There are so many great things going on in public schools today. If you are not a parent, you might not know about them or know how to get involved. For that reason, I’ve decided to start a series spotlighting school partners that really make a difference to teachers, families and most of all STUDENTS!

826 Valencia

826 Valencia was named for its location in the heart of San Francisco’s Mission District with the goal of providing writing workshops and after school tutoring to K-12 students. In order to occupy this commercial space, it needed to have a retail operation, so the founders decided to “lure” kids and families in with a student friendly pirate theme. It turned out to be a great idea, as retail sales from the storefront support much of its work. The nonprofit proved to be so successful, that it quickly spawned other chapters all over the country.  826 National now has chapters in in Ann Arbor, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Seattle, San Francisco, and Washington DC.

“The mustache was tired of being ignored…”

This video comes out of 826 Chicago, and is a great example of the ethos of this great organization, which has been inspiring a love of the written word since the 826 Valencia first opened in 2002.

(If you are reading this blog on a mobile device and having trouble viewing this video, you can click here to view it on Vimeo directly.)

If you’ve been reading my blog, 826 Valencia should sound familiar. In a previous post, I mentioned a great book I have been reading with my girls titled, Exactly a collection of 56 stories written by Wallenberg Traditional High School students for younger children. Part of what makes the book great is that it is the result of a project between these students and local Bay Area artists. None of this would have been possible without the teachers at Wallenberg (thank you!!!!) and the dedicated volunteers and staff at this great organization.

Why I love this organization!

We all know how important writing skills are for success in college and professional life. As adults, we write for a variety of audiences: our college professor, boss or colleagues (e.g. reports, presentations, etc.), our friends (e.g. emails, Facebook posts) and the public at large (e.g. letters to the editor, blogs). As adults, we know how important writing can be–especially when we struggle to find the words to advocate for ourselves on an insurance claim or make our ideas clear in a professional email. And, I don’t have time here to even go into the value of writing for personal expression, creativity and joy!

That said, when I was a high school teacher, I can’t tell you how hard it was at times to make learning relevant for my students. I could talk until I was blue in the face about why writing skills were important, or why students need to revise and edit their writing. All of my lectures were meaningless when I wasn’t giving students regular and immediate feedback, and when their audience was always ME, the teacher. Add to all this, the fact that I was working with… teenagers… I remember being a teen, and my mind most definitely was not fixated on “learning how to improve my writing, because it’s an important skill to have in the future.”

How do you make writing relevant for teens? By giving them authentic opportunities to write.

Doing writing projects like those done through 826 Valencia, provides opportunities for students to gain real experiences as real writers. In the introduction to Exactly, students explain why participating in this project was such an amazing learning opportunity:

We wrote the stories to teach lessons, but what did we learn? That we can write! We actually wrote a book; teenagers can do something like that if were given the chance. Yes, at first, we thought that children’s books were simple and easy to put together. But we found out that it was much harder to do and took longer than we expected… It’s usually adults who have their books published.  They have more experience writing them, have even taken classes for it, and they write from all the things they know as grown-ups.

This book is a true example of project-based learning, and what students can do when they have the necessary resources and support.

So, if project-based learning is so powerful, why don’t teachers do it all the time?

Because project-based learning takes resources and time that many teachers simply do not have. For example, if I were a high school English teacher interested in doing a project of this scale with my students, I would have to not only take the time to plan lessons on story elements, revision, and grammar (all arguably part of my regular job), I would also have to learn about graphics (?), formatting, (?!) and publishing (???!!!). I would then need to commit an extensive amount of my own personal time once the project started to read and edit multiple revisions of student writing, which in order to be effective would have to include several iterations of mini-conferences, during class time with said students over a period of one to two months. I would have to do this while teaching roughly 100-180 students. And, as writing isn’t the only content I’m supposed to be teaching this year, I’d have to figure out how before/after/while doing this project I would get in lessons on reading non-fiction, identifying elements of Greek mythology and analyzing iambic pentameter (remember Shakespeare?)

Are you totally stressed out yet? I am just thinking about it.

Nuf said… now go and donate/volunteer!

If you are a teacher, we’ve already covered the fact that you are doing too much! Click this link to find out how you can connect with 826 Valencia’s great resources.

If you are NOT a teacher and looking to support an organization doing great work in our schools, getting involved with 826 Valencia is a great way to start. As I mentioned earlier, most high school teachers teach well over 100 students per day, making it nearly impossible for them to give student the type of one-on-one attention and tutoring necessary to take on a project like this. Elementary teachers only have 20-35 students, but are charged with teaching all subjects to children who still also need coaching in how not to smack their partner when he or she is annoying them. (Basically, they are all saints.) Volunteers make it happen people!

As I mentioned earlier, 826 Valencia is part of a national organization 826 National, with additional chapters in Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington D.C., An Arbor and New York. To learn more about volunteering with 826 Valencia click here or watch this great video below. And don’t just think about what you will give to the students you work with, think about how working one-one-one with them to unlock their stories will help you remember the beauty of the written word, how wonderful it feels to share our stories, and how life-changing an adult’s attention can be to a child/teen.

(If you are reading this blog on a mobile device and having trouble viewing the video, you can click here to view it directly on YouTube.)

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About alimcollins

Ali Collins is an educator, community organizer and mom. She lives with her husband and twin girls in San Francisco, CA.

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