upon any teacher’s request to provide one-on-one assistance to students with virtually any project involving writing — be it research papers, school newspapers or college essays.

“We kicked off our programming in the spring with a program at English High School [in Jamaica Plain], where several authors came in to the school and held a meeting with students,” Johnson said. “Since then, we’ve been reaching out to schools and teachers have been contacting us.”

Right now, 826 Boston’s small staff is concentrating on schools within about one mile of the Washington Street center, “as a way to get to know them,” Johnson says, “because ultimately, we’ll be inviting classes to come to our site for writing workshops and drop-in tutoring.”

All of the 826 sites hold fundraisers to encourage donations, which are tax-deductible. The first such event for 826 Boston will take place on Sept. 26 at the Berklee College of Music Performance Center. The night will feature music, literature and comedy, as well as students from English High School reading their work. Dave Eggers, one of the founders of 826 and author of the best-selling autobiography “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius,” will also speak about the positive impact 826 has had across the country.

“Really, it’s a way to announce to students, parents and people who are interested in volunteering that we’re here and that we really want to unite people and rally around teaching and writing and inspiring students,” Johnson said. “We hope to raise a significant portion of first-year revenue [from the event], as all of our programming is free, and have people come out for a great night of music, literature, and learning about volunteer opportunities.”

In the end, 826 Boston just wants students to have fun with writing. Whether that means plopping a larger-than-life Bigfoot hand in front of students and telling them to write what comes to mind, or holding an exercise in which students write, illustrate and bind their own books within a two-hour period, the message remains the same.

“You should come back during the holidays,” Racek said. “The retail store is having a special on unicorn tears.”

Teachers, students and volunteers should stop by to see for themselves.

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