d o c t o r a n d m a m a

Linda Shiue

Linda Shiue
San Francisco Bay Area, California, USA
December 31
I am a physician and spend my free time with my husband and kids, reading everything in sight, eating, traveling, and cooking meals inspired by my travels. These days I'm spending more time at my food blog, spiceboxtravels.com. Please visit me there and follow me on Twitter @spiceboxtravels. Disclaimer: Health information presented here is not intended nor recommended as a substitute for medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your own physician or other qualified health care professional regarding any medical questions or conditions. © 2010-12 Linda Shiue. All Rights Reserved.

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Editor’s Pick
MARCH 12, 2010 9:17AM

Dave Eggers' 826 Valencia: Hatching Young Writers

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826 Valencia Publications by Linda Shiue 

"What about Lady Gaga?" one of the boys offered, when asked for suggestions for the protagonist of the story the class was making.

"She would be a great character," said the funny and talented teacher, Josh, "But she already exists in real life.  We are going to be original and creative today."

And so began the two hour writing workshop at 826 Valencia, the children's writing and tutoring center co-founded by Dave Eggers in 2002.  While Eggers, a former Salon.com editor known for  A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and McSweeney's, is no longer involved in the daily operations of this fantastic and inspiring place, his spirit and creativity linger on.  

The need for a place dedicated to fostering children's creativity and improving writing skills to help them succeed in all subjects at school is felt profoundly these days.  There are drastic cuts to funding for public education and class sizes are rapidly expanding.  In an effort to improve the quality of public education, our schools' curricula have been adapting to standards based education, as legislated by No Child Left Behind.  While standardization is aimed at improving the quality of all the public schools nationally to a minimum standard, an irrefutably good intent, a potential downside is that there may not be much room for creativity.  But if we can make writing fun, we may be able to breed a new generation of writers.

Pirate Supply Store by Linda Shiue

826 Valencia is definitely fun.  You enter the space through the Pirate Supply Store, the best place for San Francisco's pirate community to outfit itself, with striped shirts and tights, eye patches, rope, and just about everything else a pirate needs.  The store's retail sales, along with donations, help support the free programs offered by 826 Valencia.  The main space feels like a pirate's rec room, if there were such a thing.  Behind red velvet curtains and up a tall wooden ladder are the behind the scene workers who, in the amazingly brief turn around time of two hours, turn the ideas of twenty or so school children into a book, printed, illustrated (live), and bound with individual endings and About the Author pages for each child. 

I helped chaperone my daughter's second grade class to one of the workshops at 826 Valencia this week, and it was the most fun I have had on a fieldtrip, ever.  I couldn't stop laughing.

Before the trip, I did not know how engaged the kids would be in the workshop.  What happens to children's imaginations in the age of technology, where television, DVDs and Nintendo DS supply so many images?  I worried that kids might no longer be able to dream up their own stories, fantasies, or worlds.  

 Pirate Shirts by Linda Shiue

I needn't have worried.  In a democratic, supportive and collaborative way, the facilitator reviewed the structure of a story (beginning, middle, end, with a protagonist and his side kick, and a villain) before drawing out the kids' ideas.  He introduced the kids to the word "nemesis."

Votes were taken with a show of hands for each character and the story line, and with great speed and accuracy, but also with creativity, two other teachers, both named Laura, turned the kids' ideas into a coherent story.  One of the Lauras, a great illustrator, interpreted the kids' ideas and descriptions into drawings (something like criminal suspect sketching, I guess) to illustrate the story.

by Linda Shiue 

The story was titled, "Ch'chair and the Escape from the Squeesquack Desert." The nemesis, it was decided, was the leader of the Ice People, who prevented Peanut Man and his sidekick, Porange (a pomegranate with a orange peel skirt) from moving beyond the boundaries of Squeesquack,the desert in which they lived.  The leader's name was Ch'chair, but he was often called Keith. (These kids and their free imaginations!)  Ch'chair and his Ice People wanted to have all of the peanuts from the peanut trees that encircled the desert. 

After the story was 75% complete, the kids split up into tables to work on their individual endings to the story.  There was a great variety in how each child thought the story should play out:

"They got rid of the Ice People  by melting them."

"They did their plan, and it worked.  Porange went on her side and rolled away, plus Peanut Man did that too.  The Ice People were sad and Squeesquack never had a problem again." 

Pirate Hats by Linda Shiue 

During the creation of the story, the workshop was punctuated by the disembodied voice of Mrs. Blue, the Editor.  Her raucous voice periodically interrupted the workshop with incantations to hurry up, to meet the deadline.  The students worked hard on their endings hoping to please the finicky editorial eye of Mrs. Blue.  I hope you get to visit 826 to experience her cranky self in person.

by Linda Shiue 

The workshop we attended included volunteers from Slippery Rock college in Western Pennsylvania, helping out at the program on their Spring break.  The place is staffed largely by volunteers, some of whom are professional writers.   There is an afterschool homework help program for enrolled students and Sunday drop-in tutoring open to all students, aged 6-18.  There is also a multitude of writing workshops, including some for adults.  The workshops are project-based and run the gamut from cartooning, college entrance essay writing, journalism, SAT prep, and starting a ‘zine.  Here is a link to a video clip which offers a glimpse into some of the 826 Valencia programs. 

If I were a kid, I would be [Lady] Gaga over this place.  826 Valencia has expanded nationally, with chapters in NYC, Los Angeles, Michigan, Seattle, Chicago and Boston, so you may find another location in your neck of the woods. Programs like this will hopefully keep creativity alive, even in the face of standards based teaching.  If my daughter's class was any indication, these programs will produce a new crop of writers who will pen stories about Ice People in the Desert and other incongruous ideas, and expand their imaginations beyond their television horizons of Sponge Bob and Harry Potter.  

What types of programs do your communities have to promote a love of learning and creativity in school children? 



 © 2010 Linda Shiue  

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Thanks for the information Linda. I will have to look into this for my kids. It is great to know 826 Valencia is also in Seattle. What a great story!

wonderful information, Linda - I hope you managed to have an autographed edition!
What a wonderful program, Linda, and a great photo essay.
I love this place. Dave Eggers and his pals are the bomb. The "words are toys" approach to teaching is genius, completely ignored, and the only thing that works. Thank you so much for this wonderful post.
Hi, Lucy. I'm glad you found this useful. I think you and your kids will adore it.
Catherine- yes, I have the autographed first edition.
Bonnie- if it weren't for private funding and volunteer support, this fabulous place could not exist. What can we do in our bankrupt state?
Kathy- thank you. The photos I took of the kids awaiting the editor's reply were fantastic, but I couldn't post them for the usual privacy reasons.
Maureenow- thanks for stopping by, teacher! I wish there were more programs like this. This is how I remember my elementary school growing up. Lack of time and resources, as you know, is truly a roadblock.
Please tell Josh Lady Gage is not real--but she is highly creative. An original. Never saw anyone that self-assured (who wasn't psychotic or a sociopath). This is meant as a compliment to L.G.

And nothing but compliments for you, Linda.
I didn't realize 826 Valencia had expanded. I've been follow Eggers' career and activities for some time. We have something similar in our local community run through our excellent library but how fantastic that it's spread. Thanks for the update.
Color me jealous that you have this resource so close to you. My youngest loves pirates (will share pictures some day). Great story, Linda!
This sounds like a fabulous program. Thanks for letting me know about it! R.
I love this! We need something like this here and I can legitimately research it during work hours. (work for an Arts Council as the Education Director)
Linda, thanks for sharing this.

This is the sort of place I would love to work/volunteer! Maybe when they start the London, UK branch?

We've ordered pirate wares online from the store as a gift a few years back and then found out about 826. I've been intrigued ever since, thanks for reminding me.
Interesting. Heartbreaking Work was great.
Interesting piece and great cause.
Leon- I didn't know you were a Lady Gaga fan, too. Please compose a rhyme about her.
Nikki- glad to update you. I hadn't known about the expansion, either.
Lucy- my kindergartner wants to be a pirate when she grows up!
Patty- thank you.
Mimetalker- how exciting. I would be thrilled if this little post would lead you to establish a branch of this wonderful program.
Kim- and I was just wondering, who buys stuff from the Pirate Supply Store?
Batville and Bob- thanks for stopping by and commenting.
We have started an 826-like program in Indianapolis, Linda. It's called Second Story. More info at secondstoryindy.org. We're in our second year, and making great progress.
Frank: great to hear about secondstory. Thanks for sharing the information.
Elisa: thanks for stopping by.
Oh, if only inspiring creativity was a goal of public schools! Thanks for sharing this.
I want to go! Is 47 too old? Never mind. (Great post).
caroline marie: teaching/inspiring creativity used to be, it's mainly a problem of funding and standards these days. I took all of that for granted (and didn't know otherwise when I was in school) These days, we have to do an incredible amount of fundraising to keep arts programs around.
Ann: no, you're not too old :) You could even teach a workshop. Thanks for stopping by.
Such programs are wonderful. This sounds like one I worked with in Canada (WIER - which is mentioned in my post today) . It also expands to Musicians In Electronic Residence (MIER) which pairs composers with music students and budding composers to exchange and critique works. Rated.
Thank you Fusun. Those programs you describe in Canada sound wonderful and innovative.
If we had such a program, I'd be drawing cartoons. I have an image of crowded togetherness, sound of noisy clamoring ideas while editing/typing/drawing. That sounds just like my work many days -- I made the mistake of letting clients be involved in the design, and they got spoiled.
Awesome. Children are the best writers.
dianani: yes, it was a bit noisy, but good noise.
rachel: children are amazingly imaginative and free in their ideas, which is why, as a chaperone, I had so much fun.
tai: thanks for stopping by!
Thought you'd like this feature on Eggers in the Guardian (U.K.): www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/mar/07/dave-eggers-zeitoun-hurricane-katrina
Mark: thanks for the link! What a great interview. I really enjoyed it.
What a great idea, and place. I don't know of anything similiar in Toronto, although my kids aren't old enough yet to participate in something like this. Our public library system offers a number of fantastic programs, from storytelling to writing workshops...but apart from that I don't know what else is out there. Maybe 826 Valencia will one day head north....
I've been taking Enzo here for the last couple of Sundays to help buffer some of his anxiety and mine about writing a story from the list of words they get at school. I thinks that it is helping. When we were last there he was showing excitement about how many words he used and how many he had left. At this age, much is expected that their brains are not quite ready for and I want him to feel confident about what he does now at only 7. I don't want him to feel bad about how he writes. I think my intervention is working for both of us.
That's great, Carla. It is a bit of a magic trick to make a cohesive, much less creative, story out of their weekly spelling lists. I'm sure 826 Valencia will keep him excited. If I were taking my girls there regularly, they would want to shop on the way out, every time.